When most people think ‘boxwood’, they picture clipped balls or low hedges. But there is so much more to boxwood. This is an ideal time to plant some, so it’s also the perfect moment to think about other ways of using this versatile and attractive evergreen.
Leave Boxwood Unclipped
Some gardeners avoid boxwood, thinking it needs constant clipping, so that is the first myth to demolish. Boxwoods make beautiful shrubs, even if left completely unclipped. In fact, Michael Dirr, one of America’s most famous horticulturists, is enthusiastic about leaving boxwoods unclipped, saying it allows these shrubs a chance to display their character and individuality in ways that are impossible if they are clipped to a strict geometry. Each one becomes a unique individual, forming a mounding, irregular bush of great charm. Unclipped, they will grow to between 6 and 12 feet tall, and almost as much across, making wonderful background plants among flowering shrubs. Eventually they will even become small trees, something that can be encouraged by gradually removing the lowest branches, and forming one, two or three trunks for your tree. Grown like this, boxwoods can be specimens in a courtyard, or make attractive trees in large pots.
If you are starting with a plant that has already been clipped several times, then you may need to remove some branches once it begins to grow out. Clipping encourages many small branches to develop – which is great for dense shrubs, but not so good if you want it to develop naturally. In spring, remove a few of the smallest branches, right back at the stems, to make a more open form. This will grow out well into a charming, natural bush that over time will become dense and irregular in a most attractive way.
Create Boxwood Clouds
Japanese gardeners know a thing or two about working with plants, and they developed a style of clipping they call Niwaki – cloud pruning. This is a little like giant bonsai, done on trees growing in the garden, not in pots. Although developed for Japanese gardens, it adapts perfectly to any garden style, and is very effective for boxwoods planted in groups or as specimens. The goal is to clip the plants so they resemble clouds – abstract rounded shapes that drift through the garden. A good way to start is by letting your boxwood grow unclipped for a few years. By then you will be able to see the natural irregularities of growth, with high and low areas, and clumps developing. Use shears to accentuate those variations, rounding then out gently, and emphasizing the natural look of the plants.
You can do this on any scale, from a single plant to a large mass planting, all clipped into one giant cloud formation. Because there are no rules you can let your imagination – guided by your plants – take over and bring abstract forms to a modern garden, or smooth shapes to a more formal one. The choice is yours, and yours are the guiding hands.
Boxwood in Geometrical Forms
Boxwood balls are a garden classic. They look perfect in pots on either side of a doorway, or as the corners on a geometrical layout of flower beds. In more modern gardens we often want to make a reference to formality, while not being strictly formal. Boxwood can do that, placed in clusters of balls of different sizes in flower beds. When creating a cluster of balls, make sure one is significantly larger than the others, to make a focal point. The remaining plants can be in a variety of sizes. Remember when planting to allow sufficient room for the shapes to be clearly defined. If they are too close together the look is not so effective.
Besides spherical ball-shapes, boxwoods can be clipped into cones – with either round or square bases, and into perfect box shapes too. If you clip your plants two or three times a season, they will become denser and denser. The way boxwood improves with clipping is a big part of why it is the number-one shrub for topiary of all kinds.
With time and imagination, you can create just about anything, from spirals, to teapots and battleships. Children love animal shapes, and cats, dogs and elephants are all relatively easy to create with a sharp pair of shears. The artist Michelangelo said that he didn’t create his statues – he just liberated the forms from the rock that surrounded them. Topiary is the same, but in reverse. Your imagination sees the shape existing already in the garden – you just need to train your boxwood shrubs to fill it with their tiny leaves and branches.
Hedges of American Boxwood
The American Boxwood is actually the wild form of the English boxwood, and was brought to America by the early settlers, keen to reproduce the gardens they knew from home. Only later was the English Boxwood itself developed. It is a dwarf form, so it is suitable for smaller hedges only – under a foot or so tall. For anything larger the American Boxwood is the right choice. Indeed, you can produce a ten-foot hedge in time, and boxwood hedges are always attractive. The density, and those tiny, glossy leaves, produce a unique form that nothing else can match.
The ‘secret’ to good boxwood hedges is to provide plenty of nutrients and water. Because they are regularly clipped, a good fertilizer program is necessary to keep them lush and green. Bushes left unclipped benefit from fertilizer too, but it is not so important for them, because they are not constantly called on to replace leaves we have removed through clipping. As well, don’t allow your hedges to become dry. A rich organic mulch put over the roots in fall will not only feed your plants, it will keep the soil cool and damp, which are conditions boxwood loves. If you allow your plants to become dry in summer, they will turn a much paler green, and look less attractive.
When it comes to clipping, avoid both very cold and very hot weather. Both will encourage browning of the cut leaf-ends, which makes the hedge less attractive. Apart from that, you can clip any time of year, and remember, the more you clip, the denser your plants become.
Not only does clipping make your boxwoods look beautiful, and give your body a gentle workout, it sooths your mind and spirit too. Creating something beautiful out of nature brings a special satisfaction that nothing else can – and American Boxwood is the perfect medium to bring something unique and personal to your garden.