Benefits of Mulching Boxwood

Boxwood in the landscape with a think layer of mulch.

Boxwood in the landscape with a think layer of mulch.

Mulching is a common landscape practice that is used to suppress unwanted weeds, reduce evaporation from the soil, and encourage proper soil ecology and structure while being visually appealing. Recent research has also shed light that mulching can be an effective tool to aid in pest and disease management. Earlier this year, Virginia Tech published data from a two-year study showing that mulching can be a great tool to help prevent Boxwood Blight.

The experiment was set up in two locations, one being an old nursery in Low Gap, North Carolina and the other a residential landscape near Richmond, Virginia, both previously devastated by Boxwood Blight. This field trial consisted of both mulched and non-mulched treatments and was done for two years under normal environmental conditions. The goal of this study was to evaluate mulch as a physical barrier to prevent the soil inoculum from splashing onto healthy plants.

The fungal pathogen Boxwood Blight (Calonectria pseudonaviculata) produces heavy, sticky spores on diseased leaves that fall to the soil. There is no evidence to date of the pathogen attacking boxwood roots, so it was thought that providing a physical barrier of mulch would prevent the inoculum from splashing onto the leaves where the pathogen can affect the plant. The experiment used containerized ‘Justin Brouwers’ boxwood which are known to be highly susceptible to Boxwood Blight, that were rotated through mulched and non-mulched plots at 1-to-2-week intervals.

A freshly mulched bed of NewGen Independence® and perennials.

A freshly mulched bed of NewGen Independence® and perennials.

Results of the experiment showed clear distinction between the mulched and non-mulched plants. The mulching reduced the number of Boxwood Blight lesions by up to 97%! Even the scientists working on the project were amazed by the unbelievable difference that mulch made. Although for a long time it was thought that mulching boxwood plants was a bad idea but, this study shows that it can be an exceptionally effective tool for Blight control. Below you will find a downloadable PDF of these findings. Saunders Brothers Nursery worked with Chuan Hong and his team to provide plant material for the experiment.

Boxwood blight is a multi-faceted disease that can be overcome with smarter growing practices and understanding. Mulching has been proven to be another very simple and accessible tool that can help prevent this disease.

Highlights from Cultivate 2019

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The Cultivate show, hosted by AmericanHort, takes place in Columbus, Ohio and attracts horticulturists from all over the globe. Although the show did not begin until Sunday, Columbus was buzzing with growers, retailers, and enthusiasts on Saturday. Many attendees were able to enjoy tours, workshops, and other educational sessions. The NewGen™ team took some time on Saturday to get out of the city and spend the afternoon touring Decker Nursery, one of the NewGen™ liner producers. It was great to see their operation and the innovative ways they are producing liners and finished material. We even got to sneak a peek at some of the early NewGen™ liners that will be shipped out to our licensees next spring!

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Sunday began the trade show and our first chance to talk to many of the attendees about NewGen Independence® and NewGen Freedom®. With the formal introduction of our first two selections just weeks before the show, this provided and exciting opportunity for growers and retailers to experience the plants. These introductions were on display at the Willioway Nursery booth, along with the new plants display.

The Saunders Brothers Team at the Retail Choice Awards.

The Saunders Brothers Team at the Retail Choice Awards.

Monday brought another day of exciting educational classes and another day of the trade show. The highlight of the day was the Retail Choice Awards sponsored by the Garden Center Group. The judges evaluated 70 new products and plants on the market, and chose 15 to be recognized. NewGen™ Boxwood was chosen as one of these award recipients! We are excited and honored to stand alongside the most innovative products on the market for 2019/2020.

As the show came to a close on Tuesday, we said our goodbyes to our friends and colleagues in Columbus. It was a great opportunity to share more about our story with our peers and we look forward to sharing more next year.

The Story Continues

The Saunders Family

The Saunders Family

Growing up a Saunders predisposes you to have a certain affection towards boxwood. In our previous post we told the story of Paul Saunders and how he turned his passion for boxwood cultivation into a successful family business. Saunders Brothers Nursery began growing boxwood over 70 years ago and this was just the beginning. As the business has transitioned to a new generation of leadership, Paul’s sons, Robert, Bennett, Tom, and Jim reflect on their memories from sticking boxwood cuttings to earn an extra penny, to the discovery of Boxwood Blight in the United States and, to the creation of the NewGen™ program.

From an early age, the sons participated in every part of boxwood production around the farm. Bennett Saunders, General Manager of Saunders Genetics, remembers, “As kids, we would get paid a penny apiece for each boxwood cutting we stripped and stuck. This is how we would earn our extra spending money.” As the boys grew, they continued to play an essential part in the daily farm responsibilities. “I remember spending most weekday evenings at the nursery loading trucks with boxwood from March to May,” recalls Bennett. “At the time, boxwood were about 40% of the plants we grew.”

Boxwood Decline affecting English boxwood in a landscape

Boxwood Decline affecting English boxwood in a landscape

One of the first setbacks in boxwood production came about in the 1970s with the advent of Boxwood Decline. Up until this point, most of the boxwood market was made up of English boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’). As Boxwood Decline became more prevalent, the company began to move towards a wider selection of boxwood cultivars that were more resistant to the disease. Robert Saunders, General Manager of Saunders Brothers remembers, “In the spring of either 1981 or 1982, I was in high school and I got a note from the principal’s office saying I needed to call home. I called and my dad explained that he wanted me to come home to see an experiment he was doing. He was planting in an area just outside the yard at our house, a test garden of new varieties of boxwood. At that time, we grew only English and American boxwood, but my dad thought we should try some new ones.” Robert was dumbfounded for two reasons, “Number one, I hated plants, so I did not want to have anything to do with it. Number two, why did we need new varieties of boxwood? Little did I know I would end up working in the middle of it. From those trials, an evolution of perspective began and, we soon found Green Beauty, Green Velvet, Green Mountain and many other varieties. Most importantly it taught us about life beyond our small boxwood world.”

The exploration into new varieties of boxwood began to shed light on another lurking boxwood pest. “There was a field planting of Buxus sempervirens ‘Elizabeth Inglis’ that had just been eaten up with Boxwood Leafminer,” Bennett remembers. “It had never been sprayed and was just covered in blistered leaves.” Deciding this might be something worth exploring, they planted some other varieties near the host plant to see if different cultivars showed any natural resistance to the pest. Early observations showed that there was some hope for these different cultivars which encouraged Saunders to pursue more formal research.

Boxwood Leafminer larvae causing the boxwood leaves to swell and blister.

Boxwood Leafminer larvae causing the boxwood leaves to swell and blister.

Dissecting boxwood leaves to count larvae.

Dissecting boxwood leaves to count larvae.

In the early 2000s, Boxwood Leafminer incidences started to become more prevalent, coinciding with a general desire to reduce the use of pesticides, particularly the neonicotinoids. Saunders Brothers recruited retired nematologist Bob Dunn from the University of Florida to help them set up a replicated plot to collect data. They began by planting a test block where host plants infected with Leafminer were planted alongside many different cultivars of boxwood. Since the fall of 2006, thousands of leaf samples from the test area have been collected. Each leaf was dissected, and larvae were counted. The collection of this data over a decade showed a strong variation of cultivars’ natural resistance to Leafminer. This in turn meant a reduction in the use of pesticides and an increase in the value of boxwood in today’s gardens.

Bob Dunn, retired nematologist, working on Boxwood Leafminer research.

Bob Dunn, retired nematologist, working on Boxwood Leafminer research.

Boxwood Blight affecting a field nursery.

Boxwood Blight affecting a field nursery.

Then, in the fall of 2011, Bennett recalls that, “we began to hear horror stories about a disease called Boxwood Blight which was devastating boxwood nurseries in North Carolina and Connecticut. We called a meeting the Monday after Thanksgiving to decide what to do. We decided we needed to go to Europe before the MANTS show to have more information to better answer customers’ questions. We immediately bought tickets for a team from Saunders to go to Europe the week before Christmas. My wife was not happy, but it was something we had to do.”

Researcher in Europe showing examples of Boxwood Blight.

Researcher in Europe showing examples of Boxwood Blight.

Bennett Saunders loading a truck with sample plants for NCSU trials.

Bennett Saunders loading a truck with sample plants for NCSU trials.

Since the disease had been prevalent in Europe since the mid-1990s, members of the Saunders team spent time in Belgium and the United Kingdom to learn tactics to combat it. European researchers mentioned that they had seen that genetic tolerance for the disease varied among boxwood species. Saunders realized that trials could be performed, similar to the Leafminer trials, to discern genetic tolerance. In 2012, Saunders Brothers teamed up with Kelly Ivors at North Carolina State University to begin trialing different boxwood species and cultivars. Thanks to years of collection, many different boxwood cultivars existed at the nursery in Virginia, so Saunders sent samples of these varieties to be part of the trials. This research proved to be so insightful that after the research was completed at NCSU in 2015, Saunders continued the trials privately. It was clear this was a challenge that could be overcome.

Kelly Ivors (middle) and team at NCSU.

Kelly Ivors (middle) and team at NCSU.

NewGen Independence® in field trials.

NewGen Independence® in field trials.

 Since learning about the disease, enormous resources have been dedicated to learning about Boxwood Blight. Saunders Brothers has donated thousands of plants, given input into multiple research projects, and made every attempt to better educate themselves and the growing community about this disease. Teams have traveled domestically and internationally to better understand a disease that many once thought would be the end of boxwood. Working with researchers from state and federal agencies, as well as international groups, the continued message was apparent that through a greater understanding of the disease, the battle with Boxwood Blight will be won with tolerant varieties and best management practices.

NewGen Freedom® in production.

NewGen Freedom® in production.

Holding on to that message of hope, and after years of trialing, certain cultivars continued to outperform many of the popular varieties on the market. Two of those cultivars were chosen because they stood out from the rest. “These plants showed up and made us smile and think ‘We’ve really got something here’ that we can share with the industry,” remembers Robert. The discovery of these beautiful plants characterized by their superior resistance to Boxwood Leafminer, high tolerance of Boxwood Blight, and WOW factor in the landscape led to the creation of the NewGen™ brand. You can read more about that story here.

From one 13-year-old boy’s love of a charming little evergreen grew a family business dedicated to innovation and looking for solutions. Saunders Genetics, LLC was created to become a resource for all boxwood enthusiasts for generations to come. With over 70 years’ of experience and a passion for boxwood, they are excited to introduce a new generation of boxwood to the industry.

Paul Saunders and his wife, Tatum, at their home.

Paul Saunders and his wife, Tatum, at their home.

Introducing NewGen Freedom® and NewGen Independence®

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Behind every new venture lies the inspiration that initiated it all. The spark that led to the creation of NewGen™ lies with the two boxwood that will be the initial introductions of the line. After years of research, these two cultivars outperformed the more common varieties available on the market. These selections offer the industry a solution to the disease and pest problems boxwood continue to face. Being introduced to the market in 2020 are NewGen Independence® and NewGen Freedom®. With names that evoke imagery tracing back to 18th century, colonial America, where a new country was blazing a trail in history, these plants will lead the industry demonstrating better tolerance of Boxwood Blight, resistance to Boxwood Leafminer, and WOW factor in the landscape.

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The first selection, NewGen Independence® (Buxus NewGen Independence® ‘SB108’ PP# 28888) will catch your eye with its deep green color that holds through the winter. Filling out to a nice rounded, medium-sized shrub, this variety can be used in formal plantings or to provide structure in less formal gardens. NewGen Independence® fills a need in the industry as a replacement for English Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’). English boxwood is known as being one of the cultivars most susceptible to Boxwood Blight, so much so that many producers can no longer risk growing them. This new variety will offer gardeners and landscapers a solution by achieving the same look but with a plant that has shown high tolerance of Boxwood Blight.

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As a chance seedling found near Williamsburg, Virginia, NewGen Independence® thrives in zones 5b to 8 and will be a gardener’s dream whether it is a specimen on its own, used in a medium hedge, or as a foundation plant. Once planted and established, with minimal annual care, this plant will be a timeless addition to any landscape. For more details about this wonderful plant, check out the link below:

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NewGen Freedom® (Buxus NewGen Freedom® ‘SB300’) is the second of the two introductions but will capture just as much attention. As a more vigorous grower, this rounded cultivar is slightly taller than it is wide and has beautiful glossy foliage, making it an excellent choice for both formal and residential landscapes. This plant was chosen not only for its demonstrated tolerance of pests and diseases, but its overall vigor creates beautiful structure in a garden much quicker than many other varieties available. Hardy in zones 5-8, this particularly grower friendly plant makes an excellent specimen, hedge, or foundation plant in landscapes all over. For information and photos, follow the link below:

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Both plants were selected because they outperformed the rest through years of research. These new cultivars surpass current varieties available in the industry with their better tolerance of Boxwood Blight, strong resistance to Boxwood Leafminer, and overall beauty in the landscape. These plants offer solutions to the most prevalent boxwood pests and diseases today. The NewGen™ brand aims to lead the charge with this new generation of boxwood and continues to be dedicated to future innovations.

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Boxwood Site Selection and Irrigation

Boxwood being used as a hedge in a landscape.

Boxwood being used as a hedge in a landscape.

Boxwood are known for low maintenance and longevity in a landscape, but in order to ensure such timelessness, it is important to select the best site for the plant. When properly planted and cared for, boxwood are easy to maintain. Paying extra attention at planting will ensure a flourishing plant for years to come.

In choosing the proper site, we recommend the following:

Several boxwood in a shady site.

Several boxwood in a shady site.

  • Choose the best cultivar based on size, shape, growth rate, maintenance, and exposure.

  • Take a soil sample and have it tested. Look for areas of good drainage with a pH in the range of 6.5-7.0.

  • Prepare a proper hole, making sure to plant the boxwood “high” with 2 inches of the root ball above the soil line. Be sure that water drains away from the plant and does not puddle near the root ball.

  • Water thoroughly at the time of planting and maintain adequate but not excessive irrigation through the first couple of years.

Once the boxwood is properly planted, it is very important to water it. A thorough soaking at the time of planting is essential. This will probably be the most important watering this plant will ever have. Make sure to fully soak the root zone.

Boxwood being irrigated first thing in the morning.

Boxwood being irrigated first thing in the morning.

Once this initial watering is complete, periodic watering should take place as needed. Allowing the root zone to dry between irrigation events will encourage root growth. We recommend approximately 1 inch of precipitation or irrigation per week for the first 1-2 years. Pay close attention during the hot and dry summer months, so that the boxwood does not stress. It is also important to pay attention that the plants have adequate moisture as winter approaches. In the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, boxwood will continue to grow roots in the winter when the temperatures are still mild.

The arrows show holes on the drip tape where the irrigation water escapes.

The arrows show holes on the drip tape where the irrigation water escapes.

Here the drip tape sits on top of a bed of field plants.

Here the drip tape sits on top of a bed of field plants.

Drip irrigation is the ideal method for watering boxwood. Simple drip systems can be installed under the mulch and will offer thorough irrigation without wetting the foliage. In a drip system, water seeps from the drip tape without splashing. It enters the ground without puddling and conserves water. The rate of water from drip tape is very low, maybe a quarter of an inch per hour per emitter. Fungal diseases such as Boxwood Blight can be spread through water splashing that may occur with sprinkler methods of irrigation. If drip irrigation is not an option, make sure overhead watering takes place in the early morning, giving the leaves ample time to dry. It is important to never water boxwood in the late afternoon or evening because wet foliage through the night can lead to diseases and stress on the plant.

Raised beds ready for boxwood planting. It is very important that boxwood are planted “high” to avoid water pooling around the roots.

Raised beds ready for boxwood planting. It is very important that boxwood are planted “high” to avoid water pooling around the roots.

In 2018, Central Virginia had an annual rainfall of close to 90 inches, about double the normal amount. Boxwood throughout the region showed signs of stress, particularly those plants that were constantly in standing water. Whenever you plant boxwood, envision what the immediate landscape will look like after 3 inches of rain, and plant the boxwood in such a way that ensures water never puddles around the roots.

Giving added care before planting, boxwood are destined to succeed and maintain a timeless elegance in your garden.