Snip Snippety Snip – Boxwood Trimming

No matter who joins me in the garden, I’m always asked who takes care of the pruning and maintenance, implying that perhaps I have a staff of gardeners living above the garden studio. To this, I proudly respond, “Now that would be yours truly.” Because I personally tend to my garden and have taken the time to plant each and every shrub, I subscribe to one simple rule… if I can carry it, I’m going to plant it. Okay, so I have been known to push the envelope occasionally, but it’s only because I’m a Taurus and we are stubborn (in a good way). Truth be told, I have never craved the luxury of having someone do it for me. While my garden is a reflection of my own personal style, it is often referred to as an “English Garden.” People are often bewildered that I personally prune all of my boxwood that surrounds my home. One might think with all these boxwood I would have a garden as far as the eye can see, but in fact, it’s less than a quarter acre. Needless to say, for its official “size” it is loaded with boxwood which anchors the entire property. They are for me, the foundation of any four season garden. The classic boxwood (Buxus) is an excellent shrub that can be used in many different ways. Often used as a border, boxwood adds an evergreen pop to a formal or casual garden making it come to life even in the dead of winter. No matter how you incorporate this fantastic evergreen, it will in time, require your attention for pruning. The first new growth will start just before the flowers arrive. Who knew that boxwood produces flowers? Because they are so small, these flowers are rarely ever noticeable.

Every year I look forward to giving my boxwood a fresh, redefined look. This is no simple task as it requires two full days. The time that for me is well worth it because of the year-round pleasure they bring. Winter, spring, summer and fall, this evergreen with its tiny, dense green leaves provides the perfect backdrop to my English garden design and provides a solid foundation on which to build any garden. And because the boxwood is available in just about every nursery and in a variety of price points, they can be worked into any garden budget. It’s just a question of what size will work best. Small or large, there is a boxwood waiting to go home with you. Many of my neighbors have discovered my love affair and have succumbed to the boxwood craze. A casual walk down my street validates this statement.

So, how does one learn how to prune a boxwood so that it looks professional? Is there a school of snip snippy snip? Not exactly, but that’s a reasonable question which I can answer with confidence. Mar is here! But first, you might ask why you should even consider the boxwood for your garden knowing that there is maintenance involved. I’m so glad you asked. I should be the official publicist for the boxwood. It seems that no matter who I’m talking to about my garden, their garden or any garden, I’m always referring to the boxwood for two good reasons: the deer don’t eat them and they can be easily trimmed into just about any shape to suit any garden design. It may take some time to create a poodle look if you are so inclined, but the rewards are amazing. Enough about my obsession with the boxwood. Let’s get to the real reason you’re reading this article — Basic Maintenance of Boxwood. 

Like Michelangelo sculpting the statue of David, the shape you want is already in your boxwood. I have perfected my pruning skills over the years and you will too. Here are a few basic tips for trimming and maintaining the boxwood.

For the best results, I recommend a sharp, hand-held hedge clipper with rubber handles as it will provide you with the most comfort, the best control and will force you to take your time. There are two ways I hold my hedge clipper: face up or face down. I use the face down technique when I’m following an existing circle and face up when I’m making a straight or specific cut.

If you are not good at cutting straight lines, place a stake at several intervals and mark the stake with the hedge height. Run a string between the stakes and use this as a guide for cutting. In time you will be able to trim the boxwood without using stakes. You will probably need to trim new growth several times over the summer to maintain that perfect hedge shape. Never trim after the fall, only during the growing season.

Your hand-held clippers have two areas to cut from — the top 2-inch area of the blade for small direct cuts or the entire blade for larger coverage cuts. For round-shaped boxwood, I use the entire blade starting at the top and working my way down from side to side. Along the way, I take frequent breaks to step back and check the overall look and shape. I return back along the hedge to make any adjustments that are needed. There is no need for perfection here so doesn’t stress about it. What you need to remember is that you are training it to take its shape and grow evenly, so it can develop into its new shape.

A special note — boxwood that needs to be pruned several times within the season probably should be moved or replaced with a smaller variety. There is small boxwood that stays under two feet and taller ones that can grow to fifteen feet. Getting the right one for your garden will ease the maintenance process. Choose your boxwood carefully understanding their particular growth habits and any space restrictions you may have. When in doubt, read their label!

If your boxwood is immature and still growing into their maximum height, you will want to let the new growth remain for a year or two so that it gets established before you introduce it to the hedge clippers. Remember the first time someone came at you with a pair of scissors? In any event, less is more. Step back from time to time to review your progress always knowing that you can take more off if necessary. Chopping too vigorously will only make matters worse and create mistakes. Only trim the areas necessary to reshape its existing shape, never using this time as a form of therapy to relieve your frustrations. Chopping off too much at one time is never good for the boxwood and may traumatize the plant and ultimately cause you to loose it! Not a good thing. I personally take my time and allow two full days in June or July just after the new growth begins to turn dark green color matching the rest of the shrub. Once I notice that the new growth turns, I’m ready to begin. I find this to be the best time to prune off the new growth and begin to reshape into a new design.

I prefer to start in the early morning in the areas that have shade first. I follow the shade as I work my way throughout the garden. You don’t want to leave the clippings behind so it helps if you have someone, perhaps a neighbor’s kid, or a friend to follow behind and gather the clippings. These clippings are not a mulch alternative so leaving them behind is not an option. Because I don’t have helpers and ironically, all my friends seem to disappear around this time, I wait until the end of the day to gather all the clippings, walking around with one extra large garbage bag. If you’re lucky enough to have a compost pile you can put the clippings there. Lucky you! You will always have a tad of rubbish left behind but you should try to remove as much as possible with a rake and if necessary, with your hands.

Whether or not you have an English style garden, there’s always a place for boxwood in any garden design. Lastly, remember to fertilize twice a year with Holly-tone 4-6-4. Rich in natural organics Holly-tone is the best combination of nutritional ingredients for acid-loving plants including hollies, azaleas, dogwoods, rhododendrons and any other evergreen. One cannot have a garden without Holly-tone!

And there you have it.