An Expert’s Guide to Maintaining Beautiful and Healthy Boxwoods

Boxwoods are a perennial favorite, providing a beautiful and classic foundation for many home landscapes. And while an attractive aspect of the plant is that it is relatively low maintenance, there are still important factors to consider before bringing one home. For advice on how best to select and nurture a new boxwood, we asked Mark Kemp, owner of Charlotte, North Carolina-based AK Nurseries—one of the largest boxwood growers in the South—to share his expertise on everything from which varieties are the fastest-growing to how to keep your plants healthy to how to avoid the dreaded boxwood blight.

Know the best boxwood variety for your climate. Boxwoods are beloved across the country, but certain varieties thrive in different zones. Kemp says that American and English boxwood (see below for Kemp’s warnings regarding this variety) thrive in a cooler climate, while Korean and other varieties do better in warmer climates. Your local nursery or landscape professional will likely sell or recommend the best options for your environment.

Avoid English boxwoods. While in years past this variety had been very popular, Kemp considers this his least favorite type. “They are very temperamental and seem vulnerable to diseases and funguses, as well as the blight,” he says. “I no longer sell them or recommend transplanting English boxwoods.”

Pick the right foundation plants. When choosing large foundation landscape plants in his region, Kemp opts for the American and Green Velvet boxwood. “We also usually use Americans to flank the beginning and endings of parterre hedges, with Green Velvet to create the small hedge,” Kemp shares. “Green Velvet are easy to maintain at a smaller height and make great hedges.” Consult your local experts about the right foundation plants for your garden.

If you’re in a hurry, opt for American or Japanese boxwoods. When you’re looking for a boxwood that will grow quickly, Kemp recommends planting an American or Japanese boxwood, as these types will establish the fastest. American boxwoods grow the most rapidly—at an average of about two inches per year—while Japanese boxwoods grow at a slightly lower rate.

Remember that soil conditions matter. It is incredibly important that boxwoods have good drainage, are not over watered, and have the proper type of mulch, Kemp advises. He recommends using pine bark mulch, as hardwood mulch can pack tight and not allow the soil to breathe properly, which can decrease the overall health of the boxwood, cause discoloration, and make the boxwood more susceptible to disease and funguses.

Be vigilant when planting in containers. Most varieties of boxwood do well in planters, but Kemp notes that it’s imperative that you ensure good drainage, as standing water will cause the boxwood to develop root rot (which will quickly lead to their demise).

Time your pruning and fertilizing properly. According to Kemp, winter is the only acceptable time to prune your boxwoods since during the cold months, boxwood is dormant, so pruning will not stress the plant (only minor tip pruning should be needed for the rest of the year). You can also fertilize at this time with Plant-tone and add lime to increase the magnesium in the soil and help maintain a good, vibrant green color. This timing also allows for the new growth in the spring to come in evenly in the shape you desire.

Know how to avoid boxwood blight. Blight has been a big issue for several years now, particularly on the East and West Coasts and in the South. Kemp advises the best way to prevent the blight is to increase airflow in the boxwood by blowing debris and leaves out of the center of the plant. You can also hire a professional who utilizes selective hand pruning practices that will increase airflow and thus decrease the blight risk. New boxwood varieties are being cultivated that are much more blight resistant Kemp says, including the New Gen Boxwood, which has been tested for the past few years, and thus far has been resistant to blight as well as other diseases. While New Gen Boxwood is not available in large sizes, Kemp says it should be in the next few years.

TSG Tip 358 from Mark Kemp, owner of AK Nurseries in Charlotte, North Carolina. AK Nurseries is featured in The Scout Guide Charlotte.