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.
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
Dig around the yew with a shovel as deeply and as wide as possible. Three feet deep is best.
Use a pruning saw (small, angled and sharp) to trim the smaller brush-type branches as close to the trunk as possible
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.
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.
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.
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