Planting Boxwood: Why You Should Frame Your Garden with Boxwood

| April/May 2007

  • iStockphoto/Nancy Nehring

  • Photo by Patsy Bell Hobson
  • iStockphoto/Vera Bogaerts

Any artistic masterpiece is improved with the perfect frame. Likewise, a garden—a living masterpiece—is enhanced when surrounded by an elegant border. Defining an herb garden with a solid green edge is like framing a picture: It draws the eye to the beauty within and defines its boundaries.

One of the most easily recognized garden borders, boxwood (Buxus spp.) is also a symbol of the gardener’s long-term commitment and investment. Boxwood’s slow growth habit can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. If you want to plant a classic boxwood border, know that boxwood is not an instant hedge. It may take years to see the lush, thick green hedges of an elaborate Edwardian or Colonial garden.

Start with a plan. The basic idea might come from a book or magazine, or from a park or garden you admire. Those inspirational borders, well-groomed and solid, took years to establish and are probably the beneficiary of year-round attention. But with the proper care and some patience, your garden may someday be a source of inspiration as well.

Good Old Boxwood

Boxwood, commonly known as box in England, is one of the oldest ornamental plants. It is thought to have been used in formal hedges by the ancient Egyptians and then later by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Dutch first brought boxwood to America from Amsterdam in 1653 and grew it near what is now Long Island, New York. There are many established boxwood hedges in America that are 100 or 200 years old.

American boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) and English boxwood (B.s. ‘Suffruticosa’) are the best-known varieties; English boxwood is the true, dwarf form most commonly seen in formal gardens. Originally established in Colonial gardens, traditional European varieties continue to dominate the American landscape. As boxwood’s popularity grows, many more Asian and American varieties are appearing in modern landscapes.

Boxwood’s uses extend beyond the garden border. The woody portions of the plant have been used to treat rheumatism, syphilis and other venereal diseases. It was thought to cure leprosy and has been used in cases of epilepsy, piles and for toothaches. The leaves in powdered form are an effective vermifuge. Boxwood has cosmetic uses as well. Various perfumes were made from the leaves and bark, and a decoction was recommended to promote hair growth. An auburn hair dye was created by boiling the leaves and sawdust in lye. On the farm the dried and powdered leaves were used to improve the coats of horses, and some English farmers still use the old-fashioned remedy of using powdered leaves to treat intestinal worms in horses. The wood of the boxwood plant is tough and heavy, rivaling brass in its strength, which makes it ideal for use in engraving. Boxwood has also been used to make musical instruments, rulers and other items that call for rigid, non-expansive material.

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