July is here and I’m pulling the plug on the boxwood. It’s tough to do considering they’ve lined my front walk for over a decade and never once have they looked like this. A brutal winter left me with toasted boxwoods, otherwise known as winter burn. I’m not alone though and that’s some consolation. The Chicago Botanic Garden and the Morton Arboretum have reported significant losses in their boxwood collections. Misery loves company. At least this time I’m not to blame. Most of my neighbors with boxwood have taken the same hit, as have my customers at the garden center. They often come in with a photo or sprig of golden boxwood wondering, their voices full of concern, what to do to “green them up.”
For the lucky few, time will work wonders and the boxwood may slowly recover. For others, like me, the writing is on the wall. These things are toast. I’m bummed and faced with a conundrum. What to plant in their place?
What Is Winter Burn?
While all plants can be affected by winter burn, broad leaved evergreens like boxwood can be the hardest hit. It has everything to do with evaporation. A larger leaf surface allows for more water vapor to escape from the plant, even during the winter months. To replace the lost water, the plant must pull water up from the roots. Frozen ground makes that impossible, so the plant dehydrates. Throw in a few sunny, warm days followed by pummeling North wind and the evaporation process goes full throttle. The result, in my garden, reminds me of a bad dye job.
While my experience has been on the extreme end of things, others may only have to cut out the dead parts and be patient. Winter burn is most common on west and south sides of plants. My hedge is on the north side of my home. Cold winds, which increase desiccation, relentlessly slam it from November to late March (usually). This year was an exception. It remained wicked cold through April and into May. A few warm sunny days peppered in there did nothing but wreak havoc on the struggling hedge.
How To Deal With Winter Burn
The blame doesn’t fall entirely on Old Man Winter. I share some of it since I don’t usually stay on top of watering as the months get colder. My husband turns off the outdoor spigots sometime before Thanksgiving. So the lesson in this, as there is a lesson in every failure even if it’s not entirely yours, is blame your husband! No seriously, it comes down to watering. I should have been watering the evergreens, especially the boxwoods. I have yews and arborvitae, too, but they came out of this unscathed.
If winter burn was minor, simply cut out the dead with disinfected pruners to minimize the chance of spreading disease. More extreme cases may require taking it to the ground if there’s evidence of live growth in the area. Boxwoods recover slowly so if patience is your shortcoming, good luck. I have seen some green growth coming through here and there along my 12-foot hedge but not enough to warrant prolonging the inevitable. Without further ado, they’re coming out just as soon as I can find the time.
This is tough since I’ll be lamenting the loss for some time. But replacing the hedge is a necessity as I can’t imagine the front entrance without it. I’m hesitant to go the boxwood route again with all the concern over winter burn and boxwood blight. I’m linking to Erin at The Impatient Gardener as I think she did an excellent job explaining boxwood blight and how to identify it. She gardens in Wisconsin, a similar albeit slightly colder climate than mine.
I’m curious about a new introduction from Proven Winners, Strongbox Inkberry Holly, and placed a call to one of their representatives to inquire about it. They sent me a sample which I will be planting once the boxwoods are removed. My only reservation is that the plant prefers acidic soils to my VERY alkaline digs. With the exception of my arborvitae, every spring the yews receive a dose of Holly-tone organic fertilizer for acid loving plants. I’ll follow suit with this inkberry and report back next year. Like boxwood, Strongbox is evergreen and takes to pruning. It’s supposed to be of little interest to deer and rabbits. Native to North America, it’s resistant to disease and unaffected by winter burn.
As with all things in the garden, time will tell.
Did winter do a number on a beloved plant in your garden?