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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 51 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,
    Lisa

    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.
    Sincerely,
    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.

  10. April 12, 2020 by Cynthia Thomas

    Question….. I am unsure whether or not to buy 1 gallon or 3 gallon shrubs. Does this refer to the height or width? Thanks!

    1. April 13, 2020 by Dave G

      It’s the size of the pot – it indicates how mature the plant is (bigger pot = larger, more mature plant). This is explained on each plant page.

  11. I live in Maryland and want to plant boxwood in front of my house. The area gets 2-3 hours of afternoon sun but is otherwise shaded. I hope to keep them in a round shape but hope to get them to about four feet tall.

    I have two questions: (1) is boxwood my best choice? and (2) what is the darkest green variety? It’s hard to tell actual colors on the computer screen.

    Thanks so much for your help!

  12. April 19, 2020 by Britney

    I live in North Carolina, Zone 8. I am hoping to plant boxwoods on the front of my house under windows. I’d like something 4-5ft high. From my research it seems like I should go with either “Winter Gem” or “Wintergreen.”
    2 questions:
    (1) which of these two types gets taller? And (2) how quickly can I expect them to reach mature height?

    Thank you!

    1. April 20, 2020 by Dave G

      ‘Winter Gem’ is a little broader and slightly lower than ‘Wintergreen’, but htey are very similar. You can expect 4 to 6 inches of growth a year on both of them, perhaps a little more in your zone. Establish a good fertilizer regime and regular very light clipping to maximize the speed and keep them dense.

  13. April 21, 2020 by Agatha

    I have velvet boxwood and bought mountain boxwood. If they are planted close together will it look different?

    1. April 22, 2020 by Dave G

      Yes. Always best to plant the same variety for hedges and groups.

  14. May 2, 2020 by Kumi

    Thank you Dave G, this was a super helpful site and write up. I love boxwoods, and now I know what will work best in various areas of my zone 5 garden in Iowa City. We just bought 10 Winter gems for a manicured hedge, they are very small at this point. We plan to keep them fairly manicured so that they are dense plants, how long will it take for them to be at their full height?

    1. May 3, 2020 by Dave G

      Theoretically you could trim them permanently to a few inches tall, but you can allow a few inches of growth a year and still keep them dense and neat.

  15. May 6, 2020 by Josh

    Hi Dave, really enjoyed the article. I’d appreciate your advice. I live in Massachusetts, looking for a boxwood to put in a large planter in an area with partial sun. I would prefer the trimmed height to be about 4′ and width about 3′. What are my options? Which would you recommend?

  16. May 6, 2020 by Melissa

    Hi I live in zone 5. I just bought a bunch of green velvet boxwood plants. I’d like to line each side of my sidewalk with them either shaped in balls or as a low border.
    Also I bought 5 to circle around a tree at the corner of my house (ending of my landscape)

    Also how close can they be planted?

    Is green velvet the right choice for this.

  17. May 10, 2020 by Liz

    Hi! I live in zone 8 near Dallas, Tx. I am wanting to plant some shrubs in front of my house. The area would be full sun. Not a drop of shade. I really love the way boxwoods look. Would Japanese boxwood grow and not die from the heat and sun? Or should I do a holly bush instead?

    1. May 11, 2020 by Dave G

      Probably a bit hot to do well with most boxwoods – but check for some more heat resistant varieties,like ‘Rotundifolia’, but not if your garden is dry. The heat resistant dwarf hollies would be better choices.

  18. July 1, 2020 by Wendy Sommers

    Hi – I am trying to decide between a Green Gem and Green Velvet for a low free form hedge at the edge of my patio. Do you prefer one over the other? Thanks!

    1. July 2, 2020 by Dave G

      Green Gem is perhaps a bit more cold resistant, so it depends where you are if that is important.

  19. July 2, 2020 by Wendy Sommers

    Thanks. I’m in Indiana. I’ve had Green Velvet for 15 years but they need replacing and the landscaper suggested either of those. They look similar to me in photos.

  20. July 12, 2020 by Steve

    I want to plant a boxwood hedge that will be about 145′ in length starting from driveway entrance up to the front door. I live northwest N. some of the planned hedge will be more sunny then other parts but i think mid moring to early afternoon sun. Would like to stand about 3′ tall but also want to grow higher if I want to down the road. What would be a good choice. And its to be a squared off shaped hedge if that makes since. Thanks

    1. July 13, 2020 by Dave G

      That’s an ambitious project! Boxwood grows well in the northwest, with your cooler, damp summers and mild winters, so it should do well. I would think you have enough good light and sun to keep it vigorous and dense. You can find all our boxwoods here, and there are several you could choose. If you are in a hurry you might consider Sprinter, a very fast growing variety that will soon reach your 3 feet, although it doesn’t grow a lot taller. For something with potential to be taller, you might consider ‘Green Mountain’, a reliable variety, or we do have the American Boxwood, which has the potential to grow well over 6 feet tall. Probably I would go with ‘Green Mountain’, spaced evenly at a distance of 12 inches apart, although you could stretch that to 18 inches if you had to.

  21. July 13, 2020 by Lisa Smiley

    Hi! I live in Richmond, VA. and I’m looking for a very low growing boxwood to line my asphalt driveway. I’m drawn to Franklin’s Gem but I’m concerned about the heat coming off the driveway….and they will be in full sun. Do you think Franklin’s Gem is a good choice for my area and the plans I have for them?

  22. July 13, 2020 by Lisa Smiley

    Hi! I live in Richmond, VA and I’ve been looking for a hearty boxwood to line my asphalt driveway in full sun. I don’t want.them to grow over 3′ and I’m drawn to Franklin’s Gem, I just don’t want the heat to fry them. I am having irrigation installed soon, so they should get plenty of water. Do you think they’d be a good fit?

    1. July 13, 2020 by Dave G

      They should do fine – you are only in zone 7, so with irrigation I don’t think full sun will be an issue at all – just stimulate lots of growth. Franklin’s Gem is notable for cold resistance, but you don’t have that issue, so you could use others. Wintergreen, for example, will give you a taller hedge quicker, but it may need more regular trimming, if that is an issue for you.

  23. July 20, 2020 by Carla Kennedy

    Would you please tell us the names of the various box woods in the “knot” photo? Also, where is it located/zone? They all seem to be quite deer resistant (for me, in MI, Z 5). Have you had any problems with deer? Do the boxwood bounce back? Thank you so much!

    1. July 20, 2020 by Dave G

      Sorry, it’s a file picture, so we don’t know the location or the varieties being used. By looking at our extensive range of boxwood you will be able to find varieties that are good for hedges and accents, and recreate something like that – a lot of it is a matter of variety selection, care, patience and good growing. As for deer, all boxwood are fairly resistant, but if a deer is hungry enough it will try anything once, and do a lot of damage in the process. Boxwood does come back from cold or animal damage pretty well, with some care, fertilizer and watering.

  24. July 29, 2020 by Catherine Kriegbaum

    I’m undertaking a “curb appeal” project to put my home on the market in two years. I’m thinking of installing a boxwood hedge between the house (contemporary one-story) and walkway – a width of only 3.25-ft. The height constraint is about 2.5-ft. I know absolutely nothing about gardening, but it appears the soil is very poor. What can I do to ensure optimum growing conditions? What variety would you recommend for Grand Rapids, MI? What would be the size and spacing to achieve the best look ASAP (I will be long gone before the hedge matures). I’ve called some local landscapers to get their opinion (Wintergreen, Green Gem, Green Velvet, Sprinter, Green Mountain) but they all answer differently (perhaps based on their own inventory). I really appreciate your thoughtful and prompt responses to so many posts. Thank you.

    1. July 29, 2020 by Dave G

      I am amazed that local landscapers have boxwood in Grand Rapids. Aren’t you zone 3? That is too cold for easy boxwood without loads of winter protection, screening, and even then. . . Also they are relatively expensive and slow growing, so I would look for something entirely different. What about using a row of colored-leaf barberry – gold, perhaps, or dark red. Unless you are selling in the winter they will look great, and with 2 years growth they will fill in pretty well if you get them in soon. Or, if you want evergreen, look for some smaller plants of white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), also called arborvitae. It is very cold hardy, grows quickly when young, and clips well. Again, in 2 years, you could have a reasonable looking 2 to 3 foot hedge. Don’t be encouraged to buy Globe cedars, they won’t fill in for a straight row. Get something basic, like small Emerald Green. Although it has the potential to grow a lot taller, it’s easy to keep to about 3 feet for years and years, with clipping.
      As for the soil, just dig it over a spade deep and 18 inches wide, and add lots of rotted manure or something rich, not peat moss, from a garden center. Plus hedge starter food. Make sure you center the row and plants a foot back from the walkway, not right along the edge, so you have room to grow a proper width on the hedge.

  25. August 8, 2020 by Marsha cassady

    Read above comments referencing “knot” photo planting.
    I really like the look of the four larger rounded boxwoods. Could you tell me what they are.
    I want to do a driveway, 60 – 70’. They would be planted below blooming Abelia, on a slope.
    I will be removing 5’ – 6’ high evergreens. Don’t really want anything higher 3’- 4’ in height.
    Really like keeping rounded shape without to much pruning.
    I’m in North Carolina. I use zone 6 for planting and Some deer are present.
    Thank you.

    1. August 8, 2020 by Dave G

      Don’t know the variety, but I do know they have been clipped several times a year, for year, to get that perfect look. There are plenty of naturally rounded boxwoods, and in your zone you can choose just about any variety, but even with those selected to be round, you won’t get perfect balls like that without clipping at least twice a season. That knot garden is the result of hours of work and skilled hand pruning – there is no other way. Of course, there is a lot to be said for the look of mature, unclipped boxwoods too. The famous Michael Dirr was a big fan of letting them grow naturally. Unless you have a formal garden, go for the more casual but still attractive natural look, and save a lot of work.

  26. I live on the Peninsula of Northern Ca. between San Francisco and San Jose. I have an Asphalt driveway that goes up to within about 12″ of a wood fence. The area at the base of the fence is facing south west. It is exposed to a lot of sun mid day and all afternoon, we get about 15 days a year above 90 degrees here. I’m looking for a 2′ max height hedge to plant in the space along the 100 feet of driveway. I’ll run a drip line there but am wondering what options I have that can handle the heat coming off the driveway. And how far apart should I plant whatever you recommend? Thanks for the help, this is a great site.

    1. August 10, 2020 by Dave G

      Hmm, I don’t think boxwood is what you want – I would think it would be too hot. What about one of the dwarf Ilex? Ilex cornuta and Ilex crenata are much more heat resistant. Check out Compact Japanese Holly for example. I would plant about half the height of the hedge you want, for small hedges, like you are describing, but you should be able to stretch that to 18 inches with Japanese holly.

  27. August 26, 2020 by Sue Blevins

    I like the look of the boxwood hedges. I want to plant a hedge against the front of my mountain home in North Carolina. It is a difficult area because the overhang of the house shades this area and the clay soil stays wet most of the time. There is a French drain that is right against the house but the soil still stays on the wetter side. Any suggestions?

    1. August 26, 2020 by Dave G

      Probably not boxwood, which won’t like the wet clay at all. Maybe some of the small varieties of Japanese holly, Ilex crenata, which are very boxwood like, but much tougher and more damp and shade tolerant.

  28. September 28, 2020 by Lisa G

    Dave,

    I have narrowed down the the Winter Gem or the Green Beauty. I really want the one the is the darkest of green and stays that way the longest. Can you let me know your thoughts.

    Thank you!

    1. September 28, 2020 by Dave G

      Your growing will be the final decider of how green, and for how long, your plants are. Rich soil, a thorough fertilizer program, proper watering and trimming at the right time will make either of them dark green. Your local climate, and particular weather in a given year, are also factors you can’t control.