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Landscape Ideas: Boxed in by Boxwood? 5 Shrubs to Try Instead

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Landscape Ideas: Boxed in by Boxwood? 5 Shrubs to Try Instead

November 18, 2020

Just when we were learning to live with box blight, the box tree caterpillar is laying waste to the remains. On the Royal Horticultural Society’s web page ‘Box: Problems’ it is clear that there are many other sap-sucking insects queuing up to destroy anyone’s dream of an English country garden.

The solution, unsurprisingly, is to plant something else. There is no consensus on what this should be: Ilex crenata, a boxwood lookalike, is often put forward, though it is less easygoing about soil conditions. Other common suggestions for small-leaved, easy to clip shrubs include Lonicera nitidaTeuchrium chamaedrys, and Euonymus japonicus. We visited the RHS headquarters at Wisley, Surrey (an hour from London) and found a few surprises. Let’s take a closer look:

Photography by Jim Powell, for Gardenista.

Ed. note: These suggestions are meant for UK gardens–some of these plants are categorized as invasive in the USA, so use caution.

Dwarf Yew

 Above: The most surprising discovery was that a walled garden, divided into beds of low hedging, could be so lively and colorful in winter.
Above: Above: The most surprising discovery was that a walled garden, divided into beds of low hedging, could be so lively and colorful in winter.

Waves of shrubs interweave into informal knots, yet every plant is sign-posted and on trial. The most interesting boxwood alternatives in this trial are not imitations, like a vegetarian burger; instead they bring a new perspective altogether.

All of the parterre beds in the garden are edged with the dwarf yew Taxus baccata ‘Repandens’. Already carrying an RHS Award of Garden Merit, it is moderate in size compared with regular yew, with a shorter growth rate. “I think it has great potential,” says Matthew Pottage, the young curator at Wisley.

Berberis

 Red, orange and purple berberis are a standout in autumn and early winter.
Above: Red, orange and purple berberis are a standout in autumn and early winter.

Of the deciduous varieties, orange Berberis thunbergii ‘Erecta’ is shown here, mid-drop, while its red counterpart Berberis thunbergii ‘Orange Rocket’ competes for attention. An evergreen type is Berberis thunbergii ‘Compacta’, which the trial manager Sean McDill is very happy with. “I like this berberis,” he says. “It has a nice, compact habit and after a couple of clips it has a dense, dark green surface.”

Leaf structure comes to the fore, with a little consideration. From left: Small narrow leaves of Lonicera nitida, rounder berberis, and the soft needles of yew.
Above: Leaf structure comes to the fore, with a little consideration. From left: Small narrow leaves of Lonicera nitida, rounder berberis, and the soft needles of yew.

Given that a parterre in winter is potentially empty, with only its edging to give it character, a flaming berberis has a lot going for it. In a knot garden, berberis is even better when surrounded by the evergreens of yew and lonicera. A darker variety trialled here is Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea ‘Helmond Pillar’ (pictured below).

Podocarpus

 Above: Podocarpus &#8\2\16;Young Rusty&#8\2\17;, green in summer, reddish-brown in winter, flanked by dwarf yew. Conifers make sense as replacements for boxwood, as long as they are true dwarf conifers.
Above: Above: Podocarpus ‘Young Rusty’, green in summer, reddish-brown in winter, flanked by dwarf yew. Conifers make sense as replacements for boxwood, as long as they are true dwarf conifers.

“I have a soft spot for podocarpus,” says Matthew Pottage of the RHS. “The different varieties have great garden use. You can clip them and shape them; they have small leaves. They are yet to have their time.” Other varieties trialled here include: Podocarpus ‘Chocolate Box’ and P. nivalis ‘Kilworth Cream’, which remains pale in winter.

Dwarf Rhododendron

Rhododendron Bloombux (&#8\2\16;Microhirs3&#8\2\17;), a new variety.
Above: Rhododendron Bloombux (‘Microhirs3’), a new variety.

Once you make the decision to move on from boxwood, you may be in the market for something completely different, like miniature rhododendron. The value-added characteristic of R. Bloombux (‘Microhirs3’) shown here, is that it blooms, though the flowers are pale pink — which could be a hard sell. In winter it is distinguished by starry clusters.

Pittosporum

 Above: Pale Pittosporum &#8\2\16;Collaig Silver&#8\2\17;, is threaded through each bed. Also featured here: purple Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea &#8\2\16;Helmond Pillar&#8\2\17;.
Above: Above: Pale Pittosporum ‘Collaig Silver’, is threaded through each bed. Also featured here: purple Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea ‘Helmond Pillar’.

Although pittosporum and lonicera are predictable inhabitants of supermarket car parks, their very existence in such places is a valuable lesson to home gardeners. Repeats of pittosporum can be unexpectedly interesting, the plants themselves revealing handsome dark stems. Pittosporum ‘Collaig Silver’, repeated in ribbons throughout, has proved to be quite vigorous, while bright green P. tenuifolium ‘Golf Ball’ is doing well: “Small leaves, not overly fast growing, responds well to clipping,” according to the Royal Horticultural Society.

 The trial garden shimmering in August. Photograph by Sean McDill courtesy of Royal Horticultural Society.
Above: The trial garden shimmering in August. Photograph by Sean McDill courtesy of Royal Horticultural Society.

N.B.: Not ready to give up just yet on boxwood? See:

Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various shrubs and hedges with our Shrubs: A Field Guide.

Additionally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for boxwood with our Boxwood: A Field Guide.

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