How to remove a Yew shrub

 

Removing a Yew is sometimes more difficult than cutting down a tree. The wood is extremely dense and difficult to cut with the sharpest chainsaw and the root system is widespread and very deep.

 

The English Yew is an ancient shrub of beauty used for centuries as hedges and trees and central to ancient Celtic religious ceremonies. Topping out at anywhere from 5-25 feet depending on cultivar, full grown Yews are notoriously difficult to extract, due to their deep and hearty root structure.

pruned english yews

Yews as they were meant to be pruned. Notice the location far from the building

The Yew is one of America’s most popular plants, but it would seem that most homeowners never read the tag that comes with the plant. Yews have a mature height of anywhere from 8-15 feet (and in some cases higher) with a 4-5 foot spread – it’s a seriously large plant when mature, and should be given a wide berth.

Some homeowners attempt to restrain their Yews with radical pruning every year, but this leaves the shrubs barren and misshapen. Truly a professional horticulturist should prune your Yew, as they know how far back it can be taken each year without causing damage or stress which may lead to disease (your local landscaper rarely has more knowledge than you do in this area).

When pruned poorly, the inside woody growth of a Yew becomes more visible than its foliage, which is a shame, because the foliage is quite beautiful. For the humble homeowner, unaware of the monster he planted, it’s ultimately a losing battle and the Yew is eventually removed when it grows over the sidewalk or obscures the front picture window.

Did you know that the English Yew has been cultivated for thousands of years? That’s probably why it’s so well adapted to just about any soil and any light condition. From Bellarmine.edu : “The history of the English Yew is a very interesting one. It was used for the longbows of English archers. It is still today used for making bows and cabinetwork. The oldest known wooden tool was a spear made of Yew wood, dating back 50,000 years from Clacton-on-Sea, England.  Robin Hood used a bow of Yew to win the Maid Marion, and they were wedded beneath the branches of a Yew. Upon his death, he was laid to rest beneath a Yew plant.”

Yews form an amazing hedge
Yews are absolutely beautiful when left to grow unpruned – their foliage takes on a free flowing form which moves gently in the breeze, the needles are soft to the touch, it remains green year round and it’s one heck of a windbreak. Yews planted the proper distance apart from each other (depends on cultivar) will grow in to make a perfect hedge, especially if you leave their growth unchecked (un-pruned). Grown this way they’re virtually maintenance free, able to withstand hurricane winds, blizzards or drought. Birds and other wildlife love them too as they provide dense cover for nesting, protection and shelter.

Unfortunately I rarely see Yews planted as hedges a proper distance from sidewalks or home foundations. Lucky me, the previous owner of my home planted 6 Yews around the foundation, each about three feet from the house. On my first couple of landscaping forays after moving in I removed the smallest two, which were a challenge, but my son and I managed to get them out with brute force and shovels, removing even the deep, deep roots. The Yews were only about four feet tall,  and we spent hours bending, twisting, digging, hacking, pushing, and pulling. When it finally came out, we collapsed on the lawn, completely spent. This spring, the remaining four varied in height from 5-10 feet, nearing full maturity. It definitely was time for power tools.

I decided to document my method for safely removing a Yew, since I’ve seen quite a lot of dangerous and poor information about this online.

I’ll interrupt here to say that many people will tell you to back up a pickup truck to the plant, tie a chain to the truck,  lash the other end of the chain around the plant, then put the truck into gear and pull it out. Don’t do it. The chain will likely snap and the pickup’s tires will spin in place and dig up your yard. An additional hazard relayed to me by a landscaper is that Yew roots are known to grow IN to a cement foundation. If you yank the Yew out with a truck and chain, a chunk of your foundation may come with it, which will be really bad news. Yews are the Rocky Balboa of the plant world.

How to remove a Yew safely
Use a lopper to cut off all of the branches down to the trunk

Yew shrub trimmed with loppers

Dig around the yew with a shovel as deeply and as wide as possible. Three feet deep is best.

removing a yew shrub

Use a pruning saw (small, angled and sharp) to trim the smaller brush-type branches as close to the trunk as possible

removing a yew shrub

Feel around the trunk of the yew and with the pruning saw sever all roots, large and small. Yews are notorious for growing back if you leave even one root intact. You can also do this at the tail end of the project.

removing a yew

With a chainsaw, cut the trunk of the yew as far below the soil’s surface as possible. You’ll find the wood to be extremely dense and possibly difficult to cut – the older it is, the more dense it is.

Make as many additional cuts in the wood as possible. Damaged wood will allow moisture, bacteria, fungi and insects to enter and break down the stump and roots.

removing a yew

Once again, feel around the trunk for any additional roots and sever with the pruning saw. Do not use the chainsaw for this, as you’ll be cutting into dirt, which may ruin the chainsaw.

When you’re confident that all of the roots are severed, backfill the hole and cover the stump. Plant something in front of or aside the yew stump, which will now be unseen. It will take years,  but eventually the elements will break down and consume the stump.

The cuttings from Yews make a terrific mulch, by the way. Right now the branches are covering my unplanted raised garden beds. When I’m ready to plant, they’ll be shredded and moved to the compost pile.

yew branches make compost

Yew branches protecting the soil in my raised vegetable garden beds

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Buy on Amazon: Corona RS 7160 Razor Tooth Raker Saw, 21″ Length

About Todd Heft

Todd Heft is an organic gardener and freelance garden writer who lives in the Lehigh Valley, PA and has gardened for most of his life. When he isn't writing or reading about organic gardening, he's gardening. His first book, "Homegrown Tomatoes: The Step-By-Step Guide to Growing Delicious Organic Tomatoes In Your Garden" is available on Amazon now. Google
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26 Responses to How to remove a Yew shrub

  1. Janet says:

    Hi Todd,
    I read where you think yews are a great hedge and that you use the trimmings around other plants but did you know that these plants are extremely toxic. They have killed herds of cattle, dogs, and made children very ill. All parts of the plant are toxic!

    • Todd Heft says:

      Janet: True. However, I wouldn’t ever consider serving my children Yew for dinner. :)

      • cathy says:

        I too was wondering if using the Yew trimmings as mulch would make the soil toxic (when these trimming break down) and if the other plants will absorb the toxic substance from the soil.

        • Todd Heft says:

          Cathy: While yew trimmings are poisonous for livestock and certain wild animals, there is no evidence that they cause any harm to neighboring plants. I’ve used them in my compost bin for years and around sensitive plants during winter and noticed no ill effects.

  2. Sherry says:

    Todd:
    I am thinking of removing 9 yews in front of my house that were planted almost thirty years ago. I removed three Junipers just as you described on the side of the house that were bigger than the Yews are now, . Do you know if the Yews harder to remove than Junipers? I’m really afraid to take these on by myself but they just don’t look as nice as they once did. I too live in the Lehigh Valley, if I take this job on, you may hear my screaming and cursing wherever you are coming from Nazareth. :)

    • Todd Heft says:

      Sherry: I have known no shrub more difficult to remove than a Yew. I’ve struggled less with trees. The difficulty lies in the density of the wood, as you’ll discover when you try to chainsaw it. You should definitely employ some help, as it can be very cumbersome.

  3. Andrew says:

    Excellent tutorial! We have 7 x 4ft tall yews that the past owner planted, all 1.5ft from the house. Yep. I removed one that was 3ft using your tutorial and it worked perfectly. After doing all of the work and getting a sense of the root system by hand, it seems like a reciprocating saw/sawzall could work for some of the root cutting- everything visible and not cutting into dirt, of course. After cutting everything by hand, we were able to get the whole stump out which really surprised us. Thanks for posting.

  4. Babette says:

    I removed 6 very healthy yews because my dog decided they were tasty, especially the berries. Yikes! They’re poisonous! Now I’m left with a 4 foot high cement block wall that needs to be concealed. Any ideas of what to plant? The area is very visible along my driveway and it faces northeast. I’m not hung up on planting another “evergreen.” I’d like a ornamental grass or a colorful perennial. I live in Northern Michigan, so we get cold, snowy winters. The growing season is pretty much June 1 to Oct. 1.

    • Todd Heft says:

      Babette: Fortunately, you have a lot of possibilities with a northeast orientation. But also bear in mind that depending on the height of surrounding buildings, and your own home, you may not have sun on that area after 12 noon. That would make the area you want to plant part shade. Ornamental grasses can be appropriate for sun or shade – a great one for shade is Hakone grass and for sun, Northern Sea Oats. But some grasses seed prolifically, so do some homework before buying. If the area doesn’t get sun after 12 noon, stay away from sun loving shrubs like lilacs and butterfly bushes, because their blooms will be weak – they require at least 6 hours of direct sunlight each day. If the area is more on the shade side, you can’t go wrong with rhododendrons or azaleas. If it only gets a little sun, a row of Panicle Hydrangeas would be amazing, as would spirea. Check the plant tag for mature height and make sure it will ultimately cover the wall. Check this list for native plants of Michigan, because if you plant native, you’ll have to do very little maintenance: http://nativeplants.msu.edu/local_info

  5. Amy B says:

    Hi Todd, Thanks for the great tutorial on removing yews. We have three large, mature yews that are blocking our windows at the ground level of the front of our home and would like to let more light into our family room downstairs. We cut them back once and they looked terrible for awhile but did grow back fine.
    We are now thinking of removing them and would like to know if there could be any foundation leak issues with heavy rain. If I understand your tutorial correctly as long as we dont yank the roots out with a truck we will be ok. Could you recommend what to replace them with.? We face south and live in the suburbs of Chicago. Also does it matter what time of year we cut them down? Thank Yew!

    • Todd Heft says:

      Amy: There will only be foundation issues if the yew’s roots found some cracks in the cement. There’s certainly no way to predict that. To be safe, never use a truck and chains to pull a yew stump, because for one thing, it’s extremely dangerous. Secondly, if indeed the yew penetrated the foundation, the roots may take chunks of cement along with them when pulled out. It doesn’t matter when you cut them down, it matters more what and when you plant in their place. You say the area is south-facing, which is great, so I assume that side of your home gets tons of sun. I wouldn’t want to specifically recommend any plants unless I saw the space, because the color of your home, the material it’s made from, amount of rainfall, or possible shade are key. If that side of your home gets 6+ hours of sun each day, you can plant just about any sun-loving shrub in their place. I would first look at native shrubs for your region, because they offer the least amount of maintenance and best ability to thrive in many different types of soil. They’ll also help attract local pollinators, which we can’t do enough for right now.

  6. Naomi says:

    We moved into a “new” home last summer, prior to my husband’s death from melanoma. The yew bushes surrounding the property (1/2 acre) were already in sad, sad shape. Some eager young adults cut them down to the stump for me last summer. I am still trying to cut the resulting piles into manageable, mulchable pieces. My question is this: would a stump grinder be helpful in getting rid of the remaining stumps? only a few of them are trying to grow back. Would a trencher dig out the main root to allow decomposition? Thanks for your help!

    • Todd Heft says:

      Naomi: Yes, a stump grinder can certainly get the job done, as long as it’s done correctly – that is, deep enough to sever the roots from the trunk. I don’t believe a trencher would be the right power tool for this job, as yews have incredibly dense (as in hard) roots.

      • Naomi says:

        Thanks! My son will be home next weekend, and he’s anxious to do something for me…sounds like this will be the job!

  7. Linda Briggs says:

    I have a 10 foot yew with a trunk four feet from my house’s foundation. Am I in trouble? Should I deal with it asap?

    • Todd Heft says:

      Linda: Wow! That’s a big Yew. I wouldn’t say you’re in trouble, but I would keep an eye on your foundation. If it springs a leak, it may be a root penetrating the cement. You might also want to check if mold is building up on the wall behind the yew. It may be trapping quite a bit of moisture. If neither is the case, then use your best judgement. I hesitate cutting down a beautiful mature shrub like that and I would do so only if you have a really good landscaping plan in mind

  8. Joseph Fedock says:

    I have several yew in front of my house and was told I should have them removed. I have had water running behind my foundation and was told they could be part of the problem when water runs down the root into the foundation. Is this true?

    • Todd Heft says:

      Joe: Sorry to hear about your water problems. Unfortunately, yew roots are so strong that they’re notorious for penetrating foundation walls. That’s assuming your yews are mature or close to it, which means they would be at least 5 feet tall. If they’re smaller than that, chances are the problem lies elsewhere. But if they have penetrated the wall, you can’t fix the hole or crack without excavating all of the earth away from that wall and doing an inspection (expensive!). If you remove the yew, cut it out in pieces, and leave the roots alone – they’ll die away after a few years. Don’t yank the yew out of the ground like some do with a pickup truck and chains, as you’ll take the foundation with it, complicating your water problem. Good luck.
      P.S.: This is one of the reasons I believe yews should be planted a safe distance from the house and left to grow wild. They make great hedges, but poor foundation plantings for this reason.

  9. Maxie says:

    Wonderful article – we’ve got two 26 year old yews to remove from the front of our house. Ugh. We found out years ago at our old house just how hardy these shrubs are. We cut down three badly overgrown yews, at the ground, and thought we were done. Lo and behold, they started to grow back the next spring and by the time we moved to our new home, they were decent size shrubs. Thanks for the how-to, maybe we’ll get it right this time.

  10. Dan C says:

    Todd :
    I have 2 relatively large yews In my front yard with roots of about 4 feet. 1 yew already snapped a pull top with torque of 1,000 lbs. do you think it’s best if I take down the bush first then go to work on the roots? I’m doing this myself so trying to see if it is realistic. Thanks

    DC

    • Todd Heft says:

      Dan: Yews can be extremely stubborn. When you work on them and see how incredibly deep rooted they are it’s no surprise that they’ve been on the planet for thousands of years. You can do it yourself, as I did, but be prepared for a very long day with the heaviest chainsaw you can rent. Even then you may dull the blade so much that it will barely cut by the end of the day. What I did was cut all of the branches off first and then below ground, cut the stump out as deeply as possible after digging around it. Sever the roots attached to the stump and make sure you get all of them, as they’re notorious for growing back. It’s not necessary to pull the roots out of the ground but certainly possible, but you’ll probably need a second hand for that unless you want to do an awful lot of digging – the roots can run many feet from the shrub. I just severed the roots, cut the stump down and then covered it all back up to let the soil work its biological magic on the wood. I now have bee balm, speedwell and rhododendrons planted around the stumps and no one’s the wiser. Good luck! Send us a picture!

  11. Annmarie says:

    I am a victim of overgrown Yews that were graciously ‘trimmed’ by my neighbor. Consequently, they have met their demise and I am trying to remove the stumps. Your directions are wonderful. I wonder, though, would the vinegar weed killer formula work to help the stumps decompose? I am not replanting any time soon. Thank you for your guidance.

    • Todd Heft says:

      Annmarie:
      I would not use the vinegar weed killer to help the decomposition, as it will have the opposite effect. In this case, you want to encourage microbial activity in the soil once you cover the stump. As vinegar is highly acidic, it will kill or discourage those who we want to invite to clean it up.
      The white vinegar solution should always be treated as an herbicide – only to be used when absolutely necessary.

  12. Joe Helms says:

    I’ve heard of Yews of course, but I don’t know anyone around me that has one. What regions are they usually in? I’m in upstate NY, and I don’t think I’d know a Yew if I walked into it.

    Anyway, even though I don’t need to yank any out by the roots, it’s good knowledge to have if I ever have a friend ask for help removing one…

    Also, I’m quite impressed you were able to avoid the obvious, “Now Yew know what to do” type puns for the whole post. I’m pretty sure I would have given in!

    • Todd Heft says:

      Joe:
      If you’re in upstate New York, they’re definitely around you. Check just about any suburban home for those round-ish, tightly trimmed evergreen bushes around many foundations.

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