Pivoting Boxwood Blight, Part I

**The following is a mini story about pivoting boxwood blight: collaborative problem-solving, creating a positive mindset, and finding opportunities in less than ideal situations.**

It was my second week on the job as director of buildings, gardens, and grounds at a historic 5.5 acre urban public garden and museum in the mid-atlantic. Upon arrival I was incredibly excited to make my mark on the property. I was looking forward to being a scholar on the landscape history, and this required a keen sensitivity to prescriptive treatments and recommendations as outlined in key documents such as the cultural landscape report. As the primary decision maker and steward of my department in this smallish non-profit institution, there were tons of opportunities and new initiatives to pursue, but also a lot of of legacy and inherited projects to attend to. My plan was to take the next few months to carefully read all my background material so i could make confident decisions. I had my agenda and was ready to forge ahead.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. During my second week, our gardeners identified the beginnings of significant defoliation and discolorations to much of our boxwood collection, one of our dominant species in the historic core. Our boxwood was a major part of our landscape identity, so this was considered a serious issue. After bringing in the experts and performing some tests, our worst fears became reality: our plants were infected with boxwood blight.

Boxwood blight is a fungal disease that infects boxwoods above the roots and comes with terrible consequences. It’s not curable. The spores are very spreadable and akin to sticky glue, and additionally the spores can live up to 5 years without a host. This means that the blight can spread from plant to plant by contact from humans, animals, and even weather events. You could rub a jacket against the blight, store it in a closet for five years, and then take it out with the ability to infect other boxwood. It’s a tough disease!

Once we fully realized the depth and scope of this issue immediate action had to be taken. All other plans had to be dropped. This was to be treated as a disaster. A slow moving disaster. We started by following best management practices  for boxwood blight as prescribed by local cooperative extensions. There were strict sanitization procedures to limit spread. Any infected vegetation had to be removed and double bagged to landfill. The community had to be informed. As a public garden and museum, our guests had to be informed. Policies changed. Educational programming was created. Site use and rental agreements were updated. Above all, this was approached as a community issue with the mindset that this disease could only be curtailed if everyone was following best practices for boxwood care.

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This story is far from over, and is only the beginning. While most infected vegetation has been removed from the property, the remaining plants still need to be sprayed monthly in the growing season with fungicide cocktails to reduce the likelihood of future outbreaks. These treatments are expensive. On the other hand, new plantings are equally expensive. And there’s no guarantee that new plants will not get infected. To add another layer of complexity, historic gardens like this one are bound to certain treatments and limitations. We are under an NPS easement as well as a will that dictates a certain level of preservation with no alterations.

Circling back to the concept of pivoting boxwood blight, nearly three months after first facing this disaster I view this event largely as a positive experience. Sure, these circumstances caused a major drain on time and resources and threatened our mission and identity as an organization, and my new job honeymoon was cut drastically short. But I’d like to give credit to my approach.  I leaned heavily into collaborative problem solving. In other words, answers and actions were formulated through a very inclusive process which consulted with and involved all necessary parties collectively. This was essential for creating buy-in and ownership. Additionally, creating a positive mindset through messaging and voice when informing the community and staff really helped to set the tone for mirroring with positive reactions and responses. Like the blight, positivity can be infectious and its often harder to get community buy in on an issue that seems completely hopeless to solve. That’s where the final method of finding opportunities in less than ideal situations comes to play. There is always a silver lining, and those with the best context, creativity, openness, and collaborative inclinations most often succeed in executing. In this case, our silver lining was new partnerships, enhanced policies, inter-departmental collaboration, and a renewed vision for species sustainability.

I’m looking forward to updating you on this story in the spring!

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