Form and Formality: positive developments in the wake of the box problems

Fastigiate Hornbeam with Yew topiary © Isabelle van Groeningen

Fastigiate Hornbeam with Yew topiary

Since quite a few years we have known that the fungal infection that causes Box Blight paired with the caterpillar that is rapidly spreading across northern Europe, would put a stop to the widespread use of box in our gardens. We have stopped planting box in our design projects about six years ago. Where substantial old plantings were present, we have retained them, but have not added more to it.

Nurseries are producing interesting box-alternatives

We are permanently looking for suitable (hardy) alternatives to use as hedging but we are also on the lookout for plants that will work well as formal structural elements. Two members of our garden team went off on their annual nursery tour last week, looking out special trees and shrubs for next season. They excitedly reported back on their finds. As always, they were successful and found some interesting new things. It is encouraging to see how many growers are experimenting with alternative plants that can be shaped into formal shapes like balls, drops, pyramids, columnar spires, as well as espaliers, arches and multi-stemmed cloud-pruned trees.

Alternatives to Yew and Box

For centuries Yew and Box have been widely used to create formally trimmed shapes. They are indeed wonderful as they allow themselves to be clipped into razor-sharp shapes, which is wonderful but can also look quite severe, especially on wet, dull wintery days. The slightly more diffuse outlines of non-evergreen plants often create a more relaxed impression.

Malus 'Evereste' in winter © Isabelle van Groeningen

Malus ‘Evereste’ in winter

So many flowering trees and shrubs can be manipulated into formal structural elements, creating great shapes whilst offering valuable flower, fruit and even autumn colour. These seasonal highlights create a much more dynamic feeling in the garden. Particularly in smaller gardens where each plant has to work hard in order to deserve its space, these added touches can make a lot of difference.

Beech (Fagus sylvatica) and Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)


Carpinus betulus 'Fastigiata' © Isabelle van Groeningen

Carpinus betulus ‘Fastigiata’

The coppery winter leaves of beech have long been used in gardens, as they create a wonderful contrast with evergreen elements on bright sunny winter days. This in my opinion makes Beech much more valuable than Hornbeam, as they turn a dull brown colour in winter, though both can be pruned into any shape or form you can possibly wish for. By the entrance to the Garden Academy we have four elegant slender columns of the Fastigiate Hornbeam that frame the radiating path system.

Crab Apples (Malus cultivars) and Decorative Pears (Pyrus cultivars)

Box alternatives - Pyrus salicifolia-Bury Court © Isabelle van Groeningen

Pyrus salicifolia-Bury Court

I love the decorative apples: they are versatile, flower beautifully, are scented and valuable bee plants. In autumn their yellow, orange, red to dark red fruits in varying sizes are most attractive. Malus ‘Evereste’ is my personal favourite, as it keeps its fruits for such a long time with us. We have them as tall espaliers and as a small tree clipped into a ball. They also come ball-shaped without stem.  The same goes for the pears. Piet Oudolf has used the silver-leafed Pyrus salicifolius as columns originally in his nursery, later also at Bury Court to make a rotunda. This pear, as well as Pyrus ‘Chanticleer’ can also be trimmed into great arches that are a wonderful way or substituting a pergola.

Magnolia screens

Despite their seemingly stiff and characterful habit, Magnolias allow themselves to be trained into an espalier. Magnolia x loebneri ‘Merrill’ makes a stunning flowering screen in spring.

Enkianthus perulatus

Box alternatives - Enkianthus perulatus © Isabelle van Groeningen

Enkianthus perulatus

Enkianthus is one of the most delightful woody plants belonging to the ericaceous plant family. Like almost all members of this family, to which rhododendron and heathers also belong, they prefer a light, acidic soil and lots of organic matter. The, fine twigs, with their white bell-shaped flowers that appear before the leaves in spring, will form dense domes. In autumn the foliage turns to most vibrant shades of orange, red, magenta and purple.


Berberis thunbergii and Cotoneaster microphyllus

Both Berberis and Cotoneaster have developed a rather negative image. A popular plant for public spaces, they were unlovingly used and abused by many landscape architects because they are robust and uncomplicated to maintain. The prickliness of Berberis makes it an ideal plant if you want to stop people from walking through- or vandalizing a planting. Berberis can be clipped with razor-sharp precision and the added benefit of producing bright yellow-orange flowers followed by small red fruits and good autumn colour. Cotoneaster lends itself to more informal, undulating shapes, is evergreen and is decorated with numerous small white flowers and red berries.

The future is bright

Although I too miss using box, as for certain things it is an unbeatable plant. But I am excited to see the much wider range of plants coming into play, bringing much more colour and seasonal variety into our gardens and making them a richer feeding ground for birds, insects and other garden inhabitants.

Liquidambar styraciflua © Isabelle van Groeningen

Liquidambar styraciflua