Old Yew, New Yew, Renew Yew

Although in the UK the yew tree (Taxus baccata) is often called English Yew it is, in fact, very widespread in its distribution growing throughout Europe as well as parts of Africa, Iran and Asia. It can live to a great age and there are several, mostly growing in churchyards, that are thought to be a thousand or more years old. One such tree grows in the Chiltern village that I lived in before moving to the Cotswolds; it is enormous having a girth of over 5.5 metres.  Despite being a British native that has grown naturally in the wild for thousands of years, yew woods are very rare – I can only think of two (although there must be others): one in the Chilterns behind Watlington Hill and the other in Sussex.  One of the reasons for this is that yew was the favoured timber for making longbows – by 1294 yew stocks were so depleted that imports were being sourced from mainland Europe.

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The yew forest at Kingley Vale, Sussex, England – one of the finest examples of this rare habitat in Europe [photo credit: Ben Shade]

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The huge girth of the ancient yew in the churchyard at Ibstone , Chiltern Hills, England

Yew is unusual in that the individual plants can be male, female or a combination of the two.   All-male trees release huge clouds of pollen whereas all-female produce none and can be identified by their glowing red berries.  It has even been known for individual trees to gradually change sex with all-male specimens becoming all-female and vice versa.  Although the pollen clouds can be extremely irritating if caught in one, in the average garden situation where mature trees are less likely to be found the pollen release is much more limited.

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The glossy red flesh is the only part of yew that is non-poisonous. It’s still not advisable to eat it!

In its natural condition yew is a spreading, evergreen tree, wider than it is tall.  However, for many centuries it has been clipped and shaped into hedges and topiary for which its regular, and when treated in this way, tight growth makes it ideal.  It responds well to being kept low, say around 45cm, or can be stopped at any height required.  Likewise, it can be clipped into neat cubes, intricate spirals as well as the ubiquitous peacock beloved by stately homes.

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Yew topiary at Hidcote, Cotswold Hills, England

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Intricate yew topiary at Farmleigh Gardens, Dublin, Ireland

One of the characteristics of yew is its ability to send out new growth from old branches and even from its trunk.  This can be readily seen when the branches are parted or the main stems are exposed.  To maintain a clean trunk these growths should be pruned away before they become established.  With hedges and trees it means they can be reduced in size as drastically as you might wish although it is important to bear in mind that a heavily pruned tree may never be restored to a thing of beauty.

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Yews ability to regenerate from old wood means that it can be pruned as hard as you dare

If reshaping trees is a skill difficult to master, restoring overgrown or gappy yew hedging only takes courage although for best results it may take a few years to achieve perfection.  Begin this process by removing all growth back to the trunk on one side only.  The hedge will now look ugly but new growth will soon sprout and the following year or in year three the other side of the hedge can be given the same treatment.  Apart from the benefit this staggered pruning has to the health of the yew another advantage is that the screening from the unpruned side means there is no loss of privacy.  The height of the hedge can also be reduced at the same time as side two cutting 6-12 inches below its required finished height to allow for regrowth.  By year five, if not sooner, the hedge will be a manageable, healthy screen once more and will continue to be so for very many years.

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The first stage in regenerating an old yew hedge

As with all plants, especially those that are long-lived, careful planting is essential to give them a good start.  Yew copes with most soil types including chalk but hates waterlogged or compacted soils.  Whatever the soil, enrich with good quality compost or well-rotted manure; if any parts are excessively damp create a low bank at least six inches high to ensure the roots establish in the marginally better drained soil.  Pot-grown yews can be planted at any time of the year providing the ground isn’t frozen; the best time is mid-autumn and spring when the soil is warmer. The optimum size for quick establishment is 2-3 feet and this size also makes planting a hedge quite economic too.  With a bigger budget larger plants may be purchased.  These in the photo below are over six feet high and create an instant hedge when planted closely together.  Because of their size they are usually ‘root-balled’ and only available during the cooler months.  The hessian and wire mesh root ball should be left intact as they quickly decay once planted although the wire collar may be released if it fits too snugly against the stem.  In windy situations they may require staking; they will certainly need careful watering for the first two years of their life.

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Rootballed yew waiting to be planted – they will make a fine, if somewhat costly, instant hedge

However you chose to use your English Yew, whether as hedging or as topiary, there is one common rule to clipping and that is accuracy for nothing looks worse than a formal hedge or piece of topiary that does not have clean, sharp lines.  The ideal time for clipping is August although spring is the time for restoration pruning.  One word of caution – all parts of yew are highly toxic if ingested.  It is essential that clippings are disposed of carefully for it can be fatal if livestock such as horses have access to them.  Yew clippings from regularly clipped hedges can be sold for use by pharmaceutical companies to make cancer treatment drugs.  In the past, when I was the Head Gardener of a large country estate with extensive yew hedging, we secured a not-inconsiderable amount of money over time which the estate donated to cancer research charities.  I believe that, for 2020, collection has been suspended but hopefully it will be resumed in future years.

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A beautifully clipped yew hedge creates the perfect backdrop to any garden – Kiftsgate Court, Cotswold Hills, England

 

 

 

 

Thinking Outside the Box(wood)

Over the years I must have hand clipped many miles of box (in the USA, boxwood) hedging and once the knack is mastered it can be quite therapeutic.  The main rule to follow is to remember that it has to be precise for there is nothing worse than a straight, level hedge that is clipped unevenly.  It irritates the eye as much as a picture hanging crookedly on a wall.

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Patience and plenty of time are key factors in ensuring straight lines

I can’t say that I feel quite the same about topiary.  I can admire the craftsmanship that goes into producing weird and wonderful shapes but it is so easy, in a lapse of concentration to, say, cut the ear off a teddy bear or the beak off a peacock.  As a consequence, I find it rather stressful.  Cloud topiary is far more forgiving but, again, it doesn’t really “do it for me.”

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You need even more patience to clip topiary

Perhaps the most rewarding design I have created was turning four rather scruffy and unbalanced squares of box into simple but elegant cubes.  Yes, it was topiary but to misquote Star Trek “it’s topiary Jim, but…”  To begin with, I was faced by the four squares each with a rather ugly and thorny shrub rose growing out of their centres.  A consequence of this design was that the box couldn’t be clipped properly and neither could the rose be properly pruned.

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The original design with roses always looked scruffy

To create the design the roses had first to be removed leaving a gaping hole in the centre of each square.  Fortunately, I had some reasonably tall box plants elsewhere in the garden that I could dig up and replant.  I soon discovered that it was impossible to plant them properly without damaging the existing plants.  My gamble of just standing them on the earth and then throwing topsoil over them to trickle through the branches paid off.  The soil covered the roots and probably much of the lower branches too*.  Given a good watering, the plants thrived.  Before trimming  all the outer edges needed to be marked with string lines for accuracy in cutting.

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Without strings for guidance clipping the box into perfect cubes would be almost impossible

I thought about all sorts of fancy designs for the tops of the cubes and, as is so often the case with design, I decided that simplicity was the key to a satisfactory outcome.  Two cubes would have a raised circle and two a raised square.  It was essential that these weren’t too high – I didn’t want them to look like a combination of wedding cakes and pimples!  I found that it was impossible to mark these designs out and so they were created without guidelines, relying on my eye to tell me where and what to clip.  By their second year of clipping they looked as if they had been there for ever.

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The design will look just as good in winter when highlighted by frost or snow

Box is such a versatile plant to use and it is well worth experimenting with them.  Below are three photos of how I have used them: the first is the classic edging to a border; the second to bring focus to a set of garden steps; the third a mini-parterre to link two levels in a garden.  Your garden doesn’t need to be huge or grand to use box in these ways – the parterre was suitably small scale for a tiny town garden.  Have a go at creating your own box design – and if creating a topiary peacock is your thing, that’s fine with me – just don’t aske me to clip it!

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The classic use for box – fronting a border

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Giving focus to garden steps

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Mini-parterre for a tiny garden

 

*This is also a good and easy way to create plenty of new plants for the buried stems will often send out roots.  When they do they can be severed from the parent plant to be grown on elsewhere.