A friend who read my last post enquired about alternatives to poor benighted box (Buxus sempervirens) – under attack from munching, web-spinning caterpillars (Cydalima perspectalis) and from rampaging blight (Cylindrocladium buxicola).
Time to confess: I don’t have a single Buxus in my own garden. Though I admire them hugely in other peoples’ plots, I find them infuriatingly slow-growing and too fiddly by far for my slap-dash style of gardening. But clients tend to think of box as an essential ingredient of any garden in Italy, so I oblige them… urging immense patience, to which I can now add dire warnings of impending decimation.
Clearly I’d never advise ripping out box unless it really was absolutely a hopelessly lost cause: venerability and perseverance on the part of this beautiful plant should be rewarded with all possible efforts on our part to prolong its life. But if you’ve reached the sad point where you’ve wholly lost the battle, you might like to think of replanting with alternatives.
With apologies to anyone reading in other places, I’m offering these alternatives with Italy in mind. This doesn’t mean they won’t survive elsewhere, but a bit of research will be necessary. I’m thinking hardy, evergreen and compact.
To create the kind of monumental (though now glum and bare) hedge I mentioned in that post, box would be the very very last thing that would ever spring to my mind. Depending on the effect I wanted, I’d go for –
Laurus nobilis (bay) which may be a bit obvious but I find its magnificent dark lustre extremely elegant. By bay I mean bay, and not the hugely uninspiring – though inexplicably popular – Prunus lauruscerasus (common laurel) which is unquestionably one of my least favourite plants; or
Eleagnus x ebbingei (Ebbinge’s silverberry) with its silvery sheen, and magnificent-smelling late summer flowers; or
Lonicera nitida (Wilson’s honeysuckle – the green one and not the tacky yellow or variegated ones) which is rather charming as a floppy bushy hedge but it can be clipped into shape too; or
Myrtus communis (myrtle) which is a wonderful fresh green, smells delicious and – if you choose not to clip it too efficiently – also gives the prettiest of white sunburst flowers.
These are all gratifyingly quick-growing. I also love the dark mystery of Taxus baccata (yew) but it’s far from swift. Much like Ilex crenata (Japanese or box-leaved holly) – a plant I’ve never used but which I know many people swear by.
Finding things to replace Buxus in neat little boxy box hedges edging beds is more of a conundrum because there’s little that stays so low and neat, especially if you’re looking for that fresh clean green of box.
Some people manage to keep Lonicera nitida knee-high; but some people are better at remembering to prune than I am. I love the emerald green of Myrtus communis microphylla which has smaller leaves than the larger myrtle and clips beautifully.
Going towards the greyer end of the spectrum Lavandula spp (lavender) can make a great neat, low edging if you are sufficiently hard-hearted to lop off the flowers before they even appear. Teucrium x lucidrys (hedge germander) is another possibility, responding gallantly to being kept pruned back hard.