I’m a wine drinker, and I love a good, crisp Sauvignon Blanc. One of the ways people describe Sauv Blanc is to say it smells like boxwood. Can I let you in on a secret? That’s just a foo-foo way of saying it smells like cat pee. You don’t believe me? Look at what this New Zealand winery calls their Sauvignon Blanc:
You can’t make this stuff up.
I’m not saying the cat pee thing is why I love the smell of boxwood but we know that smell is tied to memory, and the smell of boxwood (and a zippy dry white?) rips me right back to childhood, walking between the massive boxwood hedges flanking the path to Aunt Sam and Uncle Elmer’s breezeway.
Of course, there are other reasons to love boxwood even if you’re not filled with nostalgia upon catching a whiff. For one, it’s an incredibly versatile plant. Creating a historic, Colonial America look? The photo at the top of the post is from behind the orangerie at Mount Vernon (new boxwood plantings, though). Looking for a plant that gives some structure to the garden but you don’t want crazy formality? Instead of shearing it, let it get a little shaggy and then knock it back a bit with hand pruners.
Boxwood are also right at home in a contemporary planting, because they can be left shaggy (as above) to act as a counterpoint to rigid linear design, or they can be trimmed to within an inch of their lives to emphasize the geometry. This is from an old French chateau, not a contemporary project, but it sure illustrates what’s possible.
The challenge with boxwood is that they’re pretty slow growing. That’s also an opportunity, though, because it means that with pruning and shearing you can keep them at the desired size for quite a while. For one of my clients, I planted boxwood in planters to either side of her front door. The nicest looking ones at the nursery that day were ones that want to grow to five feet in diameter. Guess what? Five years later, after shearing the heck out of them twice a year, they’re still the size of basketballs. Love it.
Of course, a shrub that grows slowly in the landscape is one that grows slowly in the nursery too, and this means higher prices. A 7 gallon Winter Gem Boxwood retails for around $90. For less than half that, I can get a similarly sized Japanese holly. The Japanese holly is a disease-prone piece of crap that’s hard to manage, though, so you get what you pay for.
I hope this encourages you to look at boxwood for your next project. It’s a great plant and if you have the right setting for it you won’t be disappointed!