I’ll take ‘Why Does My Boxwood Keep Dying’ for $100, Alex!

Every year I teach a few garden design classes at a local adult and continuing education program. Regardless of the topic of the class, I am invariably asked by a student why a particular plant just keeps dying in their garden. Like many newbie gardeners, they fall in love with a plant, bring it home and plant it in their garden. The plant in question slowly dies but they go out and buy another one of the same plant and, to their surprise, it dies again.

Last week, the plant in question was a boxwood (Buxus). Here in southwestern Connecticut, boxwoods are the ‘go-to’ shrub and many homeowners, and  even some landscape professionals, seem to think you can plant one anywhere and it will survive.

Ravaged by a severe winter and not sited properly, this boxwood needs help.

This poor boxwood has definitely seen better days but it’s not too surprising when you realize all the adverse site conditions it encounters that it is not meant to endure. Located on a hot sunny corner of a busy street leading to one of our best beaches, this boxwood is exposed to tons of traffic, damaging salt and wind from the Long Island Sound just across the street, and the effects road salt in the winter. The sad fact is that every few years, I see dying boxwoods like this one replaced with new healthy ones.  And the cycle of ‘wrong plant, difficult place’ continues.

When asked to help solve the mystery of the dying boxwood, I launch into a mini-lecture about how native plants are often great choices for difficult planting sites like this one. Because they’re adapted to our soil and climate conditions, a properly choosen native plant can be a key component to gardening success.

As a landscape designer, my first suggestion is not to plant any shrub in that location. Why not go with a native grass, like switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)?  The cultivar ‘Heavy Metal’ with its steely blue foliage or ‘Shenandoah’ with its red-tinged foliage would be a colorful accent in front of the stone column and would offer food and shelter to local wildlife, especially if left standing over the winter. Not to mention, switchgrass is suited for those extreme site conditions.

Inkberry, a native evergreen, can b a great alternative to boxwood

No, it seems an evergreen shrub is the only answer. So my next suggestion is another native plant, inkberry (Ilex glabra). An evergreen holly, inkberry can deal with all the adverse site conditions the boxwood could not and it offers some additional benefits. In addition to adding some much-needed bio-diversity to the garden, inkberry berries (plants are dioecious so you’ll need a male and female for berry production) are a favorite of birds like robins, blue jays, northern cardinals and woodpeckers, to name a few.

After a little silence comes a comment I often hear, ‘native plants, I thought they were just for meadows or, you know, the woods’. Now I’ll take ‘Native Plants for Designed Gardens’ for $200, Alex.

© 2011 – 2012, Debbie Roberts. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    I ripped out my boxwood foundation planting and put in inkberry last year! Still lookin’ pretty spindly, I admit, but you don’t replace a ten-year-old hedge in a day, and I’m hopeful that in time, it’ll be a much nicer planting.

    I also put in Carolina allspice flanking the steps, so I haven’t thrown away the hedge clippers just yet…

  2. says

    Great article!! So many choices..don’t judge me but I planted boxwoods that do fine until the voles saw off the bottom branches for nesting each winter…time to find a small evergreen shrub that is native..thoughts??? Oh and I do plant tons of natives…when I replace plants now I try to add only natives..

    • says

      Donna, Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. No judgements here on your use of boxwoods. I have nothing against them except when they are used in completely inappropriate settings. It’s impossible to suggest native plants without knowing where you garden and what your site coditions are. if you let me know I’ll be happy to try andsuggest something.
      Debbie Roberts recently posted..Earth Day Reading Project

  3. says

    Debbie, isn’t it tough sometimes to sell clients on natives? I’ll often describe the plant to them, wait till they’re fully “sold”, then exclaim, “and they’re actually native to this area, so they even feed our local birds and contribute to the ecosystem!” I find if I tell someone that “our native such and such” would be ideal before sharing the characteristics that make it so, their eyes often glaze. Why do natives get such a bad rap? Many stand alongside our cultivated plants with ease.
    Genevieve recently posted..Giveaway and Book Excerpt- Garden Rules – The Snappy Synopsis for the Modern Gardener

    • says

      Gen, The first time I talked about the benefits of using native plants in one of my classes I started off with the ecological/environmental benefits and I could almost see the class falling asleep right in front of me. So I asked them to raise their hands if they wanted to see more birds & butterflies in their gardens and, as expected, everyone’s hand shot up. That was a powerful lesson about marketing and PR!
      Debbie Roberts recently posted..Earth Day Reading Project

  4. says

    I like reading about native substitutions for inappropriate plants, and you gave two great ones here: a totally different look with a grass that would suit better, and a replacement look with a native that looks similar. That should be a regular feature: “plant this, not that” and give a two-option replacement plan, one design that is completely different and one that looks similar. That would be so educational for native newbies!
    Laurrie recently posted..Books for Earth Day

  5. TexasFire says

    Folks here in Texas (even north Texas) seem to like palm trees, and plant them on their property or at the entrance to new developments. Time and time again, I see them die. They appear to be the tropical palms with the conspicuous trunks…not the cold-tolerant palms (dwarf palmettos) that are native to places like Dallas County.

    Glad that I joined my local chapter of Native Plant Society of Texas.

  6. Pam Allen says

    I think the reason most people don’t think native plants are good is because they imagine them as weeds that need to be cleared off of a property before they can plant “real” landscaping.
    Personally I like Oregon grape and I always thought dandelions were beautiful. Now if I could just get to all those yummy blackberries in the middle of the heap of blackberries in the vacant lot next door. lol Blackberry jam here I come!
    Pam Allen recently posted..Big Decisions – Input Please!!

    • says

      Pam, I think you’re exactly right. For so many people, native = weed = bad. Slowly but surely, we’re starting to turn attitudes around though. That’s why it’s so wonderful that Carole started this blog to get the message out to a wider audience.
      Debbie Roberts recently posted..Earth Day Reading Project


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