Although boxwoods (Buxus spp.) regularly come to mind as classic plants for hedges and accents, they have a few issues and many people don't care for them. Boxwoods were brought to North America from Europe in the mid-17th century, giving the genus the nickname "Man's Oldest Garden Ornamental," notes The American Boxwood Society. The more common species and cultivars grow in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 9, with variances among types. Several other plants make worthy substitutes, especially if you don't care for boxwoods.
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Boxwoods are generally hardy and low-maintenance, which adds to their continued use. But they are susceptible to a few pests and diseases, notably boxwood blight, a fungal disease that's problematic in several states. Many people also do not like the smell of boxwoods, which some compare to ammonia or cat urine.
Holly (Ilex spp.) looks similar to boxwood and several cultivars can stand in boxwood's place. Hollies have evergreen, broad-leafed foliage and many tolerate shearing and shaping, like the common boxwoods grown as hedges or specimens.
Japanese holly and its cultivars (Ilex crenata cvs.), which grow in USDA zones 5 through 7, earned "best (boxwood) look-alike" from Ken Cote of Indiana's Department of Natural Resources. Japanese holly has glossy green leaves, much like boxwood.
Japanese holly is considered invasive in parts of the U.S.
Inkberry (Ilex glabra), which grows in USDA zones 5 through 9, can also stand in for boxwood. Unlike Japanese holly, inkberry is native to the U.S. and makes a smart choice for a casual hedge or accent plant. Pick an inkberry cultivar that best matches the boxwood you're trying to replace.
Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) grows in USDA zones 3 through 7 and is native to eastern North America. Bayberry is deciduous in cooler climates but stays green year-round in warmer zones. Its rounded leaves look similar to longer boxwood leaves.
Like boxwood, bayberry tolerates both full sun and partial shade. It does best in dry to medium soils. Don't prune it -- let it grow into a handsome, informal hedge.
Eastern arborvitaes (Thuja occidentalis), which grow in USDA zones 2 through 8, depending on cultivar, also come in a variety of sizes and shapes to complement nearly any yard style. Although they don't shear as well as boxwood, many naturally grow into distinctive shapes, such as globular or conical. Some reach around 1 foot tall while others may tower at 30 or more feet. Many arborvitaes have feathery foliage as opposed to the needles of conifers or glossy, rounded leaves of boxwood.
Mr. Bowling Ball arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis 'Bobazam') grows in USDA zones 2 through 7 and reaches 1 to 3 feet tall. This variety grows into a nearly perfect globe, making it a solid choice for a low-maintenance group planting or low hedge in a formal garden.
Arborvitae's feathery leaves offer you both the density needed for a hedge or screen, and texture for complementing your home or other plants.
Substitute: Needled Evergreens
Both spruces (Picea spp.) and junipers (Juniperus spp.) can make good stand-ins for boxwood, particularly as looser hedges or specimen plants.
Dwarf Norway spruces, such as 'Pumila' spruce (Picea abies 'Pumila') provide dense, green needles and short, compact growth habits. 'Pumila' reaches 2 to 4 feet tall and grows in USDA zones 3 through 7.
'Blue Vase' Chinese juniper (Juniperus chinensis 'Blue Vase') reaches 4 to 5 feet tall and grows in USDA zones 4 through 9. This adaptable Chinese juniper makes a useful specimen or accent plant. You can also use it as a focal point when placed along borders or foundations.