Survive the boxwood shortage

Survive the boxwood shortage

Buyers are scrambling and growers are struggling to keep up with the demand.

March 15, 2017
Matt McClellan

The popularity of boxwood has exploded in the last 15 years. And why not? It’s deer-resistant, drought-tolerant, versatile, and easy to grow. To call it “proven” is an understatement – it’s been a staple in American landscapes since the mid-1600s. To top it off, it only suffers from one major pest: boxwood leaf miner. As the housing market trends up, more landscapers and consumers are looking for large boxwood for instant impact.

But the supply hasn’t been able to keep up with the demand. There are a few reasons for the shortage. Several large boxwood-providing nurseries went out of business during the recession, and many of the nurseries that stayed afloat cut back on their plantings. Then, in 2011 a new disease appeared that ruthlessly attacks several of the most popular types of boxwood.

Growers face an uphill battle to meet the demand for healthy plants.

Saunders Brothers is nestled in Piney River, Va., under the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The business began as a partnership between five brothers in 1915. Today, third-generation brothers, Tom, Bennett, Jim, and Robert with their dad, Paul, operate the wholesale nursery, orchard and farm market.

To battle boxwood blight, Saunders Brothers personnel sanitizes tools and equipment often and allows as much air movement into the plant’s interior as possible.
Photos by Lee Luther Jr.

The wholesale nursery is known for boxwood, but also produces a wide variety of woody shrubs.

Tom Saunders, the container nursery manager at Saunders Brothers, said the current demand for healthy boxwood far outstrips the supply. It’s a welcome change from the recession years, but because of the time it takes to grow a salable boxwood, few growers are in a position to take advantage.

“We threw a lot of product away in 2008,” he says. “There was just no demand. But it’s exciting to see it back now.”

The closure of several nurseries has left a hole the surviving growers are trying to fill. Nurseries are ramping up production, but boxwood doesn’t grow overnight.

When customers are unable to find boxwood in their desired size, many end up buying smaller plants. That presents its own problems.

Waverly Farm is a Maryland-based wholesale B&B nursery that has developed a reputation for larger, heftier material.

Although it can be tempting to start selling at smaller grades, “that action would negatively affect our future crop,” says Jessica Ahrweiler, sales and marketing manager for Waverly Farm. “If we succumbed to selling smaller stock now, we would have a few gap years in our future crop.”

The architecture of the plant and its growing environment play major roles in blight susceptibility.
Photos by Lee Luther Jr.

At Waverly Farm, the shortage has hit hardest for the mounding types of boxwood, such as ‘Green Velvet,’ ‘Chicagoland Green,’ and ‘Green Mound.’

When customers call the nursery asking for those cultivars, Ahrweiler redirects them to newer hybrids or lesser-known options that would make a good substitution for the in-demand but unavailable cultivars.

Growers, landscapers and retailers all anticipate the shortage to continue. Peter Mezitt is the president of Weston Nurseries, a Massachusetts company that operates two garden centers that sell to homeowners and landscapers and provides landscape design services. He expects the spring to bring more supply challenges.

“Fulfilling stock after the spring was tricky last year,” Mezitt says. “We were not able to obtain a lot of the 18- to 24-inch and 2- to 2.5-foot sizes that we normally would stock. We did go with smaller sizes than we normally would.”

A Maryland-based design build firm, has the benefit of being able to design with what’s available. Kevin McHale, president of McHale Landscape, says smaller sizes are easier to acquire, but getting your hands on large stock requires expanding your supplier network.

“We are still able to find 24- and 30-inch material, but we need to broaden our search to a wider group of nurseries to find them,” he says.

Read about potential alternatives, boxwood blight prevention and research, and how the green industry is handling the shortage in our February cover story.

Top photo: Back row, L-R: Jim Saunders, Bennett Saunders, Robert Saunders, Tom Saunders. Front row, L-R: Tatum Saunders, Paul Saunders, Lyn Saunders.

Photo by Lee Luther Jr.