How to remove a Yew shrub

Removing a Yew shrub 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 Yew shrubs 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 : “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.

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How to remove a Yew shrub 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

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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38 Responses to How to remove a Yew shrub

  1. Pamela Burrell says:

    We need to dig a hole where there is a root to an established yew tree which means we will have to cut the root. At present it appears to be just one root which would be affected. Will cutting it harm the tree?

    • Todd Heft says:

      Pamela: That’s a difficult question to answer without being able to see the area in question. Generally speaking, Yews are very hardy and can take a little abuse. But it also depends on how much that particular root is feeding the tree (or is it a large shrub?). I wouldn’t cut any roots more than 1/4″ inch in diameter.

  2. Bailey says:

    We have about 12 hicks yews as a hedge. It is difficult to say how large they are since we have pruned them every year. However, they were 1 gallon when planted and are now six years old. How difficult do you believe it will be to remove yews of this age and size?

    Our biggest problem is that the yews are planted approximately one foot from a neighbors fence. (There was no fence when the yews were planted). This neighbor has harrassed us for years. There is no possibility of using a chain saw without damaging his fence and a lawsuit will be forthcoming. Is there any way to effectively remove 6 year old yews without using a chainsaw?

    Must they be entirely removed from the ground? We don’t intend to replant anything in that area, therefore can we simply cut them to ground level?

    • Todd Heft says:

      Bailey: Thanks for your comment. To answer your concerns:
      1. 6 years isn’t very long in the life of a yew, so they shouldn’t be as difficult as the yews I slayed in my post – they were (I’m guessing) 15-20 years old.
      2. See the comment in this post in which someone used a reciprocating saw to remove the yews. That’s a smaller blade and should give you the maneuverability required along the fence. Buy a few blades, as yews are extremely dense.
      3. While the yews don’t have to be entirely removed from the ground, you must cut them to below ground level and if possible, sever the roots from the trunk below ground level. Any part of the yew that remains above ground or close to the surface will develop shoots and attempt to grow another yew off the same roots. That’s why I also cut the root system from the base.

  3. Elliot Lee says:

    We had about 10-12 yews around our house that we bought last year, including one about 15 ft high. I cut down all the above-ground growth and have started removing the stumps.

    Most of the steps suggested here are what I followed even before I ran across this site. However, my brother had suggested one thing that was really helpful – using a reciprocating saw.

    You can buy 12″ wood-cutting recip saw blades for about $12/5 at a home improvement store. Once you’ve dug down and cut the side roots off with a pruning saw (or I used pruning shears), clear away as much of the dirt as you can with a garden trowel, and then use the recip saw with the 12″ blades to cut the roots that are underneath the main root-ball. You just stuck the blade right into the ground at an angle and run the saw while cutting through any roots that the blade finds.

    The blades will last longer than a chainsaw ever could even in the dirt, and they are cheap enough to throw away when they wear out. Also much cheaper than a stump grinder!

    If you have a good-sized piece of wood and have any woodworking skill, save the wood from the bushes and use it for a small project or as an accent on a larger one. I was also told that the central root-ball produces nicely burled wood.

  4. Jeff says:

    I have four 3′ yews in a row in front of my porch and am looking to remove them. After reading some of the posts above I am wondering if it’s better to let a pro do the work. I have been quoted $200 for the project. Seem reasonable?

    • Todd Heft says:

      Jeff: Yes, it’s better to let a pro do the work. As far as the price goes, that all depends on what the service is worth to you.

  5. G says:

    I just bought some hicks yews and was planning to plant them in front of our house. After reading this article and the comments I see its vital I space them far enough from the foundation. Wouldn’t want to run into any costly problems down the road!! What’s the safest bet distance wise for me?
    -Thanks G

    • Todd Heft says:

      G: Take a look at the plant tag and make sure that the mature height won’t be blocking any windows. Then look at the mature width and measure at least half that distance from your foundation. So if your Hicks Yew has a spread of 4 feet, plant it at least 2 feet out.

  6. Laurie says:

    Great article glad I found it getting ready to remove 3 that are less than 2 feet from out foundation. Thought maybe you could help with a question? We have a very small seep of water that comes through the foundation only with heavy or prolonged rain. A friend of mine said to leave the shrubs because of the small leak. She said if we removed them the leak would likely get much worse as the shrubs would not be taking in a lot of the water therefore creating much more water to come through the foundation. I was planning replanting maybe a couple azaleas at least. The shrubs are an eye sore as it appears previous home owners may have tried to cut them off or back to far. Will be re doing the exterior of our home in the next few weeks and really would like them to go. Do you think we will be creating a bigger issue with water coming in? Any advise is appreciated. Thanks

    • Todd Heft says:

      Laurie: Oh boy. Are you sure the roots of the Yews aren’t penetrating the foundation? Causing the seepage? But your friend also has a point – without deep rooted shrubs like yews nearby, water may become worse. However, that also depends on the quality of your soil, grading, direction the storms come from, which way your wall faces, and other nearby shrubs and trees.
      Azaleas will not soak up water like yews will. They are shallow rooted and don’t do much below the top 12 inches of soil. Yews are like trees in that regard.
      If it’s an aesthetic issue, try leaving the yews in for at least one season and do nothing to them – no pruning, no trimming and definitely no shearing. They are a beautiful shrub when left alone to grow – the foliage which moves in the wind is very soft, and birds love the berries. But if you want them to go, I would suggest replacing them with boxwoods. But keep in mind that Yews can stand up to nearly any weather and if they are in the wide open – exposed to the worst weather and sunlight – there are few shrubs that can replace them.

  7. 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.

  8. Sherry says:

    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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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:

  11. 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.

  12. 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!

  13. 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

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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


    • 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!

  17. 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:

      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.

  18. 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:

      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.