THE MODERN MINT BLOG
Alternatives to boxwood are hard to come by – nothing has the small, easy to clip, reflective leaf of a boxwood shrub.
But as we reach April and the boxwood caterpillar begins to wake up, hungry to defoliate our boxwood topiaries and hedges, you may wonder what plant you can use as a replacement in the garden should the worst happen – and the caterpillar destroys all!
(For more information on the boxwood caterpillar, visit the European Boxwood & Topiary Society website. Their research and hard work has meant all is not lost in the fight to rid the UK of this bug…)
Alternatives to Boxwood For Hedges
You can check out this list from Gardeners’ World magazine, which has photos… but I am not sure all of the suggestions are particularly good, especially if you need an alternative to boxwood for a low hedge or parterre.
(So if you do check it out, come back here to get another opinion…)
Yew – I love Taxus, it is a brilliant plant for hedges and clips so well, as well as being flexible enough to shape into all kinds of strange and abstract ways.
But as an alternative to a boxwood hedge, I don’t like it – specifically, I don’t like seeing yew cut and kept too small. It feels depressing, like watching a bear rocking back and forth on its heels in a zoo… it wants to go, to move, expand its horizons… for me, yew needs to be grown on a wider, taller scale so does not make a great low hedge replacement for boxwood.
To see it used in a luxurious way, check out the yew parterre Dan Pearson has created at Lowther Castle – this feels modern, because of its height and depth, but Taxus is such a classic plant it looks like a great fit with the old castle and surrounding buildings – Dan Pearson, Lowther Castle.)
Ilex crenata – considered something of a weed in Japan, too everyday, this little holly is expensive if you buy in the UK. It doesn’t clip well either, it takes a lot of effort. For me, it seems like it should replace boxwood as one of the alternatives, but is too fussy and the leaf does not reflect the light as beautifully as it should.
Phillyrea – prefer as a topiary not a low hedge. Again, another plant that wants to grow a little bigger and keeping it low makes it feel too tamed, too depressed.
Osmanthus – great plant, but not for hedging… make it into a topiary and enjoy the fragrance.
Teucrium fruticans – this I can get on board with! A scraggly plant that throws its limbs around, not wanting to be tamed – so keep away from it if you want control and formality. But it does reflect sunlight, it does stay low, it does clip well and I think it is much hardier than the books suggest (especially when established). But the major plus point for using it as an alternative to boxwood in a parterre or hedge, is that it provides a huge amount of nectar filled flowers that honeybees and bumbles love.
If I was going to grow anything as an alternative to boxwood, this is the one I would choose right now – nectar filled flowers and a little more looseness in its habit, to suit a relaxed modern garden…
(As a side note – Teucrium x lucidrys was common for parterres in the past, but I prefer the flowers of the fruitcans…)
Euonymus japonicus ‘Green Spire’ – funny little shrub, I saw it planted all down a street in London and from a distance I thought it looked amazing. Up close, as I wandered down the road, the leaves had a little inward curl to them, the effect making the plant look thirsty and dehydrated.
Useful, pest-free, but I would use it somewhere away from the patio, where you won’t see it up close.
Lonicera nitida – if you want a hedge cheap and quick, this is the plant. Just take cuttings in spring and whack them in the ground, and it will grow. Clips ok, looks fine, a robust plant that suits some gardens.
Maintenance can be an issue – it grows so fast you may need to cut it three times a year to keep it looking good and in shape. Boxwood (if you time it right) will need just one cut.
Lonicera as an alternative? Yes. But bear in mind the work involved…
Lavender – why not? A classic plant that brings fragrance to the garden too. I love the ‘ever-silver’ look if pruned to a mound, or clump, for the winter. If conditions are warm and dry, this is perfect.
The same can be said for Rosemary too, especially an upright variety if using for a low hedge.
Plenty Of Alternatives To Boxwood Hedging Plants
So lots of choice to look at, if you need an alternative to boxwood as a hedging plant.
None of them clip like boxwood, or create that wonderful reflection of light across the planes you have cut, but if you choose carefully you can find something that will work for your garden – yew, if you allow it to grow to a decent size, lavender if it is dry, teucrium for wildlife…
The options are there, so good luck… and let me know if you find anything else that works well. A little bit of experimenting with alternatives is always fun to hear about….
Making a new topiary out of the large, dull facade of a Taxus blob… My work was to change it up from a ‘jelly drop’ shape and give it texture, open it out and let the light through, and make it a sculptural feature in the background of the garden in summer… yet a major part of the garden in winter. A few more years before it becomes something special, but there was far more leaf and growth inside the plant than I thought and so it will not take too long for it to gain in character and become …
Two weeks ago I was invited to teach topiary at the garden of Griselda Kerr, the author of The Apprehensive Gardener. I love teaching and sharing skills, but I was placed on the spot in the afternoon and asked to show how I would make a new topiary from an existing shrub. So below is a speeded-up video of me creating a cloud-pruned topiary from an old boxwood tree. I particularly love the ending when the class get involved….! See the video here. One hour was all it took, and though it needed a little tidying-up, it was made by …
Charlotte Molesworth, my topiary mentor, and I are running our popular topiary workshop again in 2022. You can email me for details – or go here for information, your ticket and to find out about dates. Book A Spot On A Topiary Workshop, September 2022