Overgrown Yews (Taxus): We done yew wrong

June 4th 2015
Four Seasons

Don't Blame the Yew

“Anything but yews!” “ I hate yews!” are phrases we landscape designers repeatedly hear from clients. And we understand. We do.

We have all seen overgrown yews crowding an entrance, shrinking the walkway so much you must approach it sideways. We have witnessed well-intentioned homeowners prune their yews into something that can only be described as big and green. And we have seen homes all but swallowed up by colossal yew hedge that covers the front façade and blocks any natural light from reaching the windows.

“Don’t blame the yew.” —Glen Goldberg

The qualities that cause these monstrosities also make the yew hedge a valuable landscape plant. Note the following (we do!):

  • They last! Yews are slow-growing and long-lived and often grow more wide than tall. Some of the oldest trees of Taxus baccata in the British Isles exceed 1,000 years old. The Fortingall Yew, outside a churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland, is estimated to be around 5,000 years old and is the oldest living tree in Britain and probably in all of Europe.
  • Yews (Taxus) are versatile evergreens perfect for many landscape uses. They show remarkable variation in height, growth habits, and other essential characteristics. These factors make it possible for the designer to select those that best suit the specific use and site.
  • Yews, allowed to grow without clipping or shearing, develop into magnificent specimen plants, but they are most often used as formal hedges and for topiary work.
  • The prostrate and spreading kinds are effective ground covers.
  • Yew is an excellent shrub for borders, entranceways, paths, specimen gardening, or mass plantings.
  • Yew thrive in most soils. While this evergreen shrub flourishes in the sun to partial sun and well-drained soil, it tolerates almost any exposure and makeup except for overly wet soil.
  • In addition, Taxus yew shrubs tend to be *deer-resistant, drought resistant and tolerant of repeated shearing and pruning, making yew shrub care relatively easy.

Update: March 2018

I am updating this blog now that we have a much different experience. Thanks to Rik Haugen of Garden Design Network in Chelsea, Michigan. Rik recently contacted us with a comment: “Interesting article on Yews on your website; unfortunately, here in southeast Michigan, yews appear to be a universal favorite food for the deer population. You might want to edit the article to reflect that.” Rik said, “You have a great website, but I thought I should pass on what we observe in Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills and southeast Michigan. I spend a lot of time outdoors and have never seen such deer concentrations as up there; they are tame and fat! No doubt some of the folks up there love to feed Bambi.”

In our experience in a suburban landscape, the deer population has had various plant materials to munch before they get to the yews. But the more desperate they become, the more likely they are to eat just anything. In recent years, they have extended their territory, even into densely populated neighborhoods. We are experiencing sightings as never before. They are noticed in busy intersections and neighborhood blocks off 6-lane Woodward Avenue.

As the local deer population increases and competition for the buffet grows, we have even known them to eat mature rose bushes. It would seem nothing is off limits.

Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Everlow yew (Taxus x media ‘Everlow”) is a low-growing spreader with dark green needles. It grows 1-2 feet tall with a 3-4 foot spread and is drought, sun, and shade tolerant.
  • Brown’s yew (Taxus media ‘Brownii’) forms a dense, rounded shrub to 10 feet tall and wide.
  • Capitata yew (Taxus cuspidata ‘Capitata’) forms a broad, dense pyramid, slow growing to 40 feet tall.
  • Densiformis yew (Taxus media ‘Densiformis’) is a good choice for hedges and grows about 4 feet tall and 6 feet wide.
  • Green Wave yew (Taxus cuspidata’ Green Wave’) forms a low, arching mound to 4 feet tall and 5 feet wide.
  • Hicks yew (Taxus media ‘Hicksii’) is a fast-growing hybrid with an open habit that is great for hedges. This variety grows 25 feet tall by 10 feet wide.
  • Taunton yew (Taxus media ‘Tauntonii’) becomes a low-spreading mound up to three feet across. It tolerates weather extremes of wind, heat and cold well and is an excellent plant for dry, shaded spots.

Generally speaking, the yew is an easy-care, slow-growing, shade-tolerant, drought-tolerant, and highly adaptable shrub that thrives in all kinds of soils. It is valued for its versatility as a specimen, a foundation plant, a hedge plant, and a topiary. And there are spreading and upright varieties available.

So the next time one of our clever designers suggests a yew for your landscape, don’t dismiss it. It may not have big showy flowers or multi-colored foliage, but it’s soft green needles and low maintenance will win you over.

I promise.