Boxwood Is Back And Smelling Better

A hedge of boxwood Justin Brouwers.
A hedge of boxwood Justin Brouwers. (Handout - Saunders Brothers Inc.)
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2007

PINEY RIVER, Va. A decade or more ago, the boxwood as a favored garden plant seemed dead in the water.

At a time when gardeners were embracing a new style of gardening, with its romantic landscapes of naturalistic grasses and perennials, the boxwood stood as a horticultural relic. Stinky, slow-growing and passive, it may have defined the nation's earliest gardens but it was a backward-looking plant with nowhere to go.

Most of all, the favored variety, English boxwood, had become increasingly difficult to grow. Even the pros could not halt its decline from a mysterious root rot ailment that came to be known as boxwood decline disease, which wiped out ancient plantings at places such as Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg.

Hold on to your three-cornered hats, folks, because boxwood is poised to make a comeback. Ask Paul Saunders, patriarch of a leading East Coast boxwood grower named Saunders Brothers. Four of his seven sons work at the company's extensive nurseries in the misty foothills of the Blue Ridge in Nelson County, Va. They raise peaches and apples, and grow more than 600 varieties of trees and shrubs for garden centers. The business is investing heavily in producing high-end annuals and perennials. But the wellspring is boxwood.

Paul Saunders started propagating boxwood for sale when he was 13, 60 years ago. Around the family's 1855 red-brick house, huge, billowing mounds of English box formed part of the fabric of his sons' childhood. The evergreen shrubs grow at a snail's pace, but the ones lining the walk were so big "we as kids made forts in them," said Robert Saunders. The last of 100 old specimens were removed in the 1980s, all victims of boxwood decline.

Faced with lemons, Paul Saunders and his sons decided to make lemonade. Today, the same beds are lined with some of the replacement varieties of boxwood that have filled the void, perhaps not quite as elegantly as English box but as effectively and with far fewer hassles.

Many of these alternatives have been known to connoisseurs for years. In the 1990s, Paul Saunders decided to set up a network of trial gardens to see which would perform the best. His nursery is now growing those it considers the best for landscapers and independent garden centers.

At the family home, two varieties in particular are filling the void of English box. The first, Green Beauty, is more than four feet high and five feet across after two decades. This is slow going, but still more than twice the growth rate of its predecessor. Moreover, it is growing in full sun and heavy clay.

Robert Saunders offers these tips for getting Green Beauty to look its best: Shape the plant into a mound when it is the size of a volleyball, and then remove the late-season sprouts that are prominent by late winter. Saunders calls them "horns" and plucks them off by hand.

The second great substitute is a variety named Justin Brouwers, smaller in size, compact and finely textured, growing to about two feet high and slightly wider after 10 years or more. It has been planted extensively at the White House and Mount Vernon.

The classic tall hedging box is American boxwood, which, like English box, will get root rot in wet conditions. It also takes four or five decades to reach 12 feet.

Two other upright versions have caught the Saunders eye. Dee Runk forms a skinny pyramid, after 15 years getting to nine feet but only two feet wide. Unlike a slender variety named Graham Blandy, which Paul Saunders discounts for its flimsiness, Dee Runk is robust and doesn't need wrapping against the snow. It would function as the predictable foundation planting exclamation point, but a row of them would form a useful screen in an urban garden where there is room for evergreens to climb but not spread. My preference would be for the second variety, called Fastigiata, which rises to the same height but is three feet wide and seems better proportioned for hedging.

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