Not every shrub was meant to be Prince Hamlet. To borrow from poet T.S. Eliot, boxwood (Buxus spp.) is more an attendant lord, a broadleaf evergreen shrub gardeners use for structure and texture instead of star power. Boxwood plants are deer-resistant, drought-tolerant and accept pruning without complaint, making these green gems garden workhorses. Select a boxwood cultivar according to its growth pattern to ensure that it works well in your garden plan.
Although boxwood don't offer showy flowers or crimson autumn leaves, a big shrub makes an imposing block of lacy green foliage. If you need a boxwood to stand alone, look to common boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) with its classic, upright shape and dense, shiny, dark-green leaves. The cultivar "Arborescens" grows to 20 or more feet and can spread to 15 feet wide as it matures; it is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 8. Planted in well-drained soil, common boxwood can stand guard over your garden for 75 to 150 years.
Conical Boxwood for Hedges and Avenues
Boxwood can't compete with popular we-need-a-hedge-yesterday favorites in terms of fast growth, but a hedgerow of the small-leafed, conical evergreens can add an elegance and a sense of permanence to property. Columnar boxwood also work well in an avenue, a procession of tall trees lining a road or walkway. "Fastigiata" (Buxus sempervirens "Fastigiata"), with its tiny, dense, blue-tinged leaves, is an option for hedges and avenues. It naturally grows into a thick pillar, topping out at 12 feet high and 5 feet wide. For an equally tall but slightly narrower plant, choose "Dee Runk" (Buxus sempervirens "Dee Runk"), which spreads to 3 feet. Both cultivars are hardy in USDA zones 6 through 8.
Pyramid Shapes for Foundations
When you want to make your entrance elegant or smooth the transition from lawn to house, consider boxwood as foundation plants to soften edges and boundaries. Shrubs that grow in the shape of teardrops or soft pyramids are naturals for this role, and they include little-leaf boxwood "John Baldwin" (Buxus microphylla "John Baldwin," USDA zones 6 through 8). With fine-textured foliage and tiny leaves, it matures to 6 feet tall with a lower spread of 3 to 4 feet and a gently pointed crown. For colder climates, select "Green Mountain" (Buxus x "Green Mountain," USDA zones 4 through 8).
Boxwood Globes for Hedges
Boxwood spheres are immensely popular, the poster children of the genus. The globe-shaped shrubs work well as foundation plants and line up neatly in small or medium hedges, depending on the cultivar's mature height. "Wintergreen" (Buxus microphylla var. japonica "Wintergreen," USDA zones 6 through 8), for example, grows 2 to 4 inches per year -- faster than the average boxwood -- until it matures into a ball some 5 feet in each direction. Like most boxwood, it readily accepts pruning.
Dwarf Plants for Edging
An edging is like a ribbon of foliage crossing a lawn or garden. Any boxwood cultivar can be clipped tightly, but it's wise to select dwarf shrubs to avoid constant pruning. "Morris Midget" (Buxus microphylla var. japonica "Morris Midget," USDA zones 6 through 8) never gets much taller than 1 foot, produces dense foliage and grows 1 inch or less each year. Those traits make it perfect for edging or parterre in formal gardens, where boxwood are planted in symmetrical patterns and kept short and neat by clipping.