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IN WINTER, box hedges are like green ribbons wrapping parcels of brown earth. Even the leafless stems of roses above bare flower beds look cheerful and defined when box surrounds them. In summer, these same hedges will contain a soft sprawl of flowers: they can be cut to look modern or old-fashioned, square-topped or billowing and rounded. No other plant can be at once so glossy and so cosy. For some of us, the qualities of box far outweigh its disadvantages. Others, like Queen Anne, who banished it from Hampton Court, cannot bear the smell. They complain about the clipping and remark that box harbours snails, or that it takes goodness from the soil. On the question of smell, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that box "is one of the odours that carry us out of time, into the abysses of the unbeginning past". It smells, for me, of childhood summers and Italy and lounging about in the sun. But there are people who hate it, and if you are one of those you will, like Queen Anne, not want it anywhere.

Clipping box with a hedge-trimmer takes minutes. With shears it is a more agreeable task, but with whatever you choose to cut this is a once- a-year chore for late spring. Snails, it is true, do seems to congregate under box, but think of this as an advantage, a way of luring thrushes back to the garden. If robbing the soil is a problem, feeding will solve it. Box hedges were traditionally used to outline kitchen gardens under lines of espaliered fruit trees, and as neither the fruit nor the vegetables of our ancestors seemed to suffer we should not be put off by this objection. Nothing furnishes a garden like evergreen hedges in winter and for small gardens box is always best. The common box which grows wild in some parts of Britain is Buxus sempervirens. This will make a 2ft hedge rapidly. For dwarf hedges, "Suffruticosa" is the form to find.

The variation in different forms of box is enormous. The Plant Finder lists more than 80 sorts, and many of these are worth growing as single specimens rather than in hedges. The fastigiate form "Greenpeace" grows into a green column unaided. Without any clipping, it will grow as high as a man-sized exclamation mark. There are forms which make natural domes, such as "Faulkner"; others with blue tints in their leaves, such as "Blue Cone", "Blue Spire" and "New-port Blue". There are thin and thick leaves - "Rosmarini-folia" and "Rotundifolia" - and bushes that have leaves tipped with silver or gold. Choose "Argentea" for speed and "Elegantissima" for beauty if you want silver, and "Gold Tip" for gold.

Some boxes have a tendency to turn a dingy yellow rather than glossy green. If this happens in summer it is likely that the plant is suffering from magnesium deficiency. Epsom Salts is the cure for this. If the bush loses greenness in winter it may be that the form you have been sold is not hardy enough for your climate. "Green Pillow" and "Vardar Valley" (which was collected in Yugoslavia) are reliably green in winter.

All boxes are easy to grow, in sunny or in shady places. In the wild they prefer a well-drained soil with lime. In the garden they benefit from a good organic feed of compost or manure in their early years.

There is a box for almost every purpose and if there is no colour or style of growth that appeals to you, box is one of the most accommodating of plants for topiary. A bobble, a ball, a pyramid, a cube - whatever shape you fancy you can have. Fat hens, peacocks, even teddy bears can be coaxed into being from box. If I could choose only one evergreen it would have to be box.

SUPPLIER: The acknowledged expert on this paragon of shrubs, Elizabeth Brainbridge, has the best selection of box varieties at her nursery. For orders, contact: Langley Boxwood Nursery, Rake, Near Liss, Hants (01730 894467).