When to prune yews

Pruning evergreen shrubs

This is Part 2 in a series on pruning ornamental plants.

With the onset of spring, gardeners gear up for their annual landscape “make over” by extracting dusty saws and hand pruners from the garage and investing in the season’s first sore muscles. Pruning can be one of the most perplexing rituals for the spring gardener because pruning requirements vary with each species.

I find it very entertaining to drive along and look around the neighborhood at over-enthusiastic pruning jobs. The green meatballs and tuna cans that people call shrubs outside their homes are pruning atrocities!

All plants have a “natural growth habit.” The best place to see the natural form of a foundation plant, such as yew or juniper, is an old cemetery. Given free reign, these plants we label as shrubs can be as tall as a house. You can see why it is difficult to prune them into various shapes.

Meatball and tuna can theory

There are few areas in one’s life where we have the ability to exercise supreme control without repercussion or police involvement except in our home landscape. Armed with a dull pair of shears or a power hedge trimmer, we can totally dominate our plants! The act of trimming may keep your shrubs from growing too large or too wide, but one should always question, “Was the shrub planted in the right location to begin with?”

Gardeners who attempt to exert “uniform conformity” over a shrub like a juniper may even be rewarded by deformity and even death if you’re not careful. I like to keep the chain saw (for removal) in the running as an option.

Sharpen your skills and your tools!

Where to start? If there’s one mistake I see home gardeners repeat often, it’s making poor cuts because of cheap tools. The adage “you get what you pay for” is definitely true here. If you invest in a quality pair of hand pruners and a good saw, I daresay you will never need to replace them. Sharpening or replacing the blade is imperative as well. Don’t go out there with rusty, dull tools and expect to do your shrubs any favors!

Plant response

The next thing you should understand is how the shrub will react to your pruning cuts. Pruning in general stimulates a growth response. Some methods of pruning generate more re-growth than others. To keep it simple, I will refer to “heading” and “thinning” cuts.

Cutting off the tip, or growing point, of a plant is called heading or heading back. By removing the point containing the terminal bud on a twig, other buds below that tip are stimulated to grow. This is a common practice used to “thicken” plants such as in a hedge or with herbaceous plants (pinching) such as Chrysanthemum.

A thinning cut is made by removing a branch at its point of origin along the stem or trunk. Ultimately, what you have done is redirect the way a plant is going to grow. Thinning stimulates very little in the way of re-growth and in many cases is the desired method of pruning for both size reduction and enhancing the shrub’s natural appearance.

Pruning yews

In many cases, we have planted or inherited foundation plants around our homes. When a plant is small, it is easy to underestimate the ultimate size of a shrub and most often, size control is the primary reason for pruning foundation plants. A common evergreen known as the yew easily adapts to being planted too close. Although they tend to grow a fair amount each season, when pruned properly, they can be dense and attractive for many years. Yews respond well to the heading cut I mentioned earlier. By hand trimming back the leggy shoots that appear each June, the plant can have a natural appearance and still stay in bounds. When the plant has gotten out of control, however, more drastic cuts deep into the “shoulders” of the plant are also acceptable and may ultimately result in the size reduction you are seeking. Don’t worry about cutting into the lower woody tissue on a yew because lower buds will respond and grow when exposed to sunlight. Temper your pruning into the lower woody tissue on a yew because lower buds are slow to respond in most cases.

No matter how much you prune back your shrubs, remember to keep the top of the plant more narrow than the bottom. This will encourage thickness at the base by allowing sunlight to stimulate growth all the way to the bottom.

When pruning a hedge, as in this yew, be sure to allow the bottom to be wider than the top. Photo credit: Rebecca Finneran, MSUE.

Pruning junipers

Junipers have a very different growth habit compared to the yew. Since they do not sprout from the interior branches when cut hard, gardeners need to be aware of the growing tips for best success. In this case, your best pruning success will be with the thinning method and avoid hedging shears all together. Junipers can easily outgrow their site unless thoughtful, size-reduction techniques are used. When a juniper has been cut repeatedly with hedge shears, it is likely to become deformed and die back beyond recognition.

Because junipers need their new shoots for continued growth, hedging these shrubs will end in failure. Photo credit: Rebecca Finneran, MSUE.

Select the branch that you want to remove and follow it all the way back into the center of the plant then cut. Since junipers tend to be “layered,” the feathery foliage on top of your cut will cover up the wound and keep the integrity of the plant. I see many junipers that have been planted in the wrong place. This is where you will need to evaluate whether or not to use the chain saw!

Find out about other educational resources and classes at www.migarden.msu.edu and at Finneran’s blog. Also see Part 1: Spring shape up: Tidying up your plants.

Related Source:

  • Gardening in Michigan

Certain jobs in the garden are fixed so firmly in a particular season that they wear a groove in the chronology. You measure your tiny occupation of the planet by their rituals and all the other random seasonal associations find a context. The smell of the air. The particular birds or their absence (all the swifts have gone home and the sky is no longer carved into segments by their acrobatics). The light on the wall at seven in the evening. The winding up of summer. The feathery feel of yew clippings spilling on to my forearms as I cut. The smell of cut box.

Always that smell at the end of August, beginning of September. The box hedges get cut in June, after the first lovely flush of green has lost its fire and, more prosaically, any risk of frost is well past. But the box topiary, such as it is, is left until now along with the yew. This has something to do with the fact that it is quite a performance and I only have time to do it once a year. By doing it in late summer it means that they stay trim till next spring. This is standard practise with yew, but a lot of people will cut their box in early summer and again in September. However, since the parasitic box psyllids took up residence in the area we call the hopkiln yard (because the hopkiln, where I sit writing this, looks on to it) which is planted with 64 box pebbles, the growth of this topiary has slowed to a crawl. The psyllids suck the sap of the box from April through till June then fly away, returning to lay eggs in July which hatch and hibernate over winter before sating their vicious appetites the following spring. This means that the pebbles never attain that bushy growth they used to achieve by late summer. They grow from March to late April then pick up again in late July. So they don’t need cutting until late August.

Before I start cutting them I always take a couple of hundred cuttings from the most vigorous plants. Nothing strikes as easily as box and they are cripplingly expensive, so it seems too wasteful not to do it. There will come a time when I run out of places to plant box hedges, but I am not there yet. Although they take so easily, I try and cut just below the point where this year’s growth begins, so there is a plug of older wood at the base. This stops them drying out too fast. I don’t use hormone rooting powder, just strip off the bottom half of the leaves, cut back bushy side shoots and stick them in a compost made up of 50 per cent perlite and 50 per cent coir. I used to add loam and garden compost, but this just encouraged weeds and they don’t need any sustenance to root.

The best cuttings I ever took went into pure sharp sand. Last year I experimented with putting them all into plugs, but this was wasteful of the plugs and they all had to be lined out in a border as soon as the roots developed. It also meant that there were trays sitting around for months, each of which had to be inspected weekly for snails, which love hiding under seed trays or plugs. I have put box cuttings straight into a border, but normally I use 3in pots, with four cuttings to a pot. This year I have copied an idea I saw at West Dean. They had their box cuttings on a bench in an old greenhouse (even the old greenhouses at West Dean are immaculate) filled with a perlite compost mix. So I partitioned off an end section of the cold frames, lined it with landscaping fabric to stop any weeds growing through the gravel base, and put in a 6in layer of coir, perlite and vermiculite. Then I put the cuttings directly into this at about 2in spacings. The cold frame will shelter them from the worst of wet, heat and cold as well as giving them fresh air. This sort of thing delights me. So this is how it is done! Because everything I know about gardening is self-taught, I always suspect that there is an easier way to do things, and when I stumble across a technique that anyone who has done the most basic of horticultural courses learns in the first week, it feels as though I have cracked a great mystery.

There is no mystery to shaping the box. They are rounded but not spherical, so I resist the temptation to be symmetrical. Each is different, with its own shape and character. The effect is made by their accumulated, repeated shapes rather than by any single one of them, so there is no need to be precious about it. I simply start at the bottom and cut a line up to the top and move steadily round, always working from bottom to top. I find it easier to keep cutting until it seems to be right, rather than pecking away at it, and the less I think about how to do it the better it gets done. The Zen of topiary. This bit of the garden, with its apparent rigid grid and formality, is all about feeling right without needing analysis or explanation. The only rationalisation I did this year was to undercut them all rather harder than I had done in previous years. There is a tendency for the rounded curves to become domes, tethered to the ground on a wider base than is necessary or aesthetically desirable.

The yew cones are different in lots of ways. I have to think about cutting these, constantly checking the line of the cones because although each of the 16 is a bit different, they share the same intention. Unlike the box bobbles, they were meant to be identical and only my ineptitude and the way things always slip away mean that they have evolved into separate entities. Cutting them each year is a forlorn attempt to rein them in. In fact, it exposes their idiosyncrasies. They look naked and sleek, as though stripped off to go down to the river for a dip. Perhaps this is the great attraction of topiary. We personalise them in a way that no flowering or free-form plant can be personalised. The constancy of topiary is a reassuring thing, and we cut them down to size to hold death and decay and time at bay.

Your roots

Keeping your box hedging in trim, plus cloning through cuttings:

I use an electric hedge cutter for my topiary. This is fast and light, which is important for control. I have tried using a petrol-powered cutter, but it is too heavy and noisy. I have also done it many times with shears, which are cheap, effective, energy-saving, and good for your forearms. But they must be very sharp.

The terminal bud of a stem produces a chemical that inhibits the growth of any buds below it. By clipping these terminal buds off, we are stimulating the growth of the buds below them. The harder a stem is cut back, the more vigorous its responding growth will be. So pruning topiary creates a denser, more vigorous plant. Therefore if a shape has a hole or weak growth, it is best to cut this bit harder than the rest to stimulate more growth.

In the short term, removal of leaves reduces the plant’s ability to feed itself.

So, after its annual trim, it is a good idea to weed around each plant, feed it with seaweed meal, and water it well.

When you take a cutting it is a race between the stem withering and its ability to create growth by establishing new roots. Ideally you want to minimise moisture loss and maximise the speed of root growth. So take off most of the leaves, leaving just enough to feed the new roots. Keep the cutting moist but not wet, or else it will rot. Put it where it will not get too hot or cold and make sure that it has an easy root run.

Box trimmings will not compost. Better to burn them and put the ash on the compost heap.

Cutting down a large yew tree

On a chainsaw course I did the tutor warned against burning Yew as every part of Yew is poisonous and retains its poison even after being cut. This from the net:

Yew: This burns slowly, with fierce heat. The scent is pleasant. Another carving favorite. Note that every part of this plant, except for the fruit contains poisonous taxines. Death to livestock after ingestion of this plant is well documented and there are reported cases of suicides from ingestion of leaves. Sawdust is dangerous if ingested or inhaled. The Romans reported death after ingestion of wine stored in Yew vessels, yet Yew cups, bowls and plates are still very popular – not that this makes them any less poisonous. Taxines are carried in smoke and the safety of using this wood for cooking or heat is questionable.

People do use it as fire wood as it burns very hot and people do use it to make things like bowls. The flesh of the berries is harmless but the seeds inside are toxic. The leaves have killed cattle that ingest them so the question of it being dangerous is a strange one and may vary from situation to situation.

I’m no expert but personally I’d err on the side of caution and if you do get it cut I would’nt burn it as if fumes build up enough they could be dangerous for example if they build up in a neighbors house while you’re burning it and I’d try not to inhale too much sawdust during cutting but that’s just me.

Common yew is known as a wonderful hedge conifer.

Yew facts for you

Name – Taxus
Family – Taxaceae
Type – conifer

Height – up to 50 feet (16 meters)
Exposure – full sun to shade
Soil – ordinary, well drained

Foliage – evergreen

Its evergreen foliage is very appealing since it is very dense and sprigs are intricately shaped.

How to plant yew

Common yew is a conifer usually planted as part of a hedge, and is often set up at the beginning of fall, but it can also be planted until March or April as long as it doesn’t freeze.

As a standalone, this tree can grow quite large, so check upon planting that it has enough space to spread out.

  • Common yew loves locations with a rather high exposure to sunlight, but does well in light shade, too.
  • Yew likes well drained soil.
  • When part of a hedge, keep a distance of 32 inches (80 cm) between yew plants.

After having planted your yew, watering is needed on a regular basis for 2 years to facilitate root development and settling in.

Pruning yew

Yew is a tree that loves pruning and can even be shaped to whim as topiary.

If not pruned, your common yew can grow over 65 feet (20 meters) tall for the tallest species.

For yew hedges, select the pruning height you are comfortable with as well as the thickness.

  • Pruning the yew is best at the end of summer or at the beginning of spring.
  • A single heavy pruning end of August is enough to keep growth under control.

Spring pruning is usually associated to rising sap and tends to accelerate the yew’s growth. Since yew is a rather slow-growing tree, this solution is often preferred when starting the hedge off.

Yew is one of the few trees that supports hat-racking. This practice is more harmful than proper regular pruning, but for some species it can help shrink a hedge that has grown too large.

  • See also our pruning tips for hedges

Watering yew trees

Yew isn’t a very demanding tree in terms of watering, but does deserve some attention, especially at the beginning.

  • Water regularly after planting for the first 2 years.
  • Water after that in case of prolonged dry spell and only it you feel your yew tree has trouble coping.

Diseases and parasites that attack yew tree

Yew is a tree that resists mots diseases and fungus quite well, and its lifespan can exceed several hundreds of years.

  • If a few branches turn brown and die off, it’s best to eliminate them and burn the waste every time.

All there is to know about yew

Native to Europe and North Africa, yew has been used for evergreen hedges for centuries, but it also is showcased as a standalone in the garden.

Ideal for persons who are passionate about topiary, it lends itself wonderfully to shaping. It’s perfect for cloud pruning.

Both its longevity and hardiness make it an interesting alternative to boxwood which is more vulnerable to disease.

It’s also reputed to be an excellent wind-breaker ready to resist gales of any power – and block out inquisitive neighbors, too.

Take note, though, that yew is a poisonous plant: its berries are absolutely not edible and all parts of the tree are toxic to some degree.

Smart tip about yew

When part of a hedge, think well about how high you want it to grow so that you can determine the planting distance of your yew accordingly! Keep a spacing of about 32 inches (80 cm) to 3 feet (1 meter) for the usual 6-foot (1.80 m) hedge.

Read also

  • Everything there is to know about hedges: evergreen, mixed and flowered

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Credits for images shared to Nature & Garden (all edits by Gaspard Lorthiois):
Yew berry (also on social media) by IMS68 under license
Yew hedge by Andrew Martin under license
Topiary trimming yew by Ronald Porter under license
Dreamy yew shrub by Matt Brown under © CC BY 2.0

Pruning A Yew Shrub: How To Prune An Overgrown Yew Plant

Yew trees (Taxus spp.) are small evergreen conifers with soft, flat needles. Some species resemble small trees while others are prostrate shrubs. These are often used in hedges. Unlike some conifers, yews usually respond well to pruning. If you want to learn about pruning yew bushes, including how to prune an overgrown yew, read on.

Pruning a Yew Shrub

The first question when you are pruning yew bushes is when to pick up the pruners. Clipping at the wrong time can have unpleasant consequences. It is safest to start cutting back yews when they are dormant. Late winter is perhaps the ideal time to start pruning a yew shrub.

The types of pruning cuts to use depend on the outcome you desire. To make a yew tree bushier and fuller, just clip off the outer growth. This heading cut stimulates new growth and makes the tree look rounder and fuller.

Be careful not to trim the top of a yew until it has reached your preferred height plus a few inches. If you do, you’ll find that the tree doesn’t regain height very quickly.

Many conifers will not sprout new growth on old wood. Yews do not share that trait. You don’t have to worry about snipping into old wood when you are cutting back yews. Yews sprout new growth readily even when severely pruned. On the other hand, you’ll want to be careful when you are hard pruning a yew. Don’t ever remove more than one-third of the total canopy any one year.

Nor should you start pruning a yew shrub by removing an entire section of its foliage. Instead, when you are pruning yew bushes, snip a little on all sides of each yew to keep it natural looking and healthy.

How to Prune an Overgrown Yew

If you shape your yews annually, you will never have to resort to hard pruning a yew. It’s better to keep cutting back yews gradually, year after year.

That said, if your yews have been neglected, they probably have grown leggy. If you want to know how to prune an overgrown yew like this, it’s not hard. You can snip back branches to the woody areas.

This type of hard pruning a yew is termed rejuvenation pruning. It will rejuvenate your trees and give them renewed vigor and lush, bushy foliage. However, you’ll have to be patient. It may take a few years for the yew to look beautiful and full again.

Overgrown Yews – Gardening Advice


Q: The Round clipped yews in front of our 1917 farmhouse are overgrown and nearly hide the windows. The house faces north — a shady, windy site on dry clay. We would like plantings that fit the period of the house and give birds the nesting place and cover from winter winds that the yews now provide. Can we just cut the yews back by half? All their greenery is on the branch tips. Will they die if pruned so severely? — Christine Aylesworth, Hebron, Ind.

A: Many a house has been engulfed by upright yews, junipers, and other once-low foundation plantings that have outgrown their site. Your easiest option is to stop barbering the yews into tight mounds and allow them to develop into the open, attractive trees they naturally are, with lovely reddish brown, flaky bark. Brace yourself, however, for several years during which they’ll recall that dreaded phase when your hair is growing out of a short cut. Ultimately, the yews’ airy, spreading branches will obstruct less window area than the dense mass you have now; but even then, the trees may still block more light and view than you’re willing to sacrifice.

A more drastic, though reliable, option is to cut the yews back hard. Unlike juniper, pine, or spruce, these evergreens sprout well from old, thick wood. Prune them in early spring, apply a balanced fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, and water them through the summer. It may take a few years, but the yews will revive — so vigorously that only annual pruning will hold them in check. In the long run, you might be better off replacing your upright yews with a compact variety such as ‘Nana’ or ‘Cross Spreading,’ which matures into a soft, graceful shape that won’t encroach on the windows.

If you’d simply rather dispense with yews, the alternatives for foundation plantings that can handle your site are limited. Other evergreens don’t take kindly to dry shade and harsh winter wind — rhododendron, boxwood, holly, and mahonia would all resent the conditions you describe. Deciduous shrubs such as Korean or golden barberry, snowberry, flowering ‘Benenden’ raspberry, Korean spice viburnum, or a dwarf form of Tatarian honeysuckle are your best shots, and they all supply fruit and nesting opportunities for birds. As for working with the period of your house, forget about foundation plantings altogether. Using greenery to “anchor” a building (as if it would otherwise drift away) wasn’t de rigueur until the 1940s and ’50s. Provided your foundation is in good shape, there’s nothing to conceal. Let your lawn lap the masonry. Soften the lines of the façade with a small flowering tree such as redbud, Cornelian cherry, or serviceberry underplanted with shade-loving ground covers, bulbs, and perennials for color.

How to Prune an Overgrown Yew Shrub

If you’re a homeowner with shrubs, chances are, one or more of them are yews. These soft, flat-needled shrubs are easy to maintain and attractive all year round. If you’ve chosen the right variety, you should seldom have to prune it. If yours is overgrown due to years of undisciplined “bolting,” though, you may be thinking about renovating it. Yews stand heavy pruning better than many conifers but follow these simple steps to increase the probability of success with yours.

Shear twigs back with a hedge trimmer or hand shears to old wood in late winter while the overgrown shrub is dormant. Reduce branches by one-third to one-half their heights to reshape it.

Round the edges around the tops of overgrown shrubs. Many shrub yews, given their heads, will grow “flat tops” that catch snow and leaves, pulling outer branches down and often breaking them.

Trim branch tips that suddenly shoot up (called bolting) after winter pruning so the yew makes no overall growth but only fills in bare spots. An additional trim in mid-June or early July will keep it from setting out new branches from which to bolt next spring.

Prune back gradually if possible, taking half the branch back each winter while the yew is dormant. After 3 years, you will have reduced the size of the shrub substantially.

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