Healthier Boxwoods (and Free Holiday Greenery!)

IMG_1701Boxwoods often get a bad rap for being fussy and highbrow – shrubs more befitting Versailles than a New Jersey backyard. Not so, I say! We have at least 5 different varieties of boxwood in our yard (there are about 70 in the Buxus family), and they’re much more Sallie Sue than Marie Antoinette.  These well-mannered evergreen shrubs provide year-round structure in a landscape, and don’t demand much in return. As an added bonus, if you open-prune them in early December, they’ll reward you with free holiday greenery and healthy new growth come spring. 

A half-circle of 'Green Velvet' boxwood surround a 'Prairie Fire' crab apple tree.

A half-circle of ‘Green Velvet’ boxwood (in need of pruning!) surrounds a ‘Prairie Fire’ crab apple tree.

Open-pruning is a simple method of cutting openings into a shrub, so that light can enter and air can circulate. This is different from shearing, where only the tips of the shrub are cut. Since all of our boxwoods are left to grow in their natural state (i.e., not sheared into shapes), an open-pruning once a year is all that’s necessary to keep them contained to a nice roundish shape. (See the USDA’s link about Boxwood thinning here.)

Making a cut about 10" into a boxwood.

Open-pruning in action: Making a cut about 12″ into the shrub. (Length will depend on the variety and size of the boxwood.)


You would think that this would make big holes in the boxwoods. Surprisingly, the cuts are barely noticeable as long as you don’t get carried away. Think scalpel vs. guillotine. (Sorry, Marie.) Here’s a row of boxwoods before I pruned them:

Boxwoods before open pruning . . .

Boxwoods before open-pruning . . .

And then after pruning almost 2 garbage bags’ worth of branches:

Boxwoods after pruning.

Boxwoods after pruning.

Can’t really tell, can you?


So what to do with all the cuttings? Get crafty! They’ll stay green and fresh for a month or more outdoors, even without water. I’ll stash most of the cuttings outside my backdoor, and then bring them in for various projects throughout the month. For use inside I’ll arrange the branches in water or wet foam, but the cuttings will stay green even if left to dry.

Outside I use the cuttings to create instant faux-piaries. For example, here’s a pot of dead annuals. Not very attractive.

So long, summer.

So long, summer.

Cut off the dead foliage, and (assuming the soil hasn’t frozen solid yet) insert the longest and sturdiest boxwood cuttings until the pot is full. Magnifique!


Because this pot should not stay outdoors all winter, I move it to a more protected location for the month of December.


Next up: maybe a boxwood wreath. What will you do with your boxwood cuttings?

4 thoughts on “Healthier Boxwoods (and Free Holiday Greenery!)

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