Like so many gardeners, I’m a huge fan of box. Its neat, clipped form brings classic elegance and structure all year round – especially welcome in winter, when the bones of a garden are what really matter. A dusting of frost gives a shapely group of box balls a bewitching quality. Topped with a sparkling cap of snow, their sculptural lines fatten out, becoming rounder, softer, and even more magical.
The glossy, close-knit foliage of box is a brilliant foil for spring-flowering bulbs in pale colours: white tulips, custard-yellow daffodils and white hyacinths look fabulous planted by a box hedge or within a parterre. A pair of box cones or spirals make the perfect sentries either side of a front door, and work just as well with modern or traditional architecture.
Box is happy in both sandy and clay soils, it thrives in shade, and it’s low maintenance, needing just a couple of clips a year to keep its shape neat and sharp. Hardly surprising, then, that its popularity is centuries old. Perhaps the best place to see exactly what can be done with box is at Levens Hall in Cumbria, where the topiary gardens were set out in the 1690s (they’re the oldest in the world and some of the trees and shrubs are over 300 years old). If you’ve never been, pencil it in for spring when the gates re-open at the end of April. You’ll be amazed by the fantastical characters they’ve managed to sculpt from box and yew, among them peacocks, chess pieces umbrellas and even a lion.
But it’s a sad old time for box lovers right now, especially in the south-east. I’d heard plenty of friends and neighbours tell of the invasion of the box caterpillar into their gardens, but all through last summer it seemed I was safe. It was on a post-holiday garden inspection at the end of August that I spotted those unmistakable signs. And I admit I was close to tears. The teeny box balls I’d planted 10 years ago, now nearly a metre high, were sad, moth-eaten (well, caterpillar-munched) shadows of their former selves. Large patches were bare, leaves were browned and crisp, and when I looked closer I could clearly see the webbing – a kind of protective tent spun by the caterpillars when they feed. Closer still and I saw the caterpillars themselves, greeny yellow with black stripes.
I’m not a fan of chemicals in the garden, but in a fit of pique I grabbed a bottle of bug killer from the back of the shed and started spraying. What you notice straightaway is that the feeble jet just doesn’t penetrate those thick webs, so it’s probably pointless as well as harmful to the environment. A few days later, when my cat came in scratching her ears like a maniac, I convinced myself I’d poisoned her, so resolved to find a better way to combat these snot-green beasts. The Royal Horticultural Society advises removing the caterpillars by hand. I tried, but kept dropping them down the centre of my box balls. So I sulked for a while. Then decided to go for their second non-chemical recommendation of pheromone moth traps. I’ll put them up in spring and we’ll see how effective they are. I’ve heard encouraging reports…
The caterpillar, combined with blight, have hit box hard right across the country. Even at Levens Hall their low edging is now clipped Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) rather than box. But this is good news. If you don’t fancy your chances against the double box threat, it’s one of the best alternatives you’ll find. Like box, it’s evergreen. The foliage is very similar – small, glossy leaves tightly packed onto a compact mesh of branches – and it’s tough, and similarly slow growing, so needs only an annual haircut. I’ve used it in my front garden, where it provides good structure among perennial planting of hardy geraniums, sisyrinchiums, salvias, alliums and irises.
For hedges with that classic English garden appeal, yew is a great alternative, growing tall and dense, and offering endless creative topiary possibilities, as well as a great structural backbone to a garden. It’s probably the best evergreen foil to every kind of bulb, flowering perennial or richly coloured shrub.
For something a little looser, try Viburnum tinus. It’s evergreen, with the added appeal of scented white winter flowers. Plant it as a hedge or use as an anchoring focal point, dotted among your borders. Clipped back after flowering it can be kept to a neat rounded shrub.
Or keep going with the box, and if you’re trying out some of the various blight/caterpillar controls, let me know how you get on… Good luck.
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer