Yew (Taxus baccata) is a handsome native tree or shrub whether planted in a contemporary or traditional setting. It is a classic choice for planting as a free-standing specimen, as topiary, in containers and makes an excellent, long-lived hedge. Careful selection, soil preparation and planting will ensure successful establishment of these timelessly fashionable plants.
Yew tolerates most soils including those containing chalk. It is, however, sensitive to soil compaction and waterlogged growing conditions. Once established yew will even grow in dry soil and shade and can grow more quickly than anticipated.
To give yew the best start in life, prepare the soil, incorporating well-rotted manure or garden compost and plant as you would when planting trees and shrubs.
- Yew hedging, like other evergreens, is best planted in September to October or March to April
- Buy plants that are 45-60cm (18-2ft) high, as these tend to establish more successfully and grow away better than larger plants. Bare-rooted or root-balled yews are preferable as they are usually cheaper than container-grown stock and seem to establish more readily
- Once established, a well cared for yew hedge may make up to 30cm (1ft) of growth a year
Planting a hedge in less well-drained soil
Yew will not tolerate waterlogging and in such conditions may be more susceptible to Phytophthora root rot.
If you need to plant a yew hedge on heavier soils, throw the soil into a ridge at least 15m (6in) higher and about 1m (3ft) wide and allow the soil to settle before planting along the top. Just cover the roots with no more than 3cm (1in) of soil. This keeps the base of the plant and some of the roots out of saturated soil.
- Yew is an ideal shrub for containers where it can be placed by doorways or steps to frame the area and create emphasis
- Ensure sufficient water is given throughout the year and that there is adequate drainage in the base of the container
Pruning and training
- Yew hedges can be easily maintained by trimming once in summer or early autumn
- If a yew hedge becomes overgrown, it is possible to renovate it over three years. Mid-spring is the time to do this
- To recreate a dense, even surface, cut the top of the hedge back to at least 15cm (6in) less than the final desired height
- The following year, reduce the width of one of the sides, followed by the second side in the third year
- A neglected yew hedge, with bare trunk at the base, may benefit from coppicing, cutting back the top-growth to within 15-20cm (6-8in) of the ground in early spring. This will produce multiple stems which can be trained into a formal hedge. The disadvantage to using this method is the length of time taken for the hedge to recover, which will be several years
- Fastigiate forms of yew (e.g. Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’, T. baccata ‘Standishii’, T. baccata ‘Fastigiata Aurea’) have markedly upward-growing shoots that give a columnar shape, but over time they can become more open and less compact
- To help counteract this problem, use ties to prevent the branches on mature plants from falling open
- New growth will hide the ties and can be trimmed in August to maintain the shape
- It may be necessary to trim new shoots individually, taking the shoot back within the foliage to hide the pruning cuts
- Once the tree has attained the desired height, the top can be removed and trimmed annually to maintain the height
Yew is perfect for creating topiary. Plants can be bought ready-trained or you can use metal frameworks to guide you when trimming.
- Sow seed outside as soon as it is ripe, in containers in a cold frame, or in a seed bed. Germination may take two or more years
- Alternatively, stratify seed by mixing with sharp sand and leaving in a container outdoors for two winters, protecting it from mice and birds
- If you sow in spring and place the containers in a cold frame the seed should germinate immediately
- Insert semi-ripe cuttings 10-15cm (4-6in) long in late summer or early autumn and overwinter in a cold frame. Take cuttings from strongly upright shoots (except for prostrate cultivars) otherwise they may not form a strong leading shoot. Hormone rooting compound helps
- You can also take softwood cuttings in early summer outdoors and even earlier with added bottom heat of 20ºC (68ºF)
- Mix fresh seeds with sand and keep at 20ºC (68ºF) for four to five months, then sow in spring. Germination may take one to two years
English yew, Taxus baccata, is ideal for screening or topiary and makes an excellent hedge. Prostrate forms make good ground cover, even in dense, dry shade. There are a great number of cultivars available, including fastigiate (upright) forms that are ideal for formal planting.
Taxus baccata ‘Dovastoniana’ AGM: (female) forms a small tree with tiers of wide, spreading branches and weeping branchlets with very dark green leaves. A useful plant for providing a horizontal element in a border. It can reach 3-5m (10-15ft) by 2m (6ft).
T. baccata ‘Standishii’ AGM: (female) is a slow-growing selection of ‘Fastigiata’. It is ideal for a sunny site, has a columnar habit with golden yellow leaves. It will eventually reach a height of 1.5m (5ft) by 60cm (2ft) wide. A useful cultivar for creating an ‘exclamation mark’ in the garden.
T. baccata ‘Elegantissima’: (female) is a popular golden yew, dense-growing, large bush with ascending branches, young foliage gold turning pale green, 3m (10ft) height and spread. A good choice for a golden hedge
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If foliage turns a bronze or bronze-red colour, this usually indicates environmental stress. This may be a failure to establish, drought or waterlogging. However, sometimes individual plants brown for no apparent reason and generally spontaneously recover.
- Differences in leaf and shoot colour is normal, especially where transplants are seed raised
- Early season growth will darken over the summer. For a uniform hedge it is essential to use cuttings from a single clone
- Golden-leaved forms may get scorched by bright afternoon sun, but in heavy shade will become green