Need help pruning a yew!

academy562(5)April 20, 2006

I have some hideously ugly yews planted in front of my house along the foundation. I'm not sure what kind they are exactly but they are maybe 4 feet tall and several feet wide. The growth mainly starts a foot or so off the ground. They suffered terribly from last year's drought. The insides are very dry and brown.

The previous owners trimmed them into a square shape, which I think looks horrible in front of my four-square home! It's much too severe of a look IMO. There is another lone yew on the side corner which this summer my MIL trimmed into a more rounded shape but I still don't care for it. I really prefer a more natural form as opposed to something that has been been obviously shaped.

I'd like to cut them back by about half but my husband is afraid that will kill them (which would be fine by me because I'd probably replace them with some azaleas or some other softer looking shrub!) They have completely taken over all the space along the foundation so it's impossible to do any other plantings, which means I have zero color in front of my house. I'm coming from Georgia where everyone has gobs of flowers in their yards so my problem may be that I'm having a hard time adapting to the evergreens-and-hostas look of the Midwest (no offense to Midwesterners as I adore being back "home" but I'd forgotten that it's more common to do containers in the front rather than beds & I do a terrible job keeping containers watered!). I do like that the yews are evergreen but otherwise I despise the way these things look! Please help me! :-)

I guess my questions are... when I can I prune these babies? Rumor has it that we could still get a frost as late as Memorial Day, but it's been 70's for several weeks and things are blooming/growing already. How severely can I wack them back? Does the dead growth inside pose any problems we need to consider while pruning? If I cut them way back, will they eventually adopt a more natural look? Where do I prune them? From the inside? I am thinking if I wack the tops & edges off, they will still be square so that would defeat one of the main reasons for pruning? I am so clueless I really need help!

Any advice will be incredibly appreciated. Thanks so much!


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I have cut each of my four yews right back to about six inches high, and each has come back beautifully. The first year is ugly, but that year I just put a container in front of the stub. They fill in so well and you can prune them more judiciously as they grow. I shape them a little whenever I want, from early spring when they first come out of dormancy right up until late, late autumn.

If you never cut them they will indeed have a much wilder look, but they get enormous and unruly, so I like to guide mine a little.

I don't really like yews that much, but they are the very devil to remove, and they were here when I got here eight years ago, so I have made them into livable companions. You can prune them very hard and they will still live.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2006 at 1:09PM
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Just a suggestion-when I cut my yews way back and expose that ugly naked interior, I like to plant a clematis or other vine right in front of the yew to crawl over them. Ususally the vine will cover most of the ugly part of the shrub and also add color and visual interest. Yews are the devil to remove so I have tried to adapt..

    Bookmark   April 20, 2006 at 2:00PM
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Thanks... I consulted my gardening-savvy neighbors and they didn't seem enthusiastic about a severe pruning. I think their hesitation was that the entire interior is devoid of needles so they are going to look even more awful when cut back. I really need to do it at some point though because they are crowding the sidewalk and they aren't getting any shorter! Maybe I'll work in stages so DH doesn't freak out... wack the tops this year and make them skinnier next? At least that way you'll still see green from the street this year...

If they are already getting new growth on tips, is it too late to cut them back?

Also, newfiewoofie, do things grow well under the yews?! I haven't tried planting anything because I assumed the soil pH would be messed up from the needles. If I were able to cut them back and get some flowers growing underneath, I'd be much happier with them!

Thanks again! Sorry for late response but I have been babying some raspberry bushes which we transplanted this weekend. It's raining today so I don't have to work so hard! LOL! ;-)

    Bookmark   April 25, 2006 at 10:43AM
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No, just cut them back right down near the ground. This year will kind of stink, it is true, but you can start fresh. As they grow you can prune them properly so that you don't get this green-on-top/bare-underneath look. The one I did last year looks like a little baby yew, and the ones I did three years ago look like nice, bushy, healthy, well-maintained shrubs that are a little over two feet high.

You can do it now, it's not too late.

Another thing to do that takes quite a bit more patience than I have is to cut about 20% of the limbs right down to the ground. Next year do another 20%. In five years you will have done the entire plant and never get the "bare stump" look.

I have alpine strawberries growning under mine. They like the acid.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2006 at 2:14PM
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Thanks so much! I am going to make DH read your comments; he may agree to a 5 year plan. He is convinced I'm going to kill them. I am threatening to pull them out because they are so awful IMO. What shape do they naturally take? I have no idea.

Do the berries get sun?! There are some tulips planted under ours that are having a hard time because they only get a bit of filtered sun in the AM. I was thinking lily of the valley because it's low and does OK in shade but I'd like something other than white...

    Bookmark   April 26, 2006 at 3:12PM
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I'm telling you, cut them right back to short bare stumps. You will thank me. In two years you will have lovely small, neat, full shrubs. In five years you will have a nice hedge, which of course you will prune narrower at the top and wider at the bottom to avoid that look you have now.

You could always plant an annual fast growing vine like morning glory to cover the stumps this year.

Don't try to take them out. They are a whole lot of work to take out.

The berries get a lot more sun now that I have cut back the yews!

You know, gardening is a process that takes some time. If you buy new shrubs and you are on a budget like me, you have some empty space for a while, but before you know it things have grown and filled in. Cutting back a yew will leave an ugly stump, yes, but in the end you will have what you really want, which is a nice healthy shrub, and it will probably happen sooner than you think.

I tried to google an image of an unpruned yew but I couldn't find one. Search this forum and you will get many hits. Some of them have images.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2006 at 6:45PM
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I have unpruned yews and they are the ugliest things! I really hate them, but I was afraid to prune them, for fear of making them look worse, if that's even possible. I would love to take them out, but they've been there for 20 yrs, so it would be a huge, huge job. I ended up planting some flowers in front of them, in the hope that the eye will be drawn to the flowers and away from the awful looking yews. So, this thread really interests me. My husband will probably freak out if I prune the whole bush back, but I think I will do the 3 yr plan. I've suffered through 15 years of them looking bad, so I can handle 3 more years until they're nice again. I do have a garden book that advises against heavy pruning, saying they won't grow back well. (Better homes and gardens complete guide to gardening) It says that they seldom fill in when you cut out branches. But, the general consensus here is that they will fill in again, so I may try it anyway.

    Bookmark   April 28, 2006 at 8:36PM
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I decided to just go for it and prune those yews. I opted for a 3 yr plan, instead of 5 yrs. I took about 1/3 of the canes and pruned them back hard. It was all I could do to keep myself from cutting them all down, the only thing that stopped me was the fact that my husband would say that I killed them. (He hasn't even noticed they're trimmed yet) If they do start to grow back well from the cut branches, next year I may just finish the rest of them too. They can't look any worse than they do now anyway.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2006 at 3:53PM
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It is now 4 years later and I am curious what you ended up doing with your yews and how it worked out. I have the same problem and am wondering what to do.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2010 at 5:39PM
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