I'm often surprised how well plants cope with gardeners' attempts to mould them. But few respond as enthusiastically to shaping as the humble box plant, Buxus sempervirens. It's often the green brickwork holding together the formal planting of both stately homes and handkerchief gardens alike.
Box is happy forming knot gardens, geometric topiary shapes and even trees. Left to its own devices, it can attain heights of up to ten metres. But that requires a lot of leaving! I recently cut down a box tree that was about five metres tall.
The wood is creamy colour (it was sometimes used as a substitute for ivory) and it has faint growth rings. Gauging its age isn't easy but that specimen was at least 158 years old, pre-dating the American Civil War! And I've heard of specimens more than twice that age.
Box timber is highly sought after. It's turned into skittles, tools and handles, for musical instruments like recorders, bagpipes and in violin pegs. It's suitable for fine carving like chess pieces and decorative box work, hence the common name.
It's easy to create your own Box hedge. It tolerates most conditions, except heavy poorly-drained soil. This time of year, plants can be bought quite cheaply as bare root specimens. Allow up to 30cm between plants. For the smallest, most compact hedges, choose B.microphylla or B.'suffruticosa'. These can be planted just 15cms apart.
Unfortunately Box hedges are not free from pest and disease. Make sure you clear fallen box leaves to prevent the spread of a nasty fungal disease called box blight, which can wipe out a whole hedge. Spider mite and scale bugs can also be problem. In recent years the Box tree moth has arrived on our shores. Watch out for webs containing black, white and yellow grubs.
Superstition has it that surrounding your herbs with Box hedging will protect them from thieving witches, a very important consideration in 21st Britain!