When it comes to hedge-spoiling infections, Box blight tends to steal the headlines, but we predict this will be overshadowed by a new terror thanks to the rapid spread of the Box tree caterpillar. This buxus hedge munching menace has been merrily chewing its way across the country, leaving a trail of skeletonized bushes in its wake. The caterpillar’s presence in the UK was first recorded in the South East in 2011 but in recent years its territorial spread has increased considerably. This year it reached the West Country in earnest, spending the summer months trashing neat Georgian box hedges in our home towns of Bath and Frome.
Once the caterpillars infest a plant (borne by small white moths) they can be very tricky to control, and the only chemical free method we’ve found is to make like a green-fingered nit nurse and extract the bugs by hand. The caterpillars hatch twice a year and, unless you rid them in autumn, they will happily bed themselves down amongst cocooned leaves and commence their feasting the following spring. Despite our best efforts, most of our prized, plant pot-dwelling box hedges have fallen foul to the greedy green menace, leaving behind brutalized branches that have sadly reached the point of no return.
So we’ve dug out our dead plants and have been researching the best buxus hedge alternatives to replace them. Here’s three of the best…
You could be forgiven for overlooking the yew for trendier hedges that give off a less ‘vicarage vibe’, but taxus baccata is a perennial favorite amongst garden designers who cherish it for its topiary-tastic properties. The yew is an absolute dream to cut, with its soft, needle-like leaves making it easy to achieve straight lines and sculptural shapes. You’ll often see yew trees used to form huge hedges but, on a small scale, a well-managed yew bush is perfect for hedges and individual pot-based feature plants. Trim yew twice a year, in early June and again in September/early October. Give it a try instead of buxus, YEW won’t be disappointed.
Hebe ‘Green Globe’ Shrubs
Caterpillars looking for a buxus banquet will get the hebe-jeebies if they try and chow down on this box-like hedge. Its close knitted branches bear compact, vibrant leaves, making it an easy plant to clip into architectural shapes. Hebe shrubs are generally very hardy and will grow in most soil types, needing relatively little maintenance, which make them ideal for planting as low hedging. Just trim back in spring to keep things neat and tidy. Hebes also bear small white flowers during the summer months which will attract bees, butterflies and other friendlier, less destructive pollinating moths than our aforementioned nemesis.
Japanese Holly Tree
Unlike the spiky-edged native Ilex aquifolium, the Japanese holly tree sports small, rounded leaves that grow on dense, woody twigs, which make it an ideal alternative to buxus hedges. Expect a flush of small white flowers in summer, followed by purple/black fruits on the female plants come autumn. Don’t be tempted to plunge its sloe-like berries into booze and pies however; they are mildly toxic so leave them for the birds to snaffle. Take care when pruning Japanese holly trees, as new growth is susceptible to frosts. Simply shape with shears in mid to late spring and your shrub will grow thick and verdant.
What hedges do you grow in your garden? What do you think is the best alternative to box hedging? Let us know in the comments below.