Room to Grow

Boxwoods need space, in both gardens and hearts

By Ross Howell Jr.

April Westerberg’s love for boxwoods goes back generations. The owner of a business that repurposes unwanted things for new uses, Westerberg and her husband, William, sell her items at the Chartreuse Barn in Thomasville and at the Holiday Show Made 4 the Holidays at the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market, along with Christmas wreaths, roping and trees.

Last December, my wife, Mary Leigh, had just bought boxwood roping and a fir wreath from April’s stand.
I was collecting the greenery as Mary Leigh wrote a check.

“You might want to wet the boxwood down before you hang it,” April said to me. “Boxwood can be a little . . . prissy.”

Recognizing a kindred spirit, I launched into my tale of woe, how I’d just transplanted boxwoods from our front yard to the back, hoping to stop the depredations of a willow oak that had left the boxwood bordering our front walk in a hopeless condition of misshapen dissonance.

“When you plant them,” April said, “think of a little girl, twirling in place with her arms outstretched. They need a little room. People sometimes plant them too close to other plants.”

Then she looked me in the eye: “Boxwoods need to have their hair and nails done. They crave attention,” she said. “But I love them. They’re beautiful year-round. You can keep them in a pot. You can trim them into a hedge. I used boxwood in my bridal bouquet, with gardenias and Baby’s Breath.”

April inherited her love of boxwoods from her great-grandparents, immigrants from Italy and Sicily.

“My great-grandfather was a gardener who liked to give what he grew to others,” she said. “He loved boxwoods, and growing them became his specialty. In the spring he’d have us kids set 2-inch clippings in little plastic cups. I remember carrying egg cartons with those clippings all over the place.”

In fact, it was her great-grandfather who suggested her name: “He said April was the most beautiful time of year, and that’s what my name should be. Not ‘Aprile [ap-reel-eh],’ his native Italian, but ‘April,’ because he was proud to be an American.”

So “What’s in a name?,” asked the poet and playwright Shakespeare. In April’s case, it was her destiny.

“The day my parents found out they were going to have me, they went out and bought a nursery in upstate New York. You could say gardening’s in my blood. My father had been mowing lawns and doing landscaping. So he bought a nursery business. It turned out well. Later he moved to Nashville, where he developed gardens for some of the country music stars. I remember riding around in his pickup with him. We’d pull up at these nurseries, with great expanses of boxwood and Fraser firs, and it really made an impression on me.

“Later we moved to Galax, Virginia. Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, Joyce, because my father was always on the road with his business. She had a little warehouse where she sold greenery. How she loved growing her boxwood! She taught me so much. She used to say, ‘April, if you get into this business, I want you to remember me, but don’t blame me when your hands hurt.’

“Not long ago, I had a couple tell me about a place where they used to buy Christmas decorations. ‘It was a lady who sold greenery,’ they said. ‘We’d stop by every year, but this time, everything was shuttered up. It was near Galax.’ When I realized they were talking about my grandmother, I started to cry. In my booth I had a picture of my grandmother and me when I was a girl, and I showed it to them.”

Turning reflective, April said, “Christmas Day was also my grandmother’s birthday. When she passed away in 2010, it was devastating. So the Christmas season is bittersweet for me. Obviously, it’s important to our business. But when I think of my grandmother Joyce, well, it’s hard.” But then, hearts always hurt more than hands.  OH

Ross Howell Jr. is the author of the novel, Forsaken. The boxwoods he transplanted to the bed in front of his backyard cabin are happy for the moment. He tends to them assiduously and admits to encouraging them often, telling them how beautiful they are.

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