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Hedging - Box Alternatives

What are the Alternatives to Box Hedging?

Box blights are fungal diseases which can attack all forms of box plants whether grown as clipped topiary plants, as border edging or as freestanding plants in a hedge. The fungus attacks the leaves and can cause severe dieback in hedges and topiary plants making them unsightly at best and mainly dead at worst. The spores of the fungus are spread by water splash and clippings being moved around the garden. All box infections are worst in moist conditions. So serious has this problem become in many established gardens that professional gardeners and landscape designers seldom now include box as a hedging plant in their designs especially in the home counties or wetter areas of the country where it is already prevalent. Rampant might be a better description.

Box blight effecting circleclick for larger image
Box blight effecting circle
Box blight effecting centre circle click for larger image
Box blight effecting centre circle
Box blight click for larger image
Box blight
Box blight click for larger image
Box blight effecting

Nurseries like Burncoose have seen the demand for small cheap bare root or liner box pants fall from many thousands every year to only a trickle of orders in recent years. We have more or less stopped growing box.

However, since 2008, the situation has got even worse! The arrival of box tree moth in the UK began in that year. Last year there were over 800 sightings mainly in London and eastern England. The caterpillars from this moth live on, eat and infest only box plants. The green caterpillars can appear in profusion, are hard to control, and rapidly cause defoliations.

Preventative spraying is not really an option and the infestation is usually well established before you notice.

So, when you are forced to dig out and burn your box edging which has made a splendid feature around your borders, what do you plant instead to do the same job?

At least there are other alternatives to box when it comes to topiary. Yew or Ligustrum ionandrum can, in time, be grown, trained and clipped into shape. However, the solution is not so simple when it comes to box edging. Buxus sempervirens (common box) and Buxus suffruiticosa (edging box) have one great attribute which many of the alternatives do not.

This is of course PRICE! Box are quick and easy to propagate while some of the most suitable alternatives are not. Nor are many growers yet geared up enough to offer large quantities of these plants either as cheap bare root cuttings or cheap liner plants in 7cm square pots.

It will take time for the market to adjust and we are not yet sure what the new favourite edging plants of the future will turn out to be? We are seriously considering creating a small new section on our website offering small plants in quantity for this purpose from the list outlined below. These will only be available as small liner sized plants in February to April each year. Some of the plants on the list take longer to propagate and are more difficult to propagate than box so some will always be more expensive.

The simplest and cheapest alternative to box may well be lavender with L. ‘Hidcote’ and L. ‘Munstead’ being the obvious choices for larger sized beds which need edging. The problem is that lavenders, even when clipped after flowering, are usually well past their best after five or so years and will again need replacing.

So the spotlight turns to other alternatives. Euonymus microphyllus and Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’ are good possibilities. Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ is another starter. E. microphyllus varieties will not need any side pruning and grow slowly, while E. fortunei varieties will need more side clippings and top clipping probably more than once a year when they have reached the required height. It is really whether you like variegation in the leaves of your border edging or not?

Then we come to the smaller growing Lonicera nitida varieties. Lonicera nitida ‘Baggesens Gold’ is a definite starter and, for those who want smaller ‘edging’ box, then (the new to our catalogue for 2018) Lonicera nitida ‘Tidy Tips’ is a good candidate.

Some will suggest Ilex crenata ‘Golden Gem’ which is slower growing and nicely shaped for an edging plant. Again the yellowish colour of the leaves may not fit in well with the colours of the border it surrounds? A bigger problem may well be the price of these plants and the ready availability of large numbers of small sized ones.

We think Teucrium and Teucrium x lucridys make easier and more pleasing edging colour wise with their silvery green leaves. Some forms of Teucrium may get out of control and need too much clipping, but we have seen them successfully and effectively brought under control. Teucrium x lucridys was new to our catalogue in 2017 but has performed and sold well. We just have to grow enough of it now for the ‘box’ edging market!

Santolina chamaecyparissus is quick and easy to grow but it does not always stand up straight for long so firm clipping will be needed to keep it in shape.

Berberis may not be for everyone with bare feet and ankles in the garden but Berberis thunbergii ‘Atropurpurea Nana’ should be considered as an option. Certainly an unusual one! Other berberis varieties might be starters depending on the ultimate height that you want the edging to be.

We have seen Osmanthus delavayi and phillyrea on the lists proposed by garden designers for edging plants but the prices will be prohibitive to all but the largest pockets! These plants make excellent large freestanding garden shrubs in their own right so why engage in ruthless pruning to turn them into something which they are not?

Others say yew is the answer if you can keep it alive and clipped back to say 12-15in. This is likely to be quite a tall order for a yew tree and the cost will again be prohibitive at the outset. It could work however in some older gardens with plenty of staff to do the (at least) twice a year clipping.

Another exciting suggestion to solve this particular problem may well be the dwarf growing podocarpus. Podocarpus ‘Red Embers’ or ‘Spring Sunshine’ spring to mind but there are others. Expensive? Yes but rather novel and different. How well will they clip into shape? Early results from our test clipping are as positive as we expected them to be.

The final suggestion we have come up with is Rosemarinus officinalis which may well be as good a solution as the lavenders indicated in Item 1 above. However some might think that herbs are best in the herb garden and not as border edging?

Whatever you decide will look best to replace your box edging will need careful thought and consideration. It may well be an idea to email us a picture of the site which you have in mind so we can help and discuss the alternatives suitable for your own garden. Whatever you decide it may well be many decades before you can try to grow box again in a garden which has experienced any sort of fungal infection or moth attack. If you have been lucky up to now we hope that your luck will hold! If not please give us a call.

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