GBFD a dilemma

For Garden Bloggers Foliage Day I usually encourage you to share some particularly beautiful foliage in your garden at present or describe how you use foliage to enhance your garden.

As my regular readers will know I depend heavily on foliage to give form, structure and texture to my garden.  Foliage is the most important feature during the middle of summer when few plants are flowering.  The formal garden is basically composed of three plants, Lavender hedging, Perovskia in the centre and Box cut-off pyramids at the corners.

The beautiful Box in 2014

The beautiful Box in 2014

The box was planted before almost anything else, and during the last couple of years has started to look solid and important in the garden.

April 2008

April 2008

In 2011 I added some box spheres behind the pomegranate to add a calm area to the view from the east side of the terrace.

The spheres on Foliage day August 2013

The spheres on Foliage day August 2013

Those of you in the UK will be well aware of the Box blight which has been causing huge problems in northern Europe but luckily was not a great problem in the dryer climate the part of Italy where I live; I wasn’t feeling smug, but just grateful.

Alas, another problem for the poor box plants has arrived here and also in the UK and for that reason I felt it worth bringing to your attention so that you can act more quickly than I did and thereby save your box plants.

Box tree caterpillar

In this image the caterpillar looks a lot like the cabbage white caterpillar but in reality it is smaller and darker and usually hidden by the web of fibres it surrounds itself with.

Here is some information taken from the RHS site, you can find more information here.

Common name: Box (Buxus) tree caterpillar (Cydalima perspectalis)

Main symptoms Foliage is eaten and covered in webbing

“It is native to East Asia and it became established in Europe in 2007. Although adult moths were first found in the UK in light traps in 2008, it was not until 2011 that larvae were reported in private gardens in the home counties. By the end of 2014 the moth had become established in parts of London and surrounding counties; in many cases the caterpillars had caused severe defoliation indicating that the moth is likely to become a serious problem.”

To be honest a friend said she thought there was a problem at the end of last year and I carefully looked at the damaged foliage for signs of the caterpillars but I could see any.  My mistake was that I was looking at the damaged leaves but the caterpillars had moved on and were very well camouflaged on the dark green leaves.  The warm weather has obviously brought a new wave of the moths and caterpillars and shockingly in the space of a couple of weeks a couple of my smaller box have been completely defoliated and will, I’m sure, die. All the Box in my garden has varying degrees of damage but the box spheres are the worst affected.

Box spheres, the smaller plants have been completely defoliated - The Jan Reis tulips make the scene look less depressing

Box spheres, the smaller plants have been completely defoliated – The Jan Reis tulips make the scene look less depressing

So what are my options?

  1. The organic nematode doesn’t sound particularly suited to Italy as it needs to be used on dull moist days and it isn’t likely there will be many of those now that spring has arrived. Plus nematodes are not available for sale here and if they have to come from abroad it is likely they will be dead before they arrive.
  2. The chemical offered to me by my local gardening supplier was, in fact, a banned chemical because it is believed that it can adversely affect the bee population. I DO NOT wish to cause any damage to any of the bees that visit my garden. I don’t use chemicals in the garden, not even those considered harmless.
  3. Dig out all the box in the garden and burn it and think of a replacement.

I think I have made my decision and so will spend the summer trying to decide which other plant will provide the structure I want.  Your ideas will be greatly appreciated.

This moth comes from Asia and demonstrates the issues caused by the movements of plants around the world.  Growing plants in other climate areas because they will grow more quickly and can therefore be produced at a lower cost may be one cause of this introduction.

How many more plants will it be impossible to grow in the future?  In this area there are historic gardens with centuries old Box parterres; of course they will have to do everything they can to save their plants but at what cost to the wider environment?

I hope you have some more positive aspects of foliage to share with us today.  Please join GBFD by linking your post in a comment here and by including a link back here.  Please feel free to re-blog this to spread the warning.  Prompt action might have saved my box, it could save yours!

To finish on a happier note, here is the view of the Upper Drive Border, the forms of the Cistus and other evergreens are creating just the look I want!

forgive the flowers on the Thyme, the overall feel of this border is foliage!

forgive the flowers on the Thyme, the overall feel of this border is foliage!

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62 thoughts on “GBFD a dilemma

  1. Oh dear, I’ m so sorry. You must be devastated. Your Box gives such structure to your garden. My suggestions for replacement shrubs are Ilex crenata or Pittospermum tobira.
    It is worrying that there are so many new plant pathogens, particularly the ones that, one after another are attacking our trees.
    I love that scrumptious red tulip.

  2. I opened your post thinking I wish I was more organised to join in but instead just felt sad reading through your post Christina. I am so sorry you have this pest, I would take the same course of action you have decided on. And what a dilemma for the historic gardens. Yew is slow growing but may provide the structure that looks so wonderful in your garden. Your upper drive border looks fab too.

  3. Thank you for alerting me… I will take a closer look at my box now as I have so far avoided any problems with it but just planted out four more small plants. You have probably chosen the best option. I have used nematodes ordered online for vine weevil (in my last garden) and they worked if I watered regularly. I watered them in late in the day when a cloudy day was forecast. The problem is that they only work for one season and you need to use them at least once a year… for how long? It is sad to lose plants, especially when they are so important to the sructure of the garden. I wonder if Euonymus fortunei would be a suitable replacement? I don’t know if it can be trained to stay compact, but it can be trimmed hard….

    • Thanks for the suggestion, I like Euonymus but I’m not sure it will withstand drought as well as box. Look carefully at your new plants I’m pretty sure that the caterpillar came in with some small box I added recently, they are also the ones that have been completely destroyed!

      • If it is any help, I have several Euonymus in the rockery: well-drained and south-facing. I
        was looking at something else in a catalogue this morning and they suggested a dwarf form of Thuja occidentalis as a box
        alternative… I have no experience of it though.

  4. Gosh I am so sorry to read about your box problem especially given its role in your stunning garden. You may remember I blogged recently fearful that I had box blight here-so far it seems to have been limited to one box pyramid but I’m being vigilant and will now look for caterpillars. I suggest Ilex crenata or Teucrium chamaedrys both would give similar structure but I guess the latter will depend on the severity of your winters. I love your foliage border even with the flowering thymes and those tulips are fabulous.

    • I think Ilex crenata is at the top of my list at present, Teucrium fruticans is fabulous here but would need a lot of trimming to keep it to the form I would like. another option would be to take out the lavender as well and make serpentine hedges with the Teucrium, I could probably produce all my own plants for that which I would prefer having invested heavily in the box when I bought that! I will check out all the ideas that everyone has. A really positive aspect of blogging. Thank you.

  5. Oh my. I am so sorry to hear about this latest scourge on buxus. It seems nature is intent on wiping this plant from our list of go-to shrubs.
    There is a box-leaf honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida) which is cold and drought hardy once established. Also, the box-leaf hebe (Hebe buxifolia) might work, but needs a bit more summer watering in the first few years.

    As for the pest, almost all insects are killed by coffee or nicotine: you could make a spray combining either or both.

    Get 100g of tobacco, and soak for about 7 days in a litre of water. It will absolutely reek. Then in a coffee machine, make enough coffee for a very strong cup. Add the coffee to the nicotine mixture and shake until mixed. To this, add 25ml of dishwashing liquid and stir in thoroughly.
    This becomes your concentrate. Use diluted: no more than 25ml per litre of water in a sprayer.
    This works best if sprayed directly on the insects, but if you spray it on the leaves regularly, the insects will stay away, it is not harmful to your plants (or us – minus the nicotine component!) and won’t burn foliage like white oil can.
    Good Luck! Here is my GBFD contribution: https://railwayparade.wordpress.com/2015/04/18/autumn-leaves-garden-bloggers-foliage-day-april-2015/

    • Thanks for that Matt, I’ll certainly try it on the Box in the Formal Garden, I think it is already too late for the spheres. Thanks for contributing again this month.

      • I forgot to mention, the spray – being natural – won’t stay in the soil like the commercial ones and it won’t harm bees (unless you spray it directly on them or a plant in full bloom). It’s also good for slugs and snails. I think the spheres should be OK. Trim the leaves off them until it is mostly just a twig sphere (you wouldn’t take more than a couple of cms off)….then give them a thorough soaking weekly for the next 6 weeks and also give them some seaweed fertilizer weekly….being spring, they should re-shoot

  6. I’m so sorry to read this Christina. It is a story being repeated in so many places now but as you say, mainly due to blight. I’d not heard about the caterpillars before.
    I was going to suggest Lonicera nitida as well. With uncharacteristic foresight it is what the previous owner planted here. It seems to thrive in sun or shade and is fast growing. I’ve hacked it down right to the ground in places and still it springs back. It’s what I plan on using for the low hedges I’m creating at the end of the lawn and round the parking area.
    Here’s my link for this month:
    http://www.rustyduck.net/2015/04/22/busting-out-all-over/

    • I already have a couple of Lonicera nitida Baggeson’s Gold, but they are growing very slowly in my very free draining soil. I might try improving the soil where the box spheres are at present and try more plain green Lonicera or I may just change this area completely. thanks for joining in again this month Jessica, I always look forward to your posts.

  7. So sorry to hear about yet another moth damaging our plants, especially your box, which takes years to grow to a decent shape. Since Monty Don got rid of all his when box blight struck, there have been various letters to gardening magazines to say that digging out isn’t necessary, more water, fertilizer and removing plants from around the box so that there is plenty of air movement, seems to be the cure and they soon recover. None of this is helpful against your moth I’m afraid but it might stop blight from striking.

    My link is:- http://leadupthegardenpath.com

    • Yes, I think you may be right about the box blight as I said because of the drier air here it doesn’t seem to have taken a hold as it has in northern Europe. I may try Matt’s treatment for the formal garden to see what difference it makes and whether they damaged parts grow back at all, otherwise it will be out with them in the autumn but I will water and feed them during summer to give them a chance to recover.

  8. Oh Christina – what devastation they are causing to your beautiful box, particularly sad when you see that early photograph and think of all the nurturing that has taken place 😦 I am not naturally pessimistic but it does make you wonder what other species may be wiped out in the future… Then again, is this part of evolution….? Matt’s concoction sounds suitably vile, doesn’t it? Do let us know if you try it! My GBFD is written but will be posted tomorrow.

    • I know what you mean about other species! Walking around the garden just now it is hard to believe just how quickly the caterpillars have destroyed the plants, I wonder what they will find to eat when all the box is gone? I look forward to your post tomorrow, thanks as ever for joining in.

  9. Sorry you are have the problems with the boxwood. I love boxwood. I did lose some before I recognized they were taken over by spider mites. I used a soap solution and they have been fine since.

  10. Oh dear what a sad sight, after all your hard work. the garden still looks wonderful but i fear that you may as well cut your losses and replace. I would also suggest Ilex crenata coupled with a stiff G&T!

  11. Christina I am so sorry to read of this infestation. It seems we all have to deal more and more with these types of problems in our gardens. I wonder what could be used as box is such a versatile shrub. I suppose taking many out is best for now until you decide what to do. Much like I had to do with half my ash trees, and I still am looking for some suitable replacements.

    I do hope to join in again for GBFD in May…

  12. I sorry to hear – and see – the problem afflicting your garden, Christina. I hope you find an alternative to provide the same great structure to the space. Pittosporum is used frequently here for that purpose.

    • I am trying to be positive and think of it as a new planting opportunity, but it does make me sad and also cross that I didn’t react more quickly. Thanks for joining in this month, you’ve been having some fun with new purchases.

  13. So sorry to see this devastation to your boxwoods and therefore, your beautiful garden. Afrenchgarden mentioned bacillis thuringiensis and it’s an excellent suggestion. A complete biological control, it targets the digestive system of an insect in the larval stage. So, it’s placed in stagnant water to kill mosquito larvae, sprayed on tomato horn worms to kill them, and maybe, spayed on your offending caterpillars.

    Is there a native evergreen plant to where you live that could serve as a substitute? How about rosemary? Wishing you all the best in this/

  14. So sorry to hear about the latest plague. Just when drought and hail and cold are gone something else has to rear its head…
    Please check out the Bacillus thuringiensis it may work to give enough breathing room for your plants and is commonly used here on vegetables. I wish I had a replacement suggestion. I would love rosemary hedges, but it’s a completely different look. It’s actually exciting to think of what you will come up with, over the years you’ve come so far with the rest of the garden maybe it’s time to look at the parterres again!
    Good luck.

    • I like your positive attitude Frank. Also good to know about the Bacillus, I’d not heard of it before, might be useful against the cabbage white if nothing else!

  15. I’m really sorry about your box. Its such a good anchor and sculptural element in so many gardens. I will go out and check mine today. So far we have avoided blight, but I wouldn’t make another garden using box as part of the design. Some advice that I heard recently was that a sea weed feed wash would help protect against blight, and I will do that, but as you say, there seems no credible defence against the moth.
    I love your dark green verticals at the bottom of the slope.

    • If I had acted more quickly I think the bacteria that eats caterpillars might have been a good option, I will still try this if I can get some. I may decide in the end to change the space completely or try the Illex crenata which I think is a good replacement for box. I have time to decide because I wouldn’t replant until autumn.

  16. So sorry to hear about your boxwood – what a shame as they were such an integral part of the design. I had best stay out of the plant selection question, except to put in a good word for an old favourite of mine: Arborvitae. I believe that both A. orientalis and A. occidentalis come in a range of naturally formal shapes, with their characteristic lovely texture. I wouldn’t know whether it would be a good choice for your climate though!
    I have put up (a day late as the beginning of the week was rather stressful!) my GBFD post: http://smallsunnygarden.blogspot.com/2015/04/silver-and-other-colours.html
    Hoping you will be able to find a happy replacement soon!

    • Sorry, I meant Thuja occidentalis, of course! I don’t know where my brain was. Writing should not be undertaken in the complete absence of caffeine!

  17. Oh no, I’m so sorry Christina, and just when the box was really coming in to its own. Maybe that gut-dependant bacteria will offer a solution, but otherwise, would clipped teucrium do the job? It obviously does well in your garden, and although it wouldn’t give the deep green it does clip beautifully, as you have proved. And on the bright side, those tulips look amazing.

    Your meme has brought me out of my non blogging phase again, my post on all things leafy in my Spring garden is up. http://plantaliscious.janetbruten.co.uk/2015/04/garden-bloggers-foliage-day-april-2015-spring-being-all-springy/

  18. Oh Christina we only have to turn our back for a minute for such events to happen especially when there are hungry and horrible beasties about 😦 This is one creature that I’ve not heard of so thanks for bringing this to our attention. I wonder if you are a member of the Mediterranean Garden Society as if you are it might be worth contacting them for suggestions. I do hope that you can come up with a suitable alternative when it comes to replanting which will give you as much pleasure as the boxes have done.

  19. I am so sorry to hear this, Christina. Your parterres are so beautiful and are what comes first to my mind when I think of your garden. It is so frustrating how much damage foreign critters and foreign diseases can cause, costing time, money and effort to remedy. Do hollies grown your area? My native yaupon holly, ilex vomitoria, is often mistaken for box. Perhaps there is a holly that would be suitable for you.

    • It is possible that Ilex crenata will grow here, but I’m not not I want to try to recapture the structure that was the formal garden; I haven’t made a decision yet but I may decide to change the area completely. Thank you for your concern.

  20. Very sad to read about the box. I knew other gardeners locally who spent most of last year ‘unplanting’ hundreds of plants. Hoped that at your place, ‘no news (was) good news’ but alas….. I don’t like to be the bearer of other bad tidings, but here, just up the hill from you, irises are infested with grey aphids, making mush of hybrid iris germanica. The more robust, natives (as you know) and ‘pallida’ seem less palatable to the little horrors. Due to the mild, wet winter, they are worse than I’ve ever known. Be on your guard! Stock up with washing up liquid. Again, very sorry about the box.

    • I don’t want to have to fight the box caterpillar every year so would rather replant with something else or rather I’d rather redesign the whole formal bed and not try to replace box with something else. Thanks for the warning about the grey aphids on the Iris, mine have already started to flower, I’ll keep a watchful eye. Strange as it may seem, I think the winter was cold, there were lots of nights with sub-zero temperatures, but there were aphids a couple of years ago after the very cold winter so I think it takes a lot to kill them.

  21. oh Christina I am so sorry, the other problem with growing plants in warmer climates means they very often die when planted in a cooler climate, plus there are the air miles, I like to try and buy bareroot direct from growers in the UK but that is getting harder with so much being in pots, I have an earwig problem in my garden now, not as serious as your problem I know but my reason for mentioning it is the earwigs arrived with some ligularias I ordered, had I known how problematic they would become I would have dug them out and sterilised the soil as soon as I noticed them, I hope you find a suitable substitute plant you like as much, Frances

    • All my box came from a reliable sauce but once a moth is here, in a climate it likes there is no stopping it. I have more or less decided to change the whole of the formal part of the garden rather than just replace the box; I’m not likely to be happy with any replacements.

  22. So sorry to hear about the box caterpillars. There always seems to be something to tax the ingenuity, doesn’t there? I would have suggested Teucrium too but I thought the whole response from other commentators was inspiring and supportive so I hope you find the right answer for you. Love the tulips, by the way.

    • I made the decision to dig all the box out; I didn’t want a yearly battle and the box looking dreadful for most of the year. I am giving myself the summer to decide what to do with this area.

  23. Thanks for the heads-up Christina. And there’s some great advice above, isn’t there? The Bacillus thuringiensis in particular. I’m only planning to take cuttings from my existing box now because of the horrors I had with box blight when we had a wet year in 2013. Too much money wasted, and nothing could be done but pull them out. So I’m careful now and very grateful to have read your post (even if it’s depressing to think there’s another possible threat!). When I was thinking about abandoning box, I thought of yew (which I actually planted quite a lot of), hebes (too cold here for them) and Lonicera nitida (easy from cuttings, although needs clipping more than box I think). I’ll give my knot garden from cuttings a whirl and if it doesn’t work I’ll have to be brave, imaginative and redesign. I loved your last photograph – and it was good that you included it to cheer us all up with another perfect shot of a very successful area in your garden.

    • In some ways I think the moth and caterpillar are almost a worse threat than the box blight because even if you manage to beat them one year they will always be around now. If you do spot them ACT QUICKLY, they completely defoliated my quite large plants within a month! I have now removed them all. The Bacillus sounded the best to me as I wouldn’t want to do anything adverse to the bee population but I couldn’t get any quickly enough. It is depressing because it seems that each year there is a new pest that comes from far away. Italy has a new olive pest, I’m not sure what the world will do without good quality olive oil. I think if mine succumb, I’ll feel like giving up.

      • I can see exactly what you mean about the caterpillar and I will be checking as soon as I am home again at the weekend. But how sad about the olives, Christina. Almost tragic, since we/I can easily be imaginative about ornamentals in the garden – but I use olive oil almost every time I cook. Thanks again for pointing me in the direction of your post.

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