What’s Killing My Boxwood?

February 14, 2013 | By | Comments (12)

Don’t you wish you had boxwoods like these at Montrose Gardens in Hillsborough, North Carolina? Grumpy does. Photo by Steve Bender.

Boxwoods are supposed to be green, 24/7, 365 days a year. So it’s no wonder that when boxwoods turn brown, people get upset and demand answers. Why is this awful thing happening?????? As always, Grumpy knows.

The Two Main Culprits
Absent a hobo who lives in your bushes and regularly relieves himself on their foliage, the probable cause of brown boxwoods is one of two soil-borne diseases — Phytophthora root rot or English boxwood decline. The first attacks American boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), English boxwood (B. sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’), and littleleaf boxwood (B. microphylla). The latter attacks English boxwood. Above ground, the damage from either looks like this.


A diseased boxwood. Photo by Steve Bender.

Healthy, deep green leaves first turn light green, then brown or yellowish, then straw-colored. Whole branches die and the foliage drops.

Dig up the afflicted plant and you’ll see why the leaves turned brown. Most of the roots have rotted away. Boxwoods can’t grow without roots.

What Can I Spray to Cure My Boxwoods?
Both diseases are present in the soil, so spraying won’t help. Infected boxwoods are going to croak — it’s as simple as that. Some fungicides exist that you can drench the soil with to possibly protect your healthy boxwoods, but only professionals have access to them, so forget that. And while some new selections of English boxwood are said to be resistant to boxwood decline, unless you belong to the American Boxwood Society (a lively group), you’ll likely never see one.

So How Can I Prevent These Diseases?
Healthy plants seldom get sick. Stressed plants do. It makes sense, therefore, to give boxwoods the proper growing conditions to keep them happy.

Boxwoods like full sun or light shade. Most important, they like loose, moist, fertile soil that drains quickly. Plant them in heavy, clay soil that stays wet and you might as well dip them in lava. So don’t plant in low spots where water pools after a rain or at the foot of a downspout. That invites Phytophthora root rot. And water them deeply during summer droughts. Drought stress promotes English boxwood decline. Don’t wet the foliage when you water. Splashing water can spread disease.

Can I Replace My Dead Boxwood With Another Boxwood?
Sure. But since these two diseases live in the soil, your new boxwood will probably die of them too. Then you’ll get really peeved. So plant something else.

More Info on Boxwoods
For additional reading on using and caring for boxwoods, check out these articles:


  1. Muscogee County Green News | Boxwoods Taking a Beating

    […] To quote Southern Living’s Grumpy Gardener, if you’re going to plant them in wet soil “you may as well dip them in lava.” While all the surrounding plants may look just fine, healthy even, boxwoods will slowly start to […]

    November 10, 2016 at 10:45 am
  2. Grumpy Gardener

    Good substitutes include ‘Heller’ Japanese holly, dwarf yaupon holly, ‘Yewtopia’ plum yew, boxleaf euonymus, and germander.

    August 31, 2016 at 1:50 pm
  3. Jacqueline

    It would be really helpful to get suggested replacement bushes that would not be subject to the same soil problems.

    August 31, 2016 at 6:17 am
  4. Steve Bender

    As the article says, prevention is the key. Once the plant is infected, there’s nothing to do. The key to keeping plants healthy is well-drained soil and giving extra water during summer droughts.

    August 18, 2016 at 11:55 am
  5. Annette

    Posted a question forgot to turn on the notification via email. Looking forward to seeing some suggestions. Thank you. Annette C.

    August 15, 2016 at 9:57 am
  6. Annette

    whats-killing-my-boxwood. Okay, great article. It told me exactly what I suspect is happening. A fungus in the soil. My boxwood hedge started turning brown in spots, eventually lost one small shrub, dug it up, put fresh soil in the area and replaced it. It’s doing fine. The following year I replaced two. They seem to be doing fine. The next year it was three more, each time a different area of the hedge. I thought it was wild life. In Florida, we do have neighborhood opossums, Armadillos and lots of squirrels who like digging. also occasionally have a mole or two that likes to eat the roots. can treat my yard but live in a wooded area can’t treat everything. this year I have 5 boxwoods with a green fungus on the limbs and entire section of my hedge has died. If it is a problem with the soil, what’s the solution? The article defines the problem but gives me no information on what to do. Help.

    August 15, 2016 at 9:52 am
  7. Grumpy Gardener


    It’s too late in the year to transplant. The boxwood would probably die. Prune out the dead growth. It may fill back in. If you want to transplant it, wait until fall. Yes, holly is a tougher plant, but unless you’re talking about Japanese holly or dwarf yaupon, it won’t look much like a boxwood.

    June 6, 2016 at 2:27 pm
  8. Jane

    I have just noticed that the second boxwood I have planted in a particular spot is starting to turn brown in one spot. At this point can it be saved by transplanting? Also, there is another boxwood nearby that is doing well, so I would like to plant something that has the same look. Will a holly survive better in soil that might kill a boxwood?

    June 6, 2016 at 10:10 am
  9. Boxwoods — Love ‘Em, Hate ‘Em | Your Hub for Southern Culture

    […] Actually, the main reason boxwoods die is being planted in poorly drained, heavy clay soil — the kind of soil that just about everybody has. This makes them subject to a host of soil-borne diseases. That used to be a boxwood in Grumpy’s garden (above). For more info on boxwood maladies and how to prevent them, read “What’s Killing My Boxwood?” […]

    June 8, 2014 at 9:24 am
  10. rosiemcgowan

    Thanks Steve!

    February 20, 2013 at 5:18 pm
  11. Steve Bender


    The best substitute for dwarf English boxwood I can think of is an evergreen herb called germander. Japanese and dwarf yaupon hollies could substitute for larger kinds of boxwood.

    February 20, 2013 at 3:50 pm
  12. rosiemg12@gmail.com

    So anything can be planted in the boxwoods place, that tolerates the same conditions of course?

    February 16, 2013 at 3:16 pm

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