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Are Your Box Bushes Dying? Here’s the Solution

Fighting a losing battle with your buxus? Discover how to identify pests and diseases and consider planting alternatives

Houzz UK contributor and award-winning landscape and garden designer. Claudia de… More

There seems to be an unstoppable rise in pests and diseases that affect box hedging, so it could be time to use some different plants to create the same effect. Discover the signs to look out for, and consider these other plants that might do the job just as well.

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Consider the advantages
Box, or buxus, has been valued for years as an ornamental topiary plant, due to its small, evergreen leaves and tolerance of frequent trimming.

It will thrive in a variety of different soil conditions and, once trimmed, the glossy leaves will shoot from old wood. It looks great cut into neat hedges, like this one at the National Trust’s The Courts Garden in Wiltshire.

As well as its aesthetic advantages, box was also used medicinally in the 17th century to treat many ailments and today can be found in some homeopathic remedies.

However, whether you’ve inherited a box hedge or topiary, or wish to plant some in your garden, be aware that in recent years, it’s been subject to numerous diseases. This has made many wonder if it’s time to give up on this once classic staple hedging plant of formal and cottage gardens.

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Check for fungal disease
Wouldn’t it be lovely to have amazing, disease-free buxus topiary? Unfortunately, box suffers from many different fungal diseases.

We often assume that if our plants are looking sick, it’s the dreaded box blight, Cylindrocladium buxicola. To check if your box plant has blight, first look for signs of small black spots on the leaves, which die back and leave bare patches.

More importantly, check for black stripes or lesions on any of the wood, as well as white spores on the underside of the leaves.

Blight thrives in humid conditions and is very hard to treat. You could try cutting out diseased sections and hiring a licensed professional to spray the infected plants. However, often the only option is to remove the plants, making sure to disinfect the tools and dispose of all the diseased wood.

Another fungal disease affecting box is Volutella blight, caused by the fungus Pseudonectria buxi. This fungus doesn’t present with the black stripes on the wood, or cause massive defoliation. The spores on the back of the leaves are pink-coloured.

The other fungal diseases that can infect box don’t have such severe effects on the plant – box rust (Puccinia buxi) causes blisters on both sides of the leaves; Macrophoma leaf spot (Macrophoma candollei) causes small black fruiting bodies on the leaves.

Sometimes buxus can suddenly die for no apparent reason, and this could be down to soil-borne diseases, such as Phytophthora root rot.

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Look for box caterpillar
London and the Home Counties have, in the past few years, been plagued by the box tree moth (Cydalima perspectalis). The moth itself is not the main problem – the leafy green caterpillars feed on the plant and strip it bare in days, leaving a skeleton of a plant.

The moth will lay its pale yellow eggs on the underside of the leaves and might also leave a residue of silk cocoon webbing across them. The pupae imitate small green box leaves and are glued onto the branches, which makes it hard to tell whether you have an infestation.

This infestation is very hard to treat, and many people spend hours picking off the bright-green caterpillars to no avail. You could try laying a box tree moth trap before the spring. This is a pheromone lure for the male moth, but it may not get all of them.

There are some new biological treatments available to try, but the outlook is not very positive at the moment. Research is being carried out, so hopefully there will be a cure for yet another box disease problem in the future.

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Find an Alternative
The solution may be to use different plants to create a similar effect. Try these suggestions.

1. Evergreen

  • Wilson’s honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida) ‘Maygreen’ is a close-knit, bushy evergreen, similar in leaf to box apart from its arching stems. It’s very tolerant of hard pruning and clipping, making it ideal as a low hedge. The ‘Elegant’ variety is fast-growing and can suit a more shady position.
  • Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) is resistant to blight and is a very hardy evergreen plant that’s often used as an alternative to box. Ilex regenerates from old wood, but you may find yellow leaves appear and drop off for no reason. It can be bought as a small hedging plant or in lovely, topiary-style shapes.
  • Euonymus japonicus ‘Jean Hugues’ is another good alternative, with its upright growth and waxy leaves. This plant is also resistant to blight and grows in most types of soil. However, as these plants are pot-grown rather than bare root, they can be expensive if you’re planning a long hedge.
  • Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald ’n’ Gold’ is a dwarf evergreen that has variegated leaves and is tolerant of dense shade.
  • Euonymus japonicus ‘Microphyllus’ has small, dark-green leaves edged in deep gold. It forms a good, dense, low hedge, but is quite slow-growing.
  • Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ has bright green leaves margined with white and tinged pink in the winter months.
  • Yew (Taxus baccata), a native shrub or tree, is widely used as tall hedging in gardens and for clipping topiary shapes. Yew is very dense, but it can be clipped to form a good, thick, low hedge. Make sure your soil is not waterlogged or your yew may be susceptible to root rot.

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2. Flowering
There are numerous flowering alternatives that can be used for hedging.

  • Teucrium fruticans has silvery leaves and lilac-blue flowers, and can be clipped into balls or made into a low, flowering hedge. It needs to be kept in check, however, as it can become quite woody.
  • A darker evergreen plant you can also use this way is the lovely shrub Osmanthus x burkwoodii. If you don’t trim too much, your plant might produce some fragrant, jasmine-white flowers. Osmanthus can work well as a hedge or clipped into a rounded shape.
  • You could also try the shade-loving sweet box (Sarcococca confusa), which has scented white flowers with a vanilla-like fragrance and dark, evergreen leaves.
  • Phillyrea latifolia, which comes from the olive family, is also now being used as a box substitute in some places, and has scented, yellow-green flowers and berries in the autumn.
  • St John’s wort (Hypericum) ‘Hidcote’ has large yellow, five-petalled flowers. It works well in shade, but performs even better in sun, and is suitable for any well-drained soil. It will also thrive in coastal gardens.
  • You could also try some varieties of Hebe, such as ‘Red Edge’, although this grows more into mounded shapes and does less well when cut into a defined, sharp hedge shape.
  • For a thick, flowering hedge, try Cotoneaster integrifolius, which can sometimes be labelled as microphyllus or thymifolius. It’s small and has glossy, evergreen leaves on stiff branches. In summer, the white flowers open from pink buds, followed in autumn by bright red fruit. Trim this hedge frequently to prevent it becoming too wide. Even though you may lose some of the flowers, it does get very dense.

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3. Aromatic

  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) ‘Miss Jessopp’s Upright’ makes for a more informal hedge and even topiary, and can be found around many a French chateau. The most compact variety for hedging is ‘Severn Sea’. This rosemary has evergreen leaves and bright blue flowers on arching branches. It needs planting in a hot, sunny position and must be in well-drained soil.
  • Lavenders ‘Hidcote’ and ‘Munstead’ are often used as hedging and will provide an attractive low hedge that’s great for pollinators. Don’t let them get too woody, and make sure they’re not planted in wet or heavy soils.
  • Dwarf lavender prefers a sunny, sheltered site, and is a low-grower that’s perfect for garden borders and along a path. Try Lavandula angustifolia ‘Little Lady’, which is ideal for normal, well-drained soils, but make sure not to over-water this bushy plant. If you’re hoping to achieve a taller hedge, however, this isn’t a good option, as it’s best suited to a height of less than 50cm.

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4. Crimson leaves

  • The attractive young foliage of the deciduous Berberis thunbergii ‘Rose Glow’ is held on arching branches. The leaves start out purple, but turn into a pink, cream and silver variegation that lasts all summer. In the autumn, the foliage turns a glowing red.
  • Berberis thunbergii atropurpurea is another good, compact, slow-growing variety that’s ideal for a low hedge. These shrubs are very prickly, though, so be careful when planting and trimming.

Tell us…
Have you had problems with box hedging? Which of these alternatives would you try? Share your thoughts and experiences in the Comments section.

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