5 Tips for Trimming Boxwoods


So you’ve got your boxwoods (buxus sempervirens) established in your lawn and you have great intentions for them.  Before you rush out with a random set of shears and ideas about how to prune boxwood plants on your property, there are some things you should know. 

Pruning boxwood shrubs is an intricate process that, if done correctly, will add life, beauty, and function to your garden or lawn.

A property full of properly shaped boxwoods with a walkway flanked by two round boxwoods with a hedge square-style boxwood next to that.

There are different tools that you can use to prune these plants.  Each has its own function and purpose.  Choosing the right pruning equipment for your boxwood shrubs is a vital piece of this puzzle.

Aside from the tools, you also have to choose the best time of year to cut back the newly grown limbs that have arisen from these slow-growing plants.  Pruning boxwood too late in the year could cause you to lose the shrub altogether. 

So, before you begin cutting back these new branches you see coming in on your boxwood bushes, you need to know when you can start pruning the shrubs around your home.

There are five steps you can take when trimming boxwoods to ensure that your boxwood remains a healthy and beautiful piece of the landscape of your home or garden.  Running out to the yard and haphazardly trimming branches is a bad idea.  Again, it’s a process that requires some knowledge and understanding of the shrub.

Pruning these beautiful plants is essential not only to the plant’s function in your garden but also to the overall health and well-being of these boxwood bushes.  What follows here is an explanation of all the key points you need to be aware of before you begin trimming boxwood plants.

A couple boxwood bushes that are lining a walkway with trees and the sun in the background

When to Trim a Boxwood Plant

Boxwood shrubs are slow-growing plants.  Because of this slow growth, gardening with these bushes requires relatively little maintenance.  Generally speaking, you can maintain these bushes by trimming boxwood once a year.

Once established, the best time to trim boxwoods is in the spring.  You can also shape and touch up the boxwood through mid-summer if you find it necessary.

It would be best not to trim or shape the boxwood in your gardens in late summer or early fall.  Gardening during this time of year will not allow the new limbs to harden before the coming winter.  The new growth is pliable and tender and needs the time for the new branches to harden before the cold.

You should never trim your boxwoods in the winter.

If you plan on creating topiary pieces or you are pruning to shape and rejuvenate the plant, the best time is late spring to early summer.  This will give the new growth plenty of time to heal before the winter cold.

The exception to this rule is if you find diseased or dead branches within the bush.  These should be removed immediately from the base of the plant so that the living shrub surrounding it will not be subject to disease.

Three boxwood bushes that are neatly shaped into circles.

Equipment Needed for Trimming Boxwood

Whether you are using these plants to form a hedge or as a topiary piece, you should have the right equipment for the job.  These bushes may grow as high as 10′ and as wide as 6′.  Different plant dimensions and different shrub functions require different sets of tools.  Here is a list of the tools you may choose to use for your gardening needs.

Bypass Pruning Shears

This is the most popular type of handheld shear.  They have a stainless steel blade that cuts with a scissor-like action.  The hook, or the lower cutting surface, provides leverage for the sharpened edge to cut the branch.  The hook will pin the branch against the blade and allow for a neat and clean cut.

These are effective for branches up to ¾” in diameter.  Generally, bypass pruning shears are used to cut back areas of the plant that are still living as the cut does not damage the plant and allows it to heal correctly.

A person wearing gloves using pruning shears to trim a boxwood

Anvil Pruning Shears

These shears are also handheld, but operate a bit differently than the bypass pruning shear.

This type of shear uses a single blade that closes down against the anvil.  The anvil is simply a flattened edge that provides leverage for the blade to work against.  If this is hard to picture, think of using a knife and a cutting board.

These tend to be a bit larger and less proficient than the bypass pruning shear.  As such, they are more difficult for precise cuts in tighter spaces.  They are also effective for limbs up to ¾” in diameter.

If you encounter diseased or dying boxwood, anvil shears are an ideal choice to prune your boxwood. 

An anvil shear being used in a large branch


Loppers are also tools you can use by hand when you are working in the garden.  They have long handles that allow you to reach taller areas of the boxwood.

Because the handles are longer, you will have significantly more leverage when you decide to prune the larger branches of your boxwood.  The added power is used to cut the limbs that are greater than ¾” in diameter. 

Loppers come in both bypass and anvil cutting styles.

The extended handles make this tool bulkier than the smaller shears and are not used for precise or shaping cuts. 

Someone in green gloves is using long lopper shears to trim the top of a boxwood

Hedge Trimmers

Hedge trimmers are gas, electric, or battery-powered tools that have long oscillating blades.  The long blades allow you to prune wide swaths of the boxwood with a single stroke.

Hedge trimmers are ideal when shaping larger boxwoods.  With good power and sharp blades, you can shape your boxwood into nearly any shape you can imagine.

The blades on a hedge trimmer can be as long as 24″ and can cut branches as thick as ¾.”  Be careful when using this type of equipment because it can cut such a large area at one time.  Cutting too much of the boxwoods back is detrimental to the bushes’ overall health and vitality in your garden.

A man in a red glove is using a hedge trimmer along the top of a row of boxwoods

How to Trim Boxwoods

Once you’ve determined you have the right tools for the job, these are the 5 steps you should take when you go out to prune the boxwoods on your property.

1.   Remove Dead or Diseased Branches

Before you begin, you need to inspect each boxwood on its interior and exterior for dead and diseased limbs.  These should be relatively easy to see when compared against the otherwise healthy backdrop of the bush.  Make sure to cut these dead or diseased limbs at the base of the bush.

2.   Check the Interior of the Boxwood

Next, you need to open up the shrub and clean up any remaining leaves and other debris that may have fallen into the interior.  Removing this debris will open up the airflow to the plant’s interior that is vital to its overall health.

3.   Thin the Boxwood

Now you need to inspect the boxwood for limbs that have overgrown the others and are beginning to take over the boxwood.  Next, you should trim these overgrown limbs back to the primary branch.

This will assist in providing airflow and allowing light to enter the interior of the plant.  Doing this in spring will ensure that your entire plant remains healthy and vibrant for the remainder of the year.

A woman holding a lopper shear thinning a boxwood bush

4.   Shape the Boxwood

This is the step where any topiary designs or intricate shaping will come into play.  Prune the boxwoods around your homes and gardens back and into the desired form to meet its function. 

Use your imagination.  Gardening with these plants can be an adventure because they are well suited to being trimmed.  Whether your gardens are planted with boxwoods en masse or as single specimens, this is where precision comes into play.

5.   Trim the Whole Boxwood

It is essential to make sure that you trim the boxwood in its entirety and not just the readily visible portions.  This is crucial to the overall health and beauty of the plant.

Remember that the whole plant is important.  By making sure that the entire boxwood is maintained, you ensure the vitality of the plant for many years to come.  If you were to ignore the areas that are not easily seen, you run the risk of massive overgrowth and make the plant more susceptible to disease.

Three boxwood bushes that have been shaped into circles with surrounding greenery in a yard

About the author: Jeffrey Douglas is a horticultural hobbyist that loves everything related to plants and gardening. He specializes in gardens and houseplants. Read More

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