Do not plant any more boxwood

State Office in Dresden-Pillnitz advises – "Do not plant any more box trees "Fungal diseases and the caterpillars of a butterfly are making life increasingly difficult for box trees. "Do not plant any more boxwood!", advises Kerstin Konig, an expert at the Pillnitz State Stud. She tests woody plants that are suitable for small border hedges instead, and reveals the first results.

The boxwood has a centuries-old tradition in garden culture. Since the Baroque period, it has not only been used for park landscaping, but has also been and still is used in farm and home gardens as well as in cemeteries. The evergreen thornless plants, densely covered with small oval to elliptical leaves, are uncomplicated. They can be grown as hedges or even shaped into figures by pruning.

But the originally robust woody plant has become more and more of a "problem child" in gardens in this country for about 15 years now. Causes are on the one hand diseases caused by various fungi such as the box wilt, the box tree cancer and the box tree shoot dieback.

For some years now, the boxwood borer has also been causing more and more problems for boxwoods. The small butterfly introduced from Asia is spreading further and further. Its descendants eat the woody plants bare in the caterpillar stage. If this happens several times in a row, the plants are so weakened that they die not infrequently.

Spraying poison is not the solution

Now, one could constantly get to grips with all these nasties with a poisonous injection. But this is not only costly and goes with the time into the money, but is also not beneficial to the environment. It is not without reason that the use of pesticides in public areas, including cemeteries, is severely restricted.

Especially since the spores of the fungi last four years or longer in the soil, knows Kerstin Konig, consultant for cemetery gardening at the Saxon State Office for Agriculture, Environment and Geology. "So if you remove a boxwood that has died and plant a new one, it will become infected again. You would have to replace the soil before. But what good is that if this is not handled the same way on the graves in the neighborhood?"

Field trial of the Saxon State Office for Agriculture, Environment and Geology in Dresden-Pillnitz. Kerstin Konig planted woody plants in 35 different species and varieties to find out which could replace boxwoods. Source: Catrin Steinbach

Kerstin Konig therefore recommends not planting any more boxwood for the time being, especially not in cemeteries. Since 2014, it has been testing woody plants in 35 different species and varieties as alternatives for small border hedges on the trial field between Sobrigener Strabe and Lohmener Strabe in Pillnitz. Evaluation criteria are overall impression, cutting frequency, vigor, health, winter structure and winter hardiness.

There is no 100 percent substitute

One thing is clear: "There is no 1:1 substitute for boxwood," says Konig. From the appearance, the size and shape of the leaves and pruning tolerance, the Japanese pod (Ilex crenata) come with different varieties such as z.B. 'Dark Green' the closest to boxwood.

Kerstin Konig, consultant for cemetery gardening finds that from the appearance, the size and shape of the leaves and the pruning tolerance, the Japanese pod (Ilex crenata) with different varieties such as z.B. 'Dark Green' is the closest thing to boxwood. Source: Catrin Steinbach

"However, it is not as drought tolerant as boxwood," Konig observed. In addition, the holly requires a humus-rich, loose and fresh soil. Does not thrive well in heavy, compacted or overly calcareous soils. "Furthermore, the single plant is more expensive to buy than boxwood. But that can change if more is sold."

"If the shape of the leaves is not so important in the selection of woody plants for small border hedges, I can also recommend two varieties of yew, according to my observations so far," says the Pillnitz expert. "Either Taxus baccata 'Black Green' or 'Renkes Small Green'".

These plants can be grown similar to boxwood to relatively narrow hedges. "They are evergreen. Extremely tolerant of pruning. But of course the appearance is different due to the shape of the needle-like leaves. And they don't tolerate heat and drought so well."

With its dense evergreen foliage, the fan-like appearance of the leafy branches and the lush green, the Occidental arborvitae (Thuja occicentalis) of the 'Mecki' cultivar is a sight to behold.

This woody plant defies frost, has low soil requirements and tolerates pruning well. "However, from my point of view, it looks much nicer if you don't cut so much on this fan-like foliage," thinks Kerstin Konig. But that then has an effect on the dimension of the hedge, he says.

More diversity on the beds

Of the barberries, the Green Cushion Barberry (Berberis buxifolia 'Nana') comes closest to boxwood, she said. "It has low site requirements, is drought resistant, tolerates pruning well, is evergreen and has few thorns compared to other barberries. In severe winters, however, the leaves can turn brown."

Kerstin Konig has also planted honeysuckle (Lonicera) and Japanese spindle bush (Euonymus) in the trial field. "Both I do not recommend. Lonicera nitida, which grows more upright than Lonicera pileata, has low soil requirements, is heat-tolerant and tolerates urban climates. But it grows very luxuriantly on the one hand. Requires a great deal of pruning. On the other hand, it is sensitive to cold, freezing back in heavy frosts."This limited winter hardiness is also a big minus for the Japanese spindle bush.

Photographs from the field trial of the Saxon State Office for Agriculture, Environment and Geology in Dresden-Pillnitz regarding possible alternatives for box hedges. Source: Catrin Steinbach

According to Kerstin Konig, visually very attractive effects can also be achieved with different spireas planted as hedges. There are variegated varieties. In addition, the woody plants bloom with white, pink or purple flower umbels. "But the plants lose their leaves in winter.

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