I have three Yew shrubs
planted in my back yard. They were planted in a row years ago, and
now are so overgrown that they look like one big evergreen shrub.
They are 20-25 feet tall and 15-20 feet wide. I do not want to
remove them since they are home for so many birds, and I enjoy
seeing the Yews from my kitchen window. Can I cut them back
significantly to get them down to a more manageable size?
A. You can
prune healthy yews (Taxus spp.) back quite severely with no
problem. You can easily reduce their size by one-half to
three-quarters. Such severe pruning is best done in early spring so
they have spring and summer to recover. They will respond by
throwing up a lot of new growth. Be sure to use hand pruners, limb
loppers and pruning saws rather than hedge shears to reduce their
size. Where possible, remove extremely long secondary branches at
their point of origin on a main stem.
Most branches will be too thick for electric hedge trimmers,
so it's a job for loppers and a saw. March is the best
month for heavy pruning in the Northeastern US
Even if you keep your yews sheared into a hedge, you can
achieve significant size reduction while making fewer cuts by
pruning this way. Where possible, cut to an outward-facing side
branch or bud – this opens the centers of the plants to good sun
penetration and air circulation.
Remove branches that grow back
toward the interior of the shrub to eliminate crossing branches.
Even yews sheared as hedges should be pruned this way every three or
four years to encourage healthy interior growth.
GASP! Severe cutting-back is rather shocking, but new
growth will emerge from adventitious buds along the remaining
branches. It may be 2 to 3 years before the Yew appears whole again.
You will not be able to see buds along thick, old stems – they are
present under the bark. You will see where they are when new growth
begins to sprout. The new growth should stop by about mid-July,
which is when you should try to shape it a little, especially if you
want to shear them into a hedge. Since you could not see where the
buds were until the new growth started, you will notice a lot dead
stubs where no growth is occurring. Be sure to prune them back to
just above where new growth emerges from the stem.
By late June, new growth (from adventitious buds) has begun to emerge from the remaining branches
on the Yew stump.
You might want to give the yews a little extra care this summer by
watering when we get into very hot, dry weather. All that new growth
will use more water than the mature stems you are removing. An inch
of water a week is ideal.
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