To lend formality and structure to a garden, nothing beats a boxwood hedge. And formal hedges needn’t be boring, as these views illustrate.
Left to its own devices, a boxwood tree can become quite monumental. There’s one in Belgium that stands 24 feet tall, and one in Turkey with a girth of more than six feet. But the greatest virtue of Buxus sempervirens is its willingness to be subdued. Shorn often, a boxwood tree can be kept, bonsai-like, as compact as you like. And it can be trained into most any shape, all the while retaining a dense, lush surface of evergreen leaves, which is why boxwood has been the plant of choice since the Renaissance for creating garden hedges. Hundreds of individual box trees can be grown together and clipped into a twisting knot garden, creating the visual impression of a single, continuous, spectacular plant just inches high.
Whether trained into precise rectangles or sinuous curves, boxwood hedges have no substitute for lending formality and structure—not to mention winter interest—to the garden. A typical aesthetic use of box hedges is to form living borders or containers for other plantings. Within an enclosure of boxwood, garden designers (and cooks) like to plant herbs and other perennials. In the foreground of the picture below, drifts of catmint fill the space inside the hedge. On the previous spread, at the 4 and 8 o’clock positions, silvery sage is fairly bursting forth from boxwood borders.
This practice has provided the yin and yang of European-style gardening for hundreds of years: The formality of boxwood borders is softened by blousy, billowing herbs and flowering perennials. It’s a timeless look, and with care, such a garden can be almost literally timeless. Visit Gunston Hall, the home of George Mason in Fairfax County, Virginia, and you’ll see the same boxwood hedges that the Founding Father planted more than 250 years ago. These specimens are practically adolescent compared to the boxwood in the Place Pierre Corneille in Maucomble, France, which were planted circa 1453. Oh, and there’s one more benefit of box hedges for garden-minded residents of the Northeast U.S.: Boxwood is utterly deer resistant. The critters can’t stand the taste of it, so there’s no need to worry about unauthorized nighttime shearing of the hedges.