If you ever wondered in May why gardeners wind up so fond of box, yew, and holly, you can look about now and get your answer.
The gorgeous sour gums and maples and oaks have pretty well shed their bright leaves, the branches are bare, and a garden devoted to annuals, perennials and fish pools can seem bleak.
At no other time of year is the rich deep but lively green of box so welcome. There are two general approaches to this splendid shrub, and the best or quickest way is simply to buy large box bushes available at nurseries. They cost like sin. The other way is to root it from cuttings.
Twigs of box, six inches long, can be cut and stuck in ordinary ground right now. Shaded and kept from drying out, they root readily. A more sensible way, if you need perhaps several hundred plants, is to root them in sand in a cold frame, transplanting them next spring after they have rooted. They will need good soil, freedom from weeds, and certainly some attention to see they do not dry out in August. It will take maybe five years to get a nice fat little bush perhaps eight inches high.
If you get a box bush knee high, of the dwarf or "English" kind, it will grow to waist height in seven years and will fatten out in a gratifying way. There are many varieties of box, some of which grow up like trees, reaching 40 feet in time. Others are very narrow, growing moderately rapidly (eight inches a year) like a Lombardy poplar. Others have bluish leaves, still others have cupped leaves. The varieties that make big bushes or small trees are usually called "American box" for no good reason, and the "English box" is equally poorly named. They are all simply variations of the common box that grows around the Mediterranean Sea. A fine collection may be seen at the National Arboretum.
There are also other species of box besides the Mediterranean Buxus sempervirens. The Korean and Japanese box is widely grown, especially in cold climates. It grows more loosely and more quickly. It is not nearly so handsome as the ordinary box, and lacks the usual box smell, which of course is an advantage if you dislike the scent. Many gardeners dislike it, and say it reminds them of cats, or of an empty house full of mice.
Jefferson did not like the smell, and visitors to Monticello are often surprised not to see great billowing bushes of it -- a thing you rather expect in Virginia gardens. Most of us love the smell; it is one reason I planted it here and there between the sidewalk and my front door. On mild damp days it is particularly gratifying, but the scent is given off throughout the year.
Yew has the advantage of growing more quickly and it is therefore cheaper. Some varieties in some years have red soft pulpy fruits borne freely enough to be ornamental, but usually there are just a few berries, and of course on staminate ("male") plants there are none. The upright variety, "Hicks," sometimes fruits very heavily. Yew is poisonous, and it is said cattle are sometimes killed by eating it. Birds, however, eat the soft berries. Humans should not eat any part of the plant. This particular upright yew -- it grows straight up in a fairly narrow form rather than spreading widely, as many other yews do -- is a good choice for a hedge. It can easily be kept to six feet, say, or can be allowed to grow to 15 feet.
When it is grown alone, without the support of its buddies in a solid hedge, it is liable to damage from snow that bends the top over and spreads out the branches. Some attention in pruning will keep it dense, and it is always possible to tie its branches in to the trunk with insulated wire. Even so, it is only prudent to get out and bat the snow off with a broom when necessary, and before everything turns to ice. Heavy damp snow or ice on the yew, when hit by strong winds, will of course result in torn branches. The spreading yews, which are wider than tall, suffer much less.
Hollies are as beautiful as any tree on earth. People in the country could do worse, and usually do, than plant a holly grove. On cold winter days with stout wind, it is wonderful to stand in an old holly grove; it is almost like being in a greenhouse. The air is milder, and the grass by the trees is often lush green while outside the grove all is bare or withered.
The English holly (Ilex aquifolium) is glossier and has a more curved and spined leaf as a rule than the American holly (Ilex opaca). When I was young I thought our native holly quite inferior. Now I like it as well as any holly, and even the wild ones that spring up from seeds dropped by birds are often beautiful. There are, as well, many dozens of variations within the American holly, some with yellow fruit, some with smooth leaves, some with extremely ornamental and heavily spined leaves, and some are prodigious producers of berries.
There are also various Asian hollies, and while I do not have a place for it now I used to grow Ilex pernyi, which has leaves much like the English holly only much smaller, and a rigid habit of growth in youth. There is also the lovely smooth-leaved holly from Japan, I. latifolia, with fruit like dull red small cherries, and of course the many kinds of another Japanese holly, that can imitate box. Most Japanese hollies have black fruit, and I dislike almost all of them because they are so often used for hedges, every fifth plant dying out and leaving ugly gaps. It is rare to see a good hedge of Japanese holly, though people never weary of planting them.
The yaupon (I. vomitoria) is a bit on the tender side, and while any gardener is reasonably entitled to grow it in a Washington garden, I would never plant it without the understanding it could be killed back, or killed outright, in a terrible winter. Farther south it makes superb hedges.
A holly deservedly popular (though it, too, can suffer in really bad winters) is the small-leaved "Foster No. 2," or Foster holly. Its leaves are spined and narrow, and it produces showy quantities of red berries. Its main charm is that it grows narrow and upright, though the shape of the plant can be altered by pruning. It can be grown into an extremely narrow column, but in that case the gardener should be prepared to stake it or it will be ruined in snow and wind, especially while young. It would be beautiful grown over the support of a steel arch.
One unattractive aspect of all the hollies with spiny leaves is that they are painful when encountered while weeding flower beds. A holly spine is the most nearly immortal creature known to gardener