Overgrown Yew- What month for a hard cutback?

sarahgcJanuary 28, 2011


We have 2 yews, approximately 8 feet high, next to our garage. I'd like to cut them back to no more than 5 feet high. What's the best month to cut back? We are in south jersey near Philadelphia.

It seems like, from previous posts, February or March but I couldn't find a definitive answer. Any suggestions?



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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

you might want to ask in the conifer forum.. instead of the flowering shrub forum ...

i dont care where you post... but most of the peeps who know conifers.. dont really show up over here ... except i will bet a penny on brandon... lol ..

good luck


    Bookmark   January 28, 2011 at 6:30PM
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Yews are extremely amenable to hard pruning and you can do this any time they are in active growth or about to begin active growth - March through August/early September. Pruning encourages growth so you might want to avoid too late in the season or during winter dormancy. In my milder climate, you can hard prune them any time.

I'm not sure there is anywhere on this forum that specifies it is limited to flowering shrubs......many yews are very shrub-like in habit and the question can be answered here as easily as anywhere else :-)

    Bookmark   January 29, 2011 at 10:11AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

so gal ...

would you recommend she google RENOVATION PRUNING OF SHRUBS ... and follow those dictates on a conifer .. a yew ???

can it be done.. MAYBE ... should it be done.. i DOUBT it ...

first you properly ID what you are talking about.. then you research said plant ...

we have been in enough spirited debates about using COMMON NAMES for plants.. and after much discourse.. we realize that we are not even talking about the same plant ...

conifers.. are NOT shrubs ... period ... [and i am positive you know that] ...

anyway ... if i had a wildly overgrown.. wildly overly mature plant.. i would dig it out.. and use the space to plant something that made my toes tingle..

you cant give grandma ... cosmetic surgery ... and think she will soon be pole dancing ... its just not a good idea ... lol ... as i said.. can it be done.. yeah ... should it be done.. I DOUBT IT!!!!!! ....

be done with them.. and plant something that is FIT for that space.. rather than trying to force what is now a giant tree ... cuz conifers are trees ... in a space that they really should not be in ...

this issue is no different than all the discussions we have had about 1950 tract homes.. where they planted all these cute little plants next to the foundations.. only to find out.. decades later.. that darn it.. those were cute little trees ....

sarah .. do whatever pleases you.. doubt you could kill it.. AS LONG AS YOU LEAVE GREEN ON IT .... dont denude it entirely .... but think about what other options you have .... like some climbing roses on a trellis .... morning glories .... your options are endless ...

and.. if you prune grandma.. and decide next winter.. that she is a wreck .. luckily you can get rid of her then... since she is a plant ... try what you are thinking about... and if you hate what it looks like all summer.. feel free to get rid of them ...


    Bookmark   January 29, 2011 at 2:06PM
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mad_gallica(zone 5 - eastern New York)

Yews are very different from other conifers in that you can cut them back very hard an have acceptable results. Usually it takes about two years before they fill back out, but it does happen.

If the end result is supposed to be about 5 ft tall, I'd cut them back harder. Three feet is probably more reasonable.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2011 at 12:12PM
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Ken - the term 'shrub' only describes a habit or type of growth - not a particular type of plant. To be botanically correct, shrubs are really just woody perennials, as are both trees and conifers. Conifers can be trees, shrubs or groundcovers. The term 'conifer' only refers to a type of plant that is cone bearing, not the way in which it grows. Not all conifers are TREES and I will argue that point with you until we are both blue in the face :-) Tell me what is the slightest bit tree-like about Juniperus horizontalis 'Wiltonii' (aka Blue Rug), since it only grows about 8" tall?? And FWIW, rejuvenation pruning only applies to certain types of caning shrubs.....not all shrubby, woody plants, flowering or not, can be or should be treated in such a manner.

Taxus - yews - are one of the very few conifers (regardless of whether they are tree-form, shrub-like or low, spreading creepers) that can be successfully cut back to stumps - no green remaining whatsoever - and still resprout and regrow. I'd agree that if you want to keep it at around 5', you should maybe cut back harder initially, then do annual maintenance pruning to keep it at the size you want.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2011 at 1:17PM
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Since there seems to be some confusion in the use of these terms, I thought maybe some clarification would help:-)

Trees, shrubs and conifers all share one overriding characteristic - they are all perennial woody plants. But that is their only commonality. They each can be either evergreen - hold their foliage throughout the year - or deciduous - lose their foliage in winter or on some other seasonal basis. The term 'tree' and 'shrub' describe a growth habit: a tree is a perennial woody plant, most often defined as having many secondary branches supported clear of the ground on a single main stem or trunk with clear apical dominance. A minimum height specification at maturity is cited by some authors, varying from 3m(10') to 6m(20'); some authors set a minimum of 10cm(4") trunk diameter (30cm/12" girth). Woody plants that do not meet these definitions by having multiple stems and/or small size are called shrubs.

A conifer is a tree or shrub which produces distinctive cones as part of its sexual reproduction. These woody plants are classified among the gymnosperms and several features beyond the cones set conifers apart from other types of woody plants. A conifer is typically evergreen, although some individuals are deciduous, and almost all conifers have needle or scale-like leaves. Evergreen trees and shrubs that ARE not conifers are usually referred to as broadleaved.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2011 at 2:04PM
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Ken, I think ggal makes the point clearly, plus I've never ever seen a cone on my yews,so the fact that they may technically be confiers triggers my obscure button. Your forum focus seem to imply that conifer-geeks have more input about pruning yews than shrub-geeks. I suspect that may be the evergreen and needle leaf attributes driving that assumption, but that doesn't make a yew any less of a shrub IMO. Its similar to asking a daylily question on the perennials forum or the daylily forum. Either is correct. The former will get more attention than the latter even though the latter may be more correct.

Ask a builder to put some shrubs in a new foundation planting and I would say the odds are pretty high, yews will appear!

Back to original question, I would evaluate the overall habit and shape. Many old large yews have been incorrectly pruned for many years leaving dead insides and lower branches never getting light. Taking a 3' haircut off the top isn't likely to be good for the overall plant, but its hard to assess without seeing a picture. If you think you can prune it to a healthy shape, go for it. Early spring would be my ideal time. Less stress on the plant before hot weather and strong sun arrives. But if it were me, I would probably yank them and start over.

I have some yews that I want to maintain at a certain size and I prune them frequently (once or twice a year) to avoid the drastic cut that you are now facing.

    Bookmark   January 31, 2011 at 11:56AM
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tsugajunkie z5 SE WI

To answer the OPs question, hard pruning on a yew is best done in late winter or very early spring. Pruning for shape (light pruning) is best done in mid-July. Light pruning can be done earlier, but chances are it will look scraggly as it regrows before winter. Done later and it may not harden off in time for winter (although that may not be an issue in zone 6-7). This from someone with 25 years of yew hewing. ;-)


    Bookmark   January 31, 2011 at 8:24PM
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I think an excellent job has been done above on this recurring red herring that shrubs can't be conifers and conifers can't be shrubs. Also a good observation that advice for certain "shrubs" (flowering or not) does not apply at all to other "shrubs"...any more than advice for some conifers can be applied to other conifers!

Sorry, Ken: I am a big fan of the substance and style of your posts, but on this dogmatic stance, which has always puzzled me as to why you are so assertive on, you just aren't correct.

To add an interesting note to THIS discussion, some botanists do not consider that yews ARE conifers, since it does not bear its seeds in a cone (according to some definitions, and for those botanists that do consider them conifers: "Members of the yew family and the closely related Cephalotaxaceae have the most highly modified cones of any conifer. There is only one scale in the female cone, with a single poisonous ovule. The scale develops into a soft, brightly coloured sweet, juicy, berry-like aril which partly encloses the deadly seed. The seed alone is poisonous. The whole 'berry' with the seed is eaten by birds, which digest the sugar-rich scale and pass the hard seed undamaged in their droppings, so dispersing the seed far from the parent plant").

    Bookmark   February 1, 2011 at 11:31AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

wendy said:

Your forum focus seem to imply that conifer-geeks have more input about pruning yews than shrub-geeks.

===>>> so she misses the entire point ...

a yew is a conifer.. and must be pruned like a conifer ...

it is not a shrub .. and can NOT be pruned as a shrub ...

but its you guys that are caught in the semantics.. GW has forums for different types of plants.. and until you learn what kind of plant you are talking about ... you will spend a lot of time.. spinning your wheels ...

if you insist on calling a tree a shrub.. well where do you go from there??? if you google pruning shrubs ... you may or may not learn the proper methods ..

my dogma as one of you said.. is not about the biological differences of woody perennials or a masters thesis in horticulture like gal seems to think ..

its about using the right words.. so that we can have a meaningful conversation about the actual plant the OP has ...

i really.. truly ... dont care where anyone posts.. but when one starts a post by calling a conifer a shrub.. it tells me.. the first thing that need be done.. IS TO CLARIFY WHAT WE ARE TALKING ABOUT ... the OP learns nothing useful .. if we let her stay confused about the common term shrub ...

now in the case of a yew.. well frankly.. its just about the only conifer you can prune like i prune most flowering shrubs.. which involves starting by running it over with a truck.. and cutting off the rest ... IT JUST DOESNT MATTER...

but had she a pine tree ... and you let her keep calling it a shrub.. [like my dad did, by the way] ... and she googles pruning shrubs.. well it will be dead in no time ... [for dad, everything in front of the house .. was a shrub]

as a recovering atty by trade.. UNLESS you define what the heck you are talking about.. arguing about it is useless .. like most of all this ...

and gal.. i am getting really tired of your personal attacks on just about everything i post ... if you had you way.. we should just change this to GalWeb.. and be done with it ..

SG .. just do whatever you want.. and it will either turn into what you want.. or it will become so ugly you can get rid of it w/o remorse ... [ i suppose Gal will argue that point also, and if i am lucky.. call me stupid while doing it]


    Bookmark   February 6, 2011 at 3:59PM
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Ken, hopefully you don't consider me thinking you are wrong a personal attack. And as right as you so often are, you are simply wrong here.

"a yew is a conifer.. and must be pruned like a conifer ...

it is not a shrub .. and can NOT be pruned as a shrub ..."

Both these statements are not correct in my view. The first, because it suggests that there is such a thing as pruning it like a conifer. Which even in the same post, you acknowledge is not the case. You prune a yew like you prune a yew. There is not one way to prune conifers, there is no one way to prune trees, and there is no one way to prune groundcovers.

Conifers can be trees, shrubs, or groundcovers. It all depends on their form. Or put otherwise, trees, shrubs, or groundcovers can be conifers...if they have cones! That is the only defining characteristic of a conifer.

I also do not agree that it is pure "forum direction". That is fine, as someone might say to someone posting in the perennials forum about hostas (or propagation), hey, you know what, there is a forum dedicated to hostas (or propagation), you should try there.

Again, this is a puzzingly spirited debate but one I am happy to continue so long as anyone else is...still pretty snowy here in Toronto!

That is a very different message than "hostas are not perennials".

    Bookmark   February 7, 2011 at 11:01AM
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Ken, I apologize if you thought I was attacking you personally. Yes, my comments were directed at you but hopefully only to provide clarification, not to beat you up :-) You post frequently to a wide range of forums - we could just as equally call this KenWeb if you got down to it - and I will not argue that you provide a lot of very good and helpful info. But what you may consider just a matter of semantics I consider to be a matter of accuracy.

Why, I am not sure, but you tend to post with a great deal of vehemence and in terms that often do not allow any room for flexibility......those 'absolutes' that tend to bug me so much :-) Like stating that one NEVER needs to fertilize shrubs or even water established shrubs or trees. That is simply not true - everything is relative and what may work for you in your specific situation may not be appropriate to everyone else. And that type of message, especially couched in the terms and emphasis you are so fond of using, can be extremely confusing and often misleading and counterproductive to those new to gardening or the plant in question.

Again, I apologize if I offended you. That was not my intention and when I do butt in in those instances, I hope to do it with a degree of humor rather than sarcasm, but that's not always easy to convey via just written words. And I by no means know everything about plants and gardening either but this IS my profession and I do have a pretty sound and up-to-date knowledge base. And I write for a living as well so words and their proper usage are extremely important to me. So please accept the fact that if you post something that I feel and can support is inaccurate and/or misleading, I (or someone else) will most likely jump in and attempt to clarify and correct the statement. And I am not singling you out in this......I would do the same with any poster.

    Bookmark   February 8, 2011 at 9:44AM
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