By Monty Don for MailOnline 22:30 28 Mar 2014, updated 22:30 28 Mar 2014
- Monty Don has spent 15 years growing an ornamental hedge
- A fungal disease called box blight has since destroyed the project
- Here Monty explains what to do if this happens to you
My garden has evolved slowly over the past 20 years but about 15 years ago we made a decision, based upon the wet, grey winters, to create an elaborate and strong structure using mainly box - Buxus sempervirens.
Box is one of our few native evergreens and has been used since Roman times as the perfect plant to train into a low, evergreen hedge that only needs clipping once a year to hold its shape well. It’s expensive to buy - so I began the process of raising thousands of plants from cuttings.
Slowly, these became strong plants and the miles of box hedging began to create the vibrant structure I wanted, even in the middle of the darkest days of winter.
Monty has had trouble with box blight that causes the interior of box plants to die back
Box is - was - famously tough and trouble-free. The plants I raised were - I believed - set to last for scores, even hundreds of years of unhindered growth. But two years ago I noticed one area had started to die back.
Q. Will we get any fruit from our three-year-old peach tree this year?
Richard Jarvis, Cambs A. Peach trees usually fruit after three to five years. They need to be in well-drained, fertile soil in the sunniest position possible. Mulch liberally each spring with garden compost and water generously once a week. Do not prune other than to remove any dead or damaged branches. Q. The box cuttings I took last autumn and have kept in an unheated greenhouse still have no roots. What's wrong?
Mrs S Horton, Isle of Wight A. A timely question given my box problems. Cuttings taken last autumn will not show any growth until this spring. Leave them in the pots until September, by which time they should have formed roots. Carefully remove and plant them out. And watch out for box blight! Q. How do I pleach my hornbeam hedge?
Mary Harris, Warks A. Do you really mean 'pleach' - a pleached hedge has bare trunks with the hedge raised up in the air - or 'lay'? A laid hedge should be about 3.3m (10ft) tall, with the trunks cut through until only flaps of bark remain, then woven between upright stakes. The plants of a pleached hedge should be placed at 2m (6ft 6in) intervals, then trained onto a wire or bamboo structure. Keep clipping the sides hard to encourage lateral growth, then tie this into the supporting structure. It takes about ten years to achieve a fully
formed pleached hornbeam hedge.
The green foliage was turning grey and brown and collapsing in a mouldy mess. Otherwise unaffected leaves were showing chocolate coloured stains. I knew at once that this was one of my worst nightmares - the dreaded box blight.
There are two forms of box blight, Volutella buxi and Cylindrocladium buxicola, both fungi that cause the interior of box plants to die back.
Both types of fungi need humid, warm conditions to thrive and the past few years have been perfect for their spread. V. buxi needs open wounds - like those created every time box is clipped - to infect the host plant, whereas C. buxicola can infect unwounded plants and is the more pernicious of the two, affecting quite woody stems as well as the foliage.
The worst damage appears in August and September - and when it arrives the plants can die back in a matter of days. The best solution is to cut out all affected growth - and burn it. Gather up all fallen leaves and remove the top layer of mulch or soil that can harbour spores.
From the first patch I noticed in September 2012 the blight has ripped through our box hedges, leaving the crisp green ravaged with bare, brown patches. Some of these will regrow but will almost certainly be hit again in a cycle that will eventually kill the plants.
The crispness and the green is never again going to be re- created by these box plants. It is possible that all the box in the garden will be blighted, including the 64 box balls that I treasure dearly.
We have some hedges of Buxus sempervirens ‘Handsworthiensis’ that have coarser, thicker leaves which are more resistant - but still get affected. So we are taking drastic action to try to limit the spread. Badly affected hedges are being dug up and burnt - the work of 15 years going up in flames.
What do we do? Plants that are clearly untouched are being taken to a piece of land 30 miles away that has no box - so no blight - and placed in quarantine for a full calendar year.
Any box that is not hedging is having the affected growth cut right back in the hope that the regrowth will be unaffected. The chances are slim but it is worth trying.
We could replace the low box hedges with a substitute evergreen plant like Ilex crenata, euonymus, pittisporum or myrtle. None of these appeal to me and I am inclined to embrace the forced change and see it as a creative opportunity.
However, the taller hedges - 1m (3ft) high and more - would look just as good in yew, which grows very well here and now is the perfect time to plant it. So one door closes - with a slam - but as ever in a garden, another opens.