The first step in planning a good landscape is to decide what shape and size plant will work best for each location. Foundation beds around your house require many shapes and sizes of plants, because there are windowsills, narrow beds along walks and other special situations.
Traditional landscapers and home builders planted Taxus yews and other evergreen shrubs, depending on homeowners to constantly shear and clip the plants to contain them. Most Taxus and junipers grow much too large if left un-sheared. They will eventually outgrow foundation beds and need to be removed. Still, most homeowners prefer evergreens around the house to mask unsightly foundation block and provide a backdrop for flowering plants.
The best solution is to choose evergreens based on their final size. Narrow beds between the house and sidewalk require compact shrubs. Windowsills dictate shrubs that don’t grow too tall. House corners need upright growers that get taller, softening the corners and filling in blank spaces between windows. Rather than controlling the size and shape of shrubs by shearing, you can select plants that grow to approximately the proportions you need. This makes maintenance a breeze.
Our favorite foundation shrub by far is the boxwood. An occasional shearing for shape is all that’s needed to keep these plants looking tidy and neat, and if you choose the right ones, they’ll never outgrow the space. You can plant them close together so they’ll join in an informal hedge, or further apart so there is space between them.
Modern hybrid boxwoods are extremely hardy and free of natural pests. The best varieties stay glossy green all year round, thrive in full sun or part shade, tolerate drought and grow very evenly into a nice mounding shape. Deer won’t touch them. Their dark color flatters flowering shrubs, perennials and annuals like the neutral background of floral pattern wallpaper.
Each boxwood variety has a certain size and shape it likes to grow to, and then stop growing. “Green Velvet” and “Green Gem” form compact, almost round mounds perfect for narrow beds and under windows. “Green Mountain” forms an upright oval or pyramid three feet wide and five feet high. “Faulkner” makes an oval three feet wide and only four feet high. “Chicagoland Green,” “Winter Gem” and “Green Beauty” all form bigger plants, easily shaped into mounds four to five feet tall and wide.
For truly miniature hedges, borders or topiary, “Dwarf English” Boxwood (Buxus suffruticosa) is best. Suffruticosa boxwoods do have the distinctive “cat pee” smell that has given boxwoods a bad name, so we prefer the newer cultivars unless a true miniature is called for.
Boxwoods aren’t very picky about soil and growing conditions, but well-drained soils are best. Mix peat moss and Holly-Tone fertilizer into the planting soil, and mulch to keep the soil moist. Water regularly until the plants are well rooted. Once established, Boxwoods are extremely drought tolerant. They are not disease-prone and don’t attract insect pests.
We’ve yet to find a more cooperative compact shrub for almost any style of landscaping. If you’re just pulling out some overgrown, out-of-control Taxus, or starting from scratch with nothing, Boxwoods are a great place to start. Just figure out the shapes and sizes that will flatter your house best, and pick the boxwood that naturally grows just that way.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers.” He can be reached at 937-587-7021 or firstname.lastname@example.org.