May is upon us and nature really is in charge of our gardens now, with glorious fresh growth in our borders as they put on a colourful scent filled display. But it’s also the not so glorious weeds romping through the beds and paths that keep us gardeners busy at this time of year.
And it is time for my fourth musing from down the garden path. Each month I, Leigh Abbosh, Founder of Leaf & Dig (leafanddig.com) will bring you a timely horticultural topic with gardening tips, interesting facts, and inspiring places to visit.
May is the time when formal Box hedging (Buxus semprevirens) gets the first cut of the year in order to maintain those sharp topiary forms over the summer months. But read on to hear why we might need to ‘dig’ some alternatives to Box.
Fresh growth ready for the May trim. Image Copyright: Leaf & Dig When we think of tightly clipped topiary or formal hedging, Box (Buxus sempervirens) and Yew (Taxus baccata) will often be the first plants that come to mind. And for good reason. Both are evergreen, can be clipped hard to create interesting forms, and the growth rate of Box particularly means you can just about get away with two clips per year (May and September) and still maintain a strong form.
But the increasing prevalence of fungal diseases (known as Box blight) and the box tree caterpillar requires us to look for alternatives to Box and I’ll discuss these below.
Box hedging has been around a while. In fact records show that the Egyptians clipped Box hedges in their gardens right back 4,000 BC. The Romans were also big fans with many villas adorned with topiary and and tightly clipped hedges. In fact it was the Romans that reintroduced Buxus into the UK in 100BC. Topiary and clipped hedges continued to be popular right up until the early 1700’s when a certain Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown began ripping out formal hedging from his clients gardens in favour of his celebrated naturalistic landscapes and parks. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that a vast influx of more tender perennials that needed to be ‘over wintered’ and then planted out in late Spring meant that evergreen planting was in demand again to provide structure and winter interest while those tender plants were tucked up inside. And to this day, gardeners continue to sing the praises of evergreen planting such as Box to hold our interest through the colder months and provide structure and a back drop to the more ‘show off’ perennials and annuals when things warm up.
I won’t go into the detail about Box blight as there is plenty of info on the RHS website ( www.rhs.org.uk/disease/box-blight). Whilst there are some great treatments that can keep Box under some control, and if plants are fed well so they are strong and healthy in the first place you can reduce the chances of it occurring, but generally once it takes hold then eventually it’s fatal. We are seeing stunning hedging being ripped out of gardens due to blight…even Monty Don suffered an outbreak and had to remove the Box hedging from his Jewel Garden at the start of 2021.
So if you are starting to think ahead to planting a formal hedge or topiary in the autumn, here’s some alternatives to Box to consider.
Taxus beccata (Yew)
In my view, you can’t beat Yew hedging. It clips to a dense, smooth surface like Box. And that deep shade of green looks just as stunning in the winter standing alone as it does as a backdrop to brightly coloured spring/summer flowers. It’s hardy and relatively drought tolerant too. Admittedly, it looks quite different to Box with needles instead of leaves.
Yew hedging. Image copywriter: themiddelsizedgarden.co.uk
Ilex crenata (Japanese Holly)
If you really want a plant that looks just like Box, then Ilex crenata could be for you. It has small glossy leaves, similar growth rate to Box and can take hard pruning into shape. It will also tolerate shade.
Ilex crenata topiary balls. Image Copyright: Leaf & Dig
Pittosporum Tenuifolium Golf Ball
Pittosporum has a slightly looser habit than Box, forming soft mounds but is still worth a mention for giving structure. Whilst they naturally have a round form, they can be clipped into a hedge albeit with a looser form.
Pittosporum Golf Ball. Image Copyright: egardengo.com
My final suggestion might come as a bit of a surprise but Rosemary can make a fantastic clipped hedge. The best form for hedging is Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Miss Jessopp’s Upright’ which as the name suggests has a naturally upright growth habit. It is drought tolerant, can be clipped to form a tight hedge, and you can even use the clippings to add flavour to your pasta!
Last year I planted a Rosemary hedge for a client in Gloucestershire who didn’t have mains water so needed a drought tolerant option and it is coming on well.
By far the best Rosemary hedge I’ve seen was at the Le Jardin Secret in Marrakech, an incredible garden designed by Tom Stuart-Smith.
Rosemary hedge at Le Jardin Secret, Marrakech. Image Copyright: www.helenthura.com
So there you have it. Four alternatives to Box to consider. In general, the autumn is the best time to plant a new hedge so you’ve now got a bit of time to consider your options and get out there for inspiration. A few inspiration starters below:
The RHS have developed a display garden showing alternatives to Box. It’s great to see so many options in one place, all clipped in the same way so you can compare. They admit it is an experiment so some varieties work better than others and it will be fascinating to see how this develops.
Finally, I’d like to share 3 Instagram accounts that are well worth following if you are a fan of topiary and formal hedging:
@james_todman - an Instagram gardening legend. When you see his topiary, it’s easy to see why he has 108k followers!
@mcbeacham_ldscpgadener - Mark is a super talented topiary specialist based in the Cotswolds. Rumour has it, he has even been spotted in Tom’s Yard!
@excelsisgadens - Will maintains some stunning multi-ball topiary gardens that are well worth checking out.