A Gardening Journal

Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Pruning the Japanese Yew

In the garden as in life, one thing leads to another. Now that I was done with pruning the various lengths of American beech hedge, it was clear that the trees making up its far corner—where two runs of it meet in the distance, almost directly under overhanging branches of the old Japanese yew—are slower, shorter, and scrawnier than the rest. Well, duh: Those beeches are growing in the shade of the yew.

 

Here's another portion of the same hedge, growing in full sun between the carriage house (off screen to the right) and the arch of weeping bald cypress, Taxodium distichum 'Cascade Falls'. Full-height and nicely filling in, this portion is already a beauty.

 

Fagus grandifolia Fuller side Taxodium distichum Cascade Falls 022215 640

 

Looking east along its face towards the carriage house, this section of the Fagus grandi-folia hedge really does create a "horto-wall" that continues the line of the carriage house into the garden.

 

Fagus grandifolia south face looking alongside carriage houses north face 022215 640

 

Looking from the other direction—west out into the garden—the top of the just-pruned hedge seems to connect with the Japanese yew.

 

Fagus grandifolia hedgetop afterpruning far focus 020415 640

 

Alas, that beech-to-yew connection is just the problem. Taxus are famous for greedy roots and for casting dense shade; Japanese yew, Taxus cuspidata, can grow as large as a shade tree. Its "root reach" and extent of cast shade will be just as large. Any nearby stretch of hedge would need to struggle with both. How could it grow as well as any hedge in full sun, which wasn't fighting either?

 

Indeed, the difference is stark.

 

Fagus grandifolia Skimpier side Taxodium distichum Cascade Falls 02215 640

 

Yes, these lengths of the hedge are a couple of years younger—but only a couple. Even so, they are just barely beginning to show signs of the other sections' architectural prowess. The essence of a hedge is artifice and uniformity, as years of training change a tight line of other-wise natural-growth plants into a strictly geometric flourish, a living wall as regular and defining as a wall of lumber or stone. This hedge needs to corner where it does—under the yew—but the yew is too huge and desirable to cut down. But a hedge without at least the promise of uniformity is a mockery.

 

I couldn't do anything about the roots of the yew, but I could do something about the shade from the yew's branches. And now was the time to do it: The weather was cold but not bitter, so I wouldn't overheat as badly while I beavered away with my folding saw. The snow was too deep for gardening at ground level, so why not garden ten or fifteen feet above ground? Plus, I had already brought out the stepladder for pruning the beech hedge. Even its young and scrawny portions were nine feet tall.

 

So let the pruning begin! I put the ladder in place, then stomped on the lower step to drive its feet down through the snow to solid ground. Folding saw at the ready, up I went.

 

Fagus grandifolia Taxus cuspidata with ladder between them Taxus now pruned 022215 640

 

One of the small shocks of nature is that a limb, once pruned, immediately seems much larger. Soaring upright, a limb ten or twelve feet high is just the continuation of the stub it will be severed from. It's only a single branch of a much larger entity, the tree, that has dozens more of them. After it's cut and has crashed to the ground—today, near the much-shorter hedge—its real heft and length are shocking. 

 

The largest cut removed a limb with several arms, each a limb in its own right.

 

Taxus cuspidata the pruneds stump w folding saw 022215 640

 

There was no possible goal other than severing this limb cleanly and not being in its line of fall. Alas, the beech hedge was. In a second, the yew's limbs were splayed between the same scrawny beeches it had been shading.

 

Mature beech wood is both rigid and strong; if the hedge had been a lot older, even a heavy limb would have bounced off it. But young beech wood is still fairly flexible, so the heavy yew branches sliced down between the scrawny beeches nearly to the ground. In the moment, it didn't occur to me that I could extract the yew just by cutting its branches. Instead, I was washed over with Hercules-freeing-the-maiden heroism: The entire yew limb would have to be lifted up, through, and above the young beeches—and then tossed triumphantly to the side.

 

In the garden as in life, it's often helpful to make more noise. Here, grunting. It's very em-powering. Loudly but steadily, I was able to lift the yew limb up through the line of young beeches. OK, not all the way, but high enough so that I could then lean backward with the limb, pulling it free through the beeches' more flexible top halves.

 

All fine, until the momentum I had built up ensured that further tilting was unstoppable: I fell onto my back, with the yew limb atop me. Thankfully, I had pancaked onto a couple of feet of snow; I was pinned but unhurt. There was nothing to do but free myself by slithering down into the snow to get back onto my hands and knees. But then what?

 

With more grunting, I righted myself and, still kneeling under the multi-limbed yew branch, shoved it upward and against the young hedge. I was coated white front and back. So much for my Winter-gardening strategy of only doing tasks that keep everything but my shoes and pants legs safe from the snow.

 

Fagus grandifolia Taxus cuspidatum the big limb now alongside the hedge 022215 640

 

But, hey, I was alive, uninjured, and standing tall. My real "Hercules" days were years ago, but my grunting proved as strong as ever. Thank goodness for the power of non-verbal noise. Plus, the yew was pruned, and the scrawny beech hedge would grow more quickly come Spring. Onward. 

 

And thanks to my pruning, now one thing could lead to another literally. With a quarter of the yew's canopy on the ground, the view along the top of the hedge (bouncing up and over the bald cypress arch en route) had become a straight shot out to the still-untamed west acre.

 

Fagus grandifolia Taxus cuspidatum along the top looking west 022215 640

 

And so had the view east back to the carriage house. Directly to the right of the yew is a hedge of box. Both it and the yew were already long established when we bought the property nearly twenty years ago. Ten feet feet high, these happy Buxus sempervirens could be seventy years old. For me, it was an imperative for the beech hedge to continue both lines—west from the carriage house and, at ninety degrees, north from the box hedge—even if that brought beech trees close to the yew.

 

Taxus cuspidatum pruned from the far west 022215 640

 

Looking more closely, you can now see between the yew and the scrawny-beech corner, past the wild dangling stems of the bald cypress arch and along the full sharp face of the more mature section of beech hedge, right between it and the carriage house. If you extend that carriage-house line back out toward you, though, it comes two or three feet closer to the remaining trunks of the tree yew than the scrawny-beech hedge does now. 

 

Fagus grandifolia west corner showing gap between Taxus cuspidatum that needs filling 022215 640

 

Looking west again, the gap between the yew and the scrawny beech trees was big enough for the stepladder. Comfortably so. To complete this corner's alignment, west and north, I'll need to allow the hedge to thicken a good two or three feet. As this corner of the hedge firms up, I'll know down to the inches how much more growth is necessary. That's the beauty of ninety-degree angles: Even by eye, you can make them true.

 

About five years of fuller sun and faithful pruning should do the trick. Then there won't be room for the ladder so, when I prune the yew overhang of the future, I must find access from either side.

 

Fagus grandifolia Taxus cuspidata with ladder between them Taxus now pruned 022215 640

 

Gardening is often put forth as a partnership with Nature, a civilized cultivation of it. And it is. Ah, that beech hedge: Mine is about one hundred and twenty trees of American beech, each planted just eighteen inches from the next. After a decade or two of diligent pruning, the trees that, otherwise, could each become seventy feet tall and wide will, instead, still be just ten feet high and three feet wide—and eighteen inches thick. And they will thrive at this dense but slender size, each a slice in a giant loaf of bread, for as long or longer than any would if growing free-range. Certainly, generations longer than I'll be alive to provide their annual pruning.

 

But gardening is also about grunting, about man against Nature or, at least, despite her. Deep snow? So what—and, thank goodness: Its cushioning saved my life. Cold? Put on more layers. Too high? Get out the ladder. (Still too high? Buy a taller one.) Not strong enough to lift the limb or, in the moment, smart enough to hack it into manageable pieces? Muscle it out of the way; there's no one around to hear or help, so it's now or never. 

 

Gardening as in life: Do you want it or don't you? 

 

PS: So far, I have been rather beech-centric: Yew limbs that block the sun? Just saw them off. But the yew is anything but an unfortunate bystander. For one, yews are unusual among coni-fers in that they can bring forth new shoots not just from cut limbs, but from the tree's very stumps. However much I prune away, the yew will eventually regrow, and then some.

 

And for another, from this yew's perspective, any beech is ephemeral. At a century, a beech is already an elder; at two, a miracle. Yews can live, not just a millenium, but millenia. The oldest known English yew is estimated at 5,000 years, and specimens of Japanese yew are known to be older than a thousand. Barring wider catastrophe in centuries to come, or drastic redev-elopment of my gardens, this yew will be casting plenty of shade long after the beech hedge is gone.

 

Here're two more articles on this large old Taxus cuspidata, as well as how to handle it.

 

Here're all the articles on the hedge of Fagus grandifolia.

 
 
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