Are Your Boxwoods Turning Brown? This is Probably Why

Homeowners across the Chicago area are reporting browning on boxwood bushes and it appears there’s a reason for that

Are your boxwoods turning brown? You’re not alone.

Homeowners across the Chicago area are reporting browning on boxwood bushes and it appears there’s a reason for that.

Plant experts attribute it to harsh winter conditions.

According to the Morton Arboretum’s Plant Clinic, “winter damage” is one of the likely causes of browning on boxwoods.

The winter season brought with it a polar vortex that sent temperatures dropping well-below zero for several days.

“Boxwoods are usually very hardy in our hardiness zone but it was not an average winter,” said Plant Clinic Manager Julie Janoski.

Janoski said the clinic has received hundreds of calls about boxwoods this season, and though there are a few reasons why a boxwood might turn brown, much of them were damaged by the cold. 

“We saw damage on some boxwoods that were more exposed to wind and full afternoon sun,” she said. “During the winter we had cold and sun and wind on the same days and that created a problem.”

At the Chicago Botanic Garden, Kathie Hayden, manager of the Plant Information Service, said she has been "inundated with calls." 

"This was a little bit exceptional," she said. "We haven’t experienced it in this magnitude in quite a while." 

Hayden said the cold winter temps were followed by a spring that had evening temps dropping drastically "which burned the foliage." 

"Some boxwoods will brown a little bit over the winter but they don’t experience this winter burn," she said, adding this year "seemed to be worse than many other years." 

So what can you do?

Before you scrap the shrub entirely, Janoski tells callers to first check the leaves.

“If there’s still green at the bottom or if there are new green leaves coming out of the stems, sure, prune back the brown parts to where you’ve got good green plant tissue and the boxwoods should renew themselves,” she said. “Boxwoods are very tolerant of heavy pruning however they are slow growers.”

But by now, if your plant is not growing any new leaves and is largely brown “it’s probably time to consider replacing it,” she said.

Garden experts at Christy Webber Landscapes also suggested trying iron tone to help save a damaged boxwood. 

"Iron tone turns things that are yellow green," said Rhonda Castillo, store supervisor. "It will give them a boost and some will bounce back." 

One other trick to check your plant is to scratch a stem with your fingernail.

“If it’s green underneath you might want to wait a few weeks,” Janoski said. “If it’s brown…you might as well remove it.”

As far as preventing your boxwoods from turning brown after a harsh winter, experts agree that it's important to make sure you water throughout the fall. 

“Make sure that your evergreens stay watered during the fall season,” Janoski said. “Those plants need to have a lot of water in them to prepare for the winter time.”

Hayden added this doesn't mean you should get rid of boxwood plants all together.

"A question we often hear is 'What is a good alternative for boxwoods?' and truth be told there’s other plants we can put in their place but nothing really replaces a boxwood," she said. 

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