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 fruticans…)
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. One of the reasons it is known as ‘poor man’s box’. 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….
When do you prune? Below are a few pointers on when you need to think about your topiary and hedges this year, so you can make sure you clip at the best time and not waste any effort doing work you don’t need to do… January & February Roses, fruit trees and wisteria is where the focus lies. Yes, it is cold and the work can be unpleasant because you are often stood on a ladder with your secateurs, barely moving enough to warm the body, but get these jobs done well, with care, and you can enjoy the fruits …
Last September when I and topiary artist (and mentor) Charlotte Molesworth ran a weekend of topiary masterclasses we had a visit from the garden writer Non Morris. You can read more about Non and her garden design work and writings here. She has written a lovely article for the February 2022 edition of The English Garden Magazine about her afternoon working with us and learning about topiary – I’m really thrilled by the piece, because she mentions not just a little of the wonderful history of Balmoral Cottage and how the garden grew, but also shares a little of how …
This Autumn I have presented another ‘Topiary Provocation’ to keen gardeners and designers. If you want to know more about topiary, the report on what we discussed and where modern topiary is going can be read by clicking the link below: Topiary Provocation Report Autumn 2021 This report is free to post on your own website or blog, just credit Modern Mint, and don’t change anything within it. Alternatively you can just share it with keen friends… or enemies? I did a similar meet-up with garden designers in spring 2021. Here is where you can read the Topiary Provocation Spring …