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Choosing the Right Boxwood for Your Garden

December 15, 2016

Written by Dave G.

Boxwood is undoubtedly the most functional plant in garden history, as well as being attractive and easy to grow in sun or shade, and in a range of soil types. It has endless uses around the garden, but it is especially useful for making geometric shapes and hedges, as it thrives on regular trimming. It can be clipped into balls, cones, cubes and a whole host of shapes to decorate your garden. These add interest and structure to the garden, giving the eye firm shapes to hold onto in the chaos irregularity often seen in disorganized gardens. Using hedges of all sizes to create simple geometry, such as squares and circles, on the ground, has the same effect on the anarchy of plants as a frame does around a Jackson Pollock painting. It brings control and restraint, and shows the human hand in the garden.

However, for new gardeners the wide variety of boxwood offered by nurseries can leave them confused and wondering what to do, or worse, buying the wrong plant. Let’s look at boxwood, and bring some order to them. Choosing the right plant is easy, once you know a little about the main types.

American and English boxwood

There are two main kinds of boxwood used in gardens, as well as hybrids between these two main plants. The first and probably most important is the European boxwood, Buxus sempervirens. ‘Semper-virens’ means ‘always-green’ and this is an evergreen bush with small, round leaves. Perhaps because it was brought to America as long ago as 1653, it is often called American boxwood. This shrub can grow to 10 feet tall, and is a great choice for a taller hedge, or for taller clipped specimens. The English boxwood is a dwarf variety of the same species, Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’. It has denser growth, is slower growing and takes years to reach 3 or 4 feet in height. It is the perfect choice for a low hedge, 8 to 18 inches tall, that could edge flower beds or pathways. It can also be clipped into small globes.

The problem with European boxwood is that it is not especially resistant to either cold or heat, so it grows best in zones 6 to 8. If you live in those zones, these are great plants, and you hardly need to look further to choose suitable boxwood.

Asian boxwood

If you live in colder areas, or hotter ones, then looking across the Pacific to Asia will provide more suitable plants. With these plants, you may become confused by names, and think there are more of them than there really are. There are two main species of boxwood in Asia. The first is Japanese Boxwood, Buxus microphylla, which is usually available in dwarf forms, growing slowly to just a few feet in height. It is also known as littleleaf boxwood, and it is the most reliable form for hot areas, growing well in zones 9 and 10, although it is also hardy to zone 6.

The second Asian species of importance is the Korean, or Chinese boxwood. Today it is correctly known as Buxus sinica var. insularis, but in older material it is often listed as Buxus microphylla var. koreana. These two names in fact refer to the same plant, but their usage creates a lot of confusion. This plant is much more resistant to cold than both the Japanese and European boxwood, and it will stay green and healthy all the way down to minus 20 or 25 degrees Fahrenheit. One particular variety we prefer is the ‘Winter Gem‘.  This makes it easy for gardeners to grow reliable boxwood in zone 5 and even in milder parts of zone 4. The foliage of the wild plant is a duller green than the English boxwood, and the growth is slower, but in improved varieties like ‘Wintergreen’ the plants are dense, with good winter foliage and they are very hardy. For low hedges in cold areas, ‘Franklin’s Gem’ is hard to beat.

Hybrid boxwood

In 1955 Sheridan Nurseries, a grower in Montreal, Canada, produced seed from a cross between an English and a Korean boxwood. They grew 50 seedlings and then produced 100 plants of each from cuttings, to evaluate them. They grew as fast as English boxwood, with the same attractive glossy leaves, but they were as hardy as the Korean boxwood. After years of evaluation by the nursery and the Canadian Central Experimental Farm in chilly Ottawa, the best four were named and released over several years. ‘Green Mountain’ is tall growing and upright, ideal for pyramids and cones, while ‘Green Velvet’ is vigorous and fast-growing, for hedges and balls. ‘Green Gem’ is naturally round for balls and ‘Green Mound’ is smaller and ideal for low hedges. These plants have become the standard for all colder climates and are very popular with gardeners in cold, snowy areas.

Which One to Choose?

With all the varieties available, it is easy to navigate towards the ideal plant for your purposes. Do you want plants for taller pyramids and hedges? Then choose the American Boxwood, or ‘Green Mountain’ if you garden in a colder place. Are you looking for low hedges or balls? Then English Boxwood, or ‘Franklin’s Gem’, ‘Green Gem or ‘Green Mound’ will fit the bill, depending on where you live. Pick Japanese boxwood or American boxwood for warmer states, or the very popular ‘Green Velvet’ as a general-purpose hedging or specimen variety.

Whichever type of boxwood you decide to grow, good soil preparation and attention to watering will make sure your new plants get off to a flying start and soon get to work bringing order and structure to your garden. Boxwood plants, whatever their type, may be functional, but they are beautiful too, and they have a place in every garden.

Comments 18 comments

  1. April 30, 2019 by Amy Waterman

    Hi. I have a question more than a comment. I live in MA, looking for boxwood to plant along one side of our house, a small area between the corner and the edge of the deck. I wouldn’t want them taller than 3 feet…love a good rich green color. Never planted these before so looking for suggestions. Thanks!

    1. May 1, 2019 by Dave G

      The exact varieties we have varies, but if you check out our current selection you will see some lower-growing varieties, and hardy ones, that would suit you.

  2. July 15, 2019 by Jessica Riggs

    What is the difference in a English dwarf and winter gem? We had what I think is winter gem and one died so my husband went and got another one and it’s english dwarf. But since they’re all very small right now I’m not sure if there much difference

    1. July 15, 2019 by Dave G

      Well, they are different species, with slightly different foliage coloring and different responses to the seasons, so if this is a hedge it will be noticeably different, but not extremely so. If you are not a really picky type of person it probably won’t bother you. You could always leave it for now, and keep an eye out for another ‘Winter Gem’. They transplant easily in spring or fall, so you can swap them over when you find one.

  3. July 29, 2019 by Abinathab Bennet

    I live in Woodinville wa (Zone 8B) and I m looking for boxwoods that can grow in the under large pine/fur trees, so potentially a lot of shade if not full shade. 3 ft is a decent height for me, taller or shorter is not a deal breaker. I just need one that ll grow well and be hardy in such conditions. I appreciate any help here. Thanks.

    1. August 15, 2019 by Dave G

      Under pines and spruce is a very difficult location for boxwood. I would look for something different, like dwarf cherry laurel perhaps.

  4. Do you have to prune Japanese boxwood? What form will they take if they re not pruned?

    1. September 22, 2019 by Dave G

      You don’t have to prune Japanese, or any other boxwoods. They will usually make rounded, somewhat irregular bushes, and the final form – broad and low, more upright, etc. will depend on the particular variety. Good descriptions should include an indication of the natural (unclipped) form of the variety being described – most if not all on the Tree Center do. Quite a lot of gardeners find the natural forms more satisfying and interesting than the tight geometry of clipped plants, and it does allow them to be used in a wider range of garden styles.

  5. October 30, 2019 by Janice

    I have an existing boxwood hedge (about 42” tall, 18” wide, with leaves about .5”-.75” in length) growing against a small picket fence. We recently added a 7’ fence around our yard and the hedge is now about 6”-8” from the fence, facing east. It gets the morning sun but will be shaded now by the fence.

    Question 1: will the hedge do okay with the new fence blocking its afternoon sun?

    Question 2: any ideas on the type of boxwood we have? We are planning to extend the boxwood hedge along the entire fence.

    1. October 31, 2019 by Dave G

      Boxwoods are very hard to identify, even by experts looking right at the plant, but at that height is could be American boxwood. The shading will probably reduce the density of the hedge, but if it is still getting morning sun it will continue to be reasonably healthy, I would think.

  6. I live in Texas. I want to use boxwoods on my front walkway. It’s East to the house. The boxwoods will never be in shade entirely. Is there a box that can take consecutive hots days and sun? Or am I better off with a Clarissa holly. Or compact holly? Not wanting too much height?
    Thank you,

    1. January 8, 2020 by Dave G

      Sorry I missed your post. I think you would be better with compact holly, although with good soil conditions and water boxwood will thrive, but summer drought could be an issue for you. The best compact hollies are very similar, and a lot tougher.

  7. February 17, 2020 by A Carroll

    Live just south of New Orleans and looking for a boxwood or holly for a low clipped hedge ( roughly 1 foot H) around a circular driveway. Have had some difficulty adjusting to the hotter, more humid weather here vs. the upper south.

    1. February 18, 2020 by Dave G

      I would definitely avoid boxwood, and choose a dwarf holly instead – much more reliable in hot and humid conditions. Some are almost indistinguishable from boxwood. Ilex crenata is the species you want – look for varieties like ‘Soft Touch’ or ‘Convexa’, which are especially small leaved and easily kept to a foot tall and wide.

  8. March 29, 2020 by Thomas

    I live in Indiana and local garden centers tend to have both the winter gem and green gem boxwoods. Would you recommend one over the other? Are there any important differences? Thank you!

    1. March 30, 2020 by Dave G

      ‘Winter Gem is less hardy for a start, best in zone 5. it is a variety of Korean Boxwood, while ‘Green Gem’ is a hybrid between Korean and English Boxwood, created in Canada. ‘Green Gem’ is usually hardy in zone 4, with minimal winter damage. I think the color is better too, being a brighter green, but you might see it differently. ‘Winter Gem’ will usually get larger, up ot 4 or even 5 feet, and it is not so naturally rounded and compact as ‘Green Gem’. So for larger specimens and taller hedges, if you are in zone 5, I would use ‘Winter Gem’, and for smaller hedges and round balls, and in zone 4, I would use ‘Green Gem’. Hope that helps – good luck with your planting.

  9. March 30, 2020 by Jenni Callaway

    I leave in South Carolina. I would like to plant an evergreen topiary that will not grow more than 8′ in 20 years. I plan to plant it in front of my garage windows. The condition of the space are:
    Soil: Clay
    Heat : straight afternoon heat for 8 hours.
    Space/land available: 20′ length x 12′ wide
    I will plant the tree right in the middle, so I can plant small shrubs around it later. I prefer the trunk can spread wide not skinny tall so I can shape it more like bonsai looking tree , but not bonsai size. Could you suggest me the best evergreen tree that hardy and disease tolerant? Thank you.
    Jenni Callaway

    1. March 30, 2020 by Dave G

      That’s an interesting project! If you are going to do a ‘giant bonsai’, then the size is in your hands, yes? I don’t think boxwood is a good choice. What about Wax Myrtle – Myrica cerifera? It has small evergreen leaves and clips very well. Another idea could be an olive tree, which also trims well and develops a good trunk. It is used a lot for giant ‘bonsai’ in Spain and Italy. You can use stakes to arrange the trunk of trees like this exactly as you want it.