Plant This: Winter Gem boxwood

Winter is when you really appreciate the evergreens in your garden, even in green-winter places like central Texas. While I rely heavily on non-shrub evergreens like agave, yucca, and sotol, I also have a soft spot for oh-so-English boxwood, specifically the cultivar ‘Winter Gem’ (Buxus sinica var. insularis ‘Winter Gem’), planted here as “gate posts” marking the four entrances to my stock-tank pond garden.

The name ‘Winter Gem’ attests to its relative cold hardiness. That’s not an issue in Austin, of course. We’re more concerned with a plant’s heat tolerance. Happily, ‘Winter Gem’ holds up exceedingly well in Texas summers too, at least in part sun and dappled shade. I’ve not tested it in full sun.

‘Winter Gem’ is fairly petite, maturing at 2 to 3 feet tall and wide, which makes it more useful as an accent or for low hedging than as a screening shrub. Forget using it as a mustache-hedge across the front of the house.

Instead, accent a loose planting of meadowy sedge or silver lamb’s ear with a clipped boxwood ball. Or add a little structure, as I did, by formally pairing boxwood balls on each side of a path entrance.

Or go all out and create a looping design with clipped boxwood in a gravel garden, as James David and Gary Peese did in their Austin garden. (I don’t know if they used ‘Winter Gem’, but one could.)

Although boxwood is often maligned as a fussy, poodle-dog sort of plant, I find ‘Winter Gem’ quite easy to maintain with a light clipping once or twice a year. Its emerald-green color looks equally nice with blue-green yuccas and yellow-green grasses, and its small leaves and tight, architectural form contrast beautifully with blowsy perennials or grasses. What’s more, deer tend to leave it alone.

Its biggest drawback may be how slowly it grows. I planted my “gate post” plants (from 1-gallon pots) five years ago, as seen in this photo. They are just now reaching the size I’d planned for; see the top two photos in this post. (For a time-machine trip back to this garden’s earliest incarnation, click here; the layout hasn’t changed, but I eventually ripped out the circular lawn and put in the pond and sunburst path.)

As for boxwood blight — from what I’ve read, a serious concern for gardeners along the East Coast — it doesn’t (yet) seem to be a problem in Texas. In researching this post I learned that ‘Winter Gem’ and other Korean box cultivars may have some natural resistance, as do mature plants. I’d definitely try to buy from a Texas grower like Greenleaf (you’ll see their tags on certain plants at Barton Springs Nursery and other independent nurseries) rather than from the big-box stores, where plants may be shipped in from regions affected by the blight.

Note: My Plant This posts are written primarily for gardeners in central Texas. The plants I recommend are ones I’ve grown myself and have direct experience with. I wish I could provide more information about how these plants might perform in other parts of the country, but gardening knowledge is local. Consider checking your local online gardening forums to see if a particular plant might work in your region.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

15 Responses

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    I have seen winter gem for sale around here. I have several boxwoods in my garden. They are hardy and don’t need much trimming unless you are shooting for a ‘shape’.

  2. ca says:

    Do you have suggestions for something similar but fast growing shrubs/trees. Need shades in my garden.

  3. Pam,designing most often here in the northeast, I can attest to the hardiness of “Green Gem”. A great little boxwood that most times will fill the bill as a small hedge or accent. Thank you for reminding readers to seek out local grown plants when possible. Maryanne

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Thanks for your comment, Maryanne. Yep, locally grown plants are always preferable. For us it means plants that are suited to our long, hot summers and alkaline soils. —Pam

  4. Nancy says:

    I’m an Austin native and have also lived in Tucson so the arid landscape plants in your blog set my heart a-tripping. We now live in northern Virginia where Boxwood blight is becoming a big sad problem. I’m glad you alerted readers to the issue and want to support your advice that people stick to locally grown plants from careful nurseries if they’re adding Boxwood to their gardens.

  5. I think I should have planted this kind, instead of the dwarf yaupon, which has done next to nothing.
    This year is their last chance.
    I’ll put this boxwood on my ever growing list.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I wondered if any local readers would suggest dwarf yaupon as a native alternative to boxwood, which it certainly can be. I like the dwarf yaupon too, although it’s not as elegant and easily shaped as boxwood. It is, however, exceedingly tough. I’m surprised your yaupons are slow to fill in. And here I thought boxwood was slow! —Pam

  6. Lara Leaf says:

    I have always loved boxwood. Love the structure they add to a mixed garden. I do not like a garden that only has ‘summer’ plants or one that is only formal (unless it’s one of those fabulous English ones!).

    When you toured Peckerwood Gardens, do you remember seeing a screen of taxus there, about 7 to 10 feet tall? These were not the Japanese yews commonly planted around here. Our guide indicated they were the ‘real’ yews, Taxus baccata. (haha, a taxus in Texas) I was so excited to see them but never saw them in a nursery. I love the large yews and boxwood you see in England.

  7. I like those. They would do well here in the winter too. I already have the gray lamb’s ears to go with it.

  8. commonweeder says:

    Alas – white is the only color in my winter garden. Even the evergreens are covered.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      What a cold, white winter it’s been for so much of the country, Commonweeder. At least you’re getting lots of moisture out of it. We could use some rain (as always) here in Texas. —Pam