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Pruning Boxwood Shrubs

By Teresa Odle

Boxwood shrubs (Buxaceae, or Buxus) are a hardy evergreen shrub that is easy to prune and provides a great anchor or backdrop in your landscape. Boxwood is perfect for creating shapes in your garden or designing hedges. The best part is that after planting a boxwood in your garden, you only need to prune it once a year.

How to Prune Boxwood Shrubs

Learn how to prune boxwood shrubs in 5 easy steps.

Step 1 - Remove Dead or Damaged Branches

    • These will be easily visible when next to growing branches and should be cut at the base of the stem. Make sure to look in the boxwood to find dead branches on the inside as well.  

Step 2 - Clean up the Interior of the Boxwood

    • Open up the boxwood to inspect the interior and clean up any loose leaves and/or branches. Cleaning these up will help with the airflow of your boxwood. 

Step 3 - Thin the Boxwood

    • Find overgrown bulky branches that are over taking the plant and trim them back to the main branch. Thin as much as you think is necessary without killing the  plant.

    • Thinning the boxwood will help rejuvenate the interior of the plant by allowing additional airflow and light to reach the center of the boxwood. This keeps your plant looking healthy, inside and out. 

Step 4 - Shape the Boxwood

    • Prune branches that are sticking out further than the rest of the plant. Prune these stems back so they keep a good level look with the rest of the boxwood. 

    • This would be where you start to prune a boxwood into a more topiary shape or hedge.   

Step 5 - Trim all Sides of the Boxwood

    • Make sure you prune the whole boxwood and not just what you think people will see. Remember you want a healthy plant and this will help ensure you're on the right track!  

Pruning Boxwood Into Different Shapes

Think about stately English gardens with perfectly trimmed hedges or even mazes. You can get that effect with boxwood if you place multiple plants in a line and close together; the result is a solid, rectangular hedge shape. Space boxwoods a little further apart and you can prune them into balls or taller shapes with some space between. You won't get an instant hedge, but the plants will look neat and green all year and eventually form a hedge.

boxwood-pruned-into-a-sphere-hedge.jpg 

Of course, you don't have to make boxwood into a hedge. Simply add a few of the plants to your landscape for the evergreen color and texture and then prune them for shape. I have a Southwestern-style home and mostly native and xeric plants, but the boxwood by my front door is a year-round, neatly shaped welcome for visitors. Boxwood can fit into nearly any landscape plan.

boxwood-shrub-with-new-growth-emerging.jpg 

Boxwood Pruning Tips

  • First, gently prune your new plants slightly as soon as you put them in the ground, so they will begin to grow in the shape and direction you like.

  • Prune boxwood each year in spring; it is okay to touch up the plant's shape or straying branches throughout mid-summer.

  • Be sure not to prune and shape your boxwood in late summer or early fall. When you prune the plant, you encourage the cut branches to grow. They might not recover from the cut in time for winter. I have spotted browned leaves in the past when I trimmed stray branches too late in summer.

  • When you prune boxwood, tiny branches and individual leaves drop from the plant. The delicate cuttings can be a little tough to sweep or rake up. My plant adjoins a gravel walkway, so I always lay down an old sheet to catch the droppings. When done pruning, I can pull up the corners and dump all the clippings in the garbage or compost bin at once. You also can use a tarp, plastic dropcloth or compostable paper to catch the clippings.

  • If growing boxwood as a hedge, avoid trimming on the side between plants. Try to keep each plant slightly larger at the bottom, at least until you go back to even branches and touch up.

  • When using hand shears on your boxwood, begin at the top and cut all the stray branches and make a fairly even line or circle along the top, front (and sides if not part of a hedge). I always go back and hand trim to catch boxwood branches  I miss or just to straighten up the shape.

  • If you have a large boxwood hedge to tackle, you can use electric- or gas-powered shears to save time, but hand shears and pruners make cleaner cuts.

  • Mostly, keep up with your once-yearly boxwood pruning and the plants will hold their shape. It is much easier to prune for shape and health oce a year than to try to revive a shrub that is overgrown.

Trimming Boxwood Shrubs With Winter Damage

Although these bushes are evergreen, sometimes boxwood can get winter burn. Those leaves and branches are not very attractive and it is best to cut them off. Do so in early spring for best results. Use pruners for more precise cuts and large shears for bigger branches.. Cutting the dead parts can allow the plant to put energy towards the living part, and help the plant look better. 

There is a reason boxwood was the most popular shrub in America in 2018. Use these tips to prune your beautiful boxwood once a year and you will love the results.