Boxwood is a classic broadleaf evergreen shrub that’s deer resistant, hardy in zones 5-9 and can be grown in full sun to full shade. It’s an invaluable garden design element both for the winter interest of its evergreen foliage and the structure it lends to plantings. Though boxwood can be left shaggy, its dense growth habit allows it to be shaped into sharp hedges, balls and other topiary. This structure is essential for formal gardens, but even naturalistic and cottage garden styles benefit from the addition of defined shapes and lines to give them an intentional, not chaotic, feel.
But, whether you’re hedging in your front yard or dreaming of something more ambitious - a formal parterre or knot garden like Mount Vernon’s or plantings inspired by Arne Maynard’s whimsical use of topiary - if you’re going to make the most of boxwood’s winter interest and structural impact, you’re going to need a lot of them. And buying boxwoods can get expensive, fast.
If you’re willing to substitute time and patience for that money, propagating boxwood from cuttings is well worth the effort. Propagating plants is the practice of transforming one plant into many either by saving seed, taking stem cuttings or layering. The easiest and fastest way to propagate boxwoods is by taking stem cuttings from your existing boxwood plants.
When to Take Boxwood Cuttings
Most sources say that late summer or early fall, when spring growth is beginning to get woody, is the best time of year to take boxwood cuttings. I’ve had success taking cuttings in both July and August, though others have had success taking cuttings in late spring from fresh new growth. Just avoid taking cuttings too late into fall. Cutting boxwood encourages new growth to form that is easily damaged by frosts and harsh winter weather.
Whatever time of year you choose to take your cuttings, take them early in the morning before the stems lose too much moisture from the midday sun.
What you will need to Grow Boxwood from Cuttings:
- A sharp knife or sharpened pair of pruners
- A jar of water
- A healthy existing boxwood plant
- Powdered rooting hormone (optional)
- A toothpick or pencil
- Some well-draining, low-fertility growing medium
- Small plastic or terracotta plant pots
How to Take Cuttings from Boxwoods
- Prepare your pots with moistened growing medium in advance. You can fit several cuttings into a small 3-4 inch pot. (I aim to fit 12-16 cuttings into 4 inch pots).
- Using a sharp knife or sharpened pruners, cut 4-6 inch lengths of stem from the fresh outer growth of the boxwood. Transfer each stem to the jar of water, submerging the stems as you would cut flowers, while you take the rest of your cuttings.
- Strip the leaves from the bottom of each cutting, leaving 3 or 4 leaves at the top. Some say stripping some of the stem helps with rooting so, if desired, run the blade of your knife or pruners down the length of the stem, scraping off some of the outer layer to reveal the green interior.
- If using, transfer a bit of powdered rooting hormone to a shallow dish and dip the bottom of each cutting stem into the powder, shaking to remove excess. This step is not essential, you will get rooted cuttings without it, but it should speed up the process and increase your success rate.
- Using a toothpick or pencil, poke holes into the growing medium and stick each cutting into one of the holes. This ensures that the growing medium does not remove the rooting powder from the stem as you push it into the pot. Pat down the soil around each stem to ensure contact between the cutting and the soil.
- If you want, cover the pots with a plastic bag and transfer them to a warm location with bright indirect sunlight while you wait for them to root. Do not place them in direct sun. The rooting process should take anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months, but may take longer.
Tips for Getting your Cuttings to Root
- Use a sharp tool to take your cuttings. Using dull tools can pinch or squish stems which will take longer to heal, leaving the cuttings vulnerable for longer.
- Take cuttings from healthy looking plants without evidence of disease or pests.
- Take more cuttings than you want or think you will need. So far I’ve had a 50% success rate of cuttings rooting, so I like to take twice as many as I really want.
- Use a well-draining growing medium or propagation mix that is low in fertility. There are many ways to do this, I’ve used 1 part sand, 1 part perlite and 1 part potting soil. But use a mix of what you have: sand, pearlite, compost etc. I’ve even had success using only regular potting soil, but the cuttings took much longer to root.
- Use a rooting hormone. This is not absolutely necessary but, if you use it, more of your cuttings should root, and root faster, especially in the case of a plant like boxwood, which roots less readily on its own than some other plants like salvia or sedum.
- A lot of cuttings fail to root either because they dry out or because they rot. Check on the cuttings periodically and keep the soil around them moist, but not soaking wet, for the duration of the rooting period.
- Monitor the moisture in the air around the cuttings. Transpiration - the process whereby plants exhale or “sweat” out water through their leaves, causes a lot of cuttings to dry out. To prevent this, keep the air around your cuttings relatively moist. Try misting them periodically, and/or creating a mini-greenhouse around them by draping a plastic bag over the pots. But, if you do make a mini greenhouse, be sure to leave some airflow or open bag periodically, or the cuttings can become too humid and rot.
How to Care for Boxwood Cuttings
Your boxwood cuttings will like a warm or cool (just not very hot or very cold) spot that has bright indirect sun. Make sure they get light, but are not in direct sun, and keep the air and soil around them moist, but not wet.
You can keep them outside in a shady spot, or inside, if you have the space. When winter comes, you can leave them outside if your winters are relatively mild, or transfer them to a basement, garage or greenhouse. If you live in a zone with harsh winters, you will want to give them protection, or keep them inside, during the coldest months.
In my zone 5b garden, I keep my boxwood cuttings indoors over winter in bright indirect light and put them back outside in early spring. Eventually they will be able to handle zone 5 winters, but first year cuttings are small and vulnerable to freezing temperatures.
In 1-3 months your boxwood cuttings should root, although it can take much longer. Even once rooted, you won’t see much growth till their spring flush. You can tell that your cuttings have rooted when a gentle pull on their stem is met with resistance or if you can see new growth or roots coming out of the bottom of their pot. Once your cuttings have rooted, you can leave them together in their 4” pots until spring, or, wait a few more weeks, remove the soil from the pots, separate the cuttings and pot them up into individual pots.
By their first spring, your boxwood cuttings will likely still be single twigs. They can then be separated into individual pots (if you haven’t already done so), transferred to a shady or part sun location outside and given a slight trim, pinching off the top set of leaves, after the threat of frost is gone. Within a few weeks you should start to see a spring flush of growth.
Cuttings aren't the only way to propagate. Multiply your plants by starting them from seed - check out these tips on when to start seeds indoors.
Transplanting your Cuttings
Technically, you can plant out boxwood cuttings as soon as they root. Some people even have success with sticking cuttings directly into the ground - though they are unlikely to survive this treatment overwinter if you live in a harsh climate. If you want to give boxwood cuttings a try, but don’t want to put too much time and energy into the process, this method might work for you.
But if you want to maximize your chances of getting as many healthy boxwood cuttings as possible, you’ll want to give them a bit more care, storing them inside or with some protection in pots at least through their first winter. If you’re eager to get your boxwoods into the ground, any cuttings that root should be ready to plant out into their final positions the following spring.
If you are working primarily with balcony or patio space, if you foresee yourself moving in less than a few years and would like to take your boxwoods with you or if you plan to plant them in a high traffic area and want to give them a chance to grow a bit more before transplanting them into their final location, boxwoods can be kept as container plants for longer periods of time.
Words of Caution about Boxwoods
- If you are storing your boxwood cuttings indoors, keep in mind that boxwood is harmful to both pets and children, if ingested. Always store them out of reach.
- In recent years boxwoods have become plagued by boxwood blight and box tree moth caterpillars - both serious problems that can require the complete removal of boxwood hedges and topiary. Before committing to boxwood hedges, you may want to check to see if these are problems in your area and read up on how to prevent these from becoming problems in your garden.
- Boxwoods only grow about 3-6 inches per year, so planting boxwood is a long game, even when you don’t start from cuttings. Cuttings will save you a lot of money, but they’re not instant gratification, it will take time for your vision to come to life. But any good gardener knows that the garden is always changing, and that’s part of the fun. Starting plants from cuttings gives you the opportunity to use the space around the small boxwoods in creative ways as you wait for them to fill in.
- Try planting faster growing shrubs, such as hydrangeas, behind your boxwood hedges for more instant impact, or filling the space around the boxwoods with temporary annuals like pansies, zinnias and nasturtium or with perennials or tubers, like coneflowers or dwarf dahlia varieties, that can easily be moved to another spot in your garden as your boxwoods grow.