Put a bow on it: The time-consuming (and worthwhile) care of boxwoods

Photo: Cathy Clary Photo: Cathy Clary

’Tis the season for tending boxwood. Remove any dead branches, with a hand saw if necessary. Boxwood is renowned for its density, a favorite of woodcut block-makers, so you can’t approach it with just a pair of hand shears. Loppers tend to tear. Get a curved folding saw and a good pair of leather gloves.

These doyennes of the old Virginia landscape like to be clean, and fare poorly when left to molder. Give a good shake to dislodge old leaves and twigs. Reach inside and vigorously jiggle the branches until all the old leaves drop down. Brush them out with your fingers or a whisk broom so there’s no build-up of debris inside. Dream of summer when you can shoot them with a jet of water in your bare feet. Avoid leaf blowers, which compact and denude the soil.

Mulch minimally, no more than enough to suppress weeds and conserve moisture. Mounds of heavy shredded wood products smother and starve soil of oxygen, luring mat-forming roots upward, where they languish in drought. If you have a bunch of mulch from previous years, fluff it with a dirt rake to let in air and rain. Spread out to under two inches, keeping well away from the centers.
Most varieties appreciate shade in the hot afternoon, although Saunders Brothers Nursery in Piney River has developed a number of heat-resistant cultivars. Even sun-tolerant boxwood will always need protection from winter wind, which will stunt and turn them red-orange.

Avoid HollyTone-like products. These fertilizers are meant for acid-lovers like dogwoods, hollies and azaleas. But boxwoods prefer a sweeter soil with a pH around 6.5, similar to the proper balance for lawns, lilacs and lavender. If soil is too acid their roots can’t take up nutrients. A healthy soil with the proper pH is much more important than fertilizer.

Lime, wood ashes or compost will raise pH over time, but amending the soil is not like adding salt to soup, something you can taste right away. The oncoming freeze and thaw cycle will incorporate amendments we apply now to make fertile beds for spring. Think outside the box of shredded hardwood and see last month’s primer on organics.

“Plucking” is another timely boxwood chore, removing fist-sized clumps of greenery from the canopy to let in air and light. Hand shears work well for this, but old-timers just snap them off. For many years Monticello has trimmed the English boxwood on Hospital Drive just off the Corner to supply their wreath-making workshops, rejuvenating the ancient shrubs along the way. It’s a time-consuming, labor-intensive process, well worth the effort.

Unlike shearing, a sin against the genus, this method maintains the classic cloud-like form of Buxus while keeping them healthy and resistant to diseases and insects. “It’s a win-win,” said Carr’s Hill gardener John Sauer: “They get the greenery and the boxwoods get plucked.”