Yew Love

Mundane as she may be, I love yew (not mispelled, but the common name for Taxus species, incidentally vocalized just like “you”). Hardy, green year ‘round, long-lived, and available in many shapes and sizes, what’s not to love? Perhaps that it’s so commonly planted, pruned in dot-dash designs to grace the foundations in front of so many homes.

Still, I love her. For one thing, Robin Hood’s bow was fashioned from a yew branch (English yew, T. baccata, in this case). Two other species — Pacific yew (T. brevifolia) and Canadian yew (T. canadensis) — are sources of taxol, and anti-cancer drug.
Yew berries
At a very young age, I became intimate with yew bushes surrounding our home’s front stoop, on which my brother and I would often play. Yew’s red berries, with an exposed dark seed in each of their centers, would give the effect of being stared at by so many eyes. Sometimes we’d squish out the red juice, carefully though, because we were repeatedly reminded that all parts of the plant are poisonous. (I’ve since learned that the red berries are not poisonous; but  other parts of the plant, including the seed within each red berry are poisonous.)

If yew has, for me, one major fault, it’s that deer eat it like candy. Interesting, since grazing on yew can kill a cow or a horse.

Mostly, I love yew because she takes to any and all types of pruning. My father once had a very overgrown yew hedge threatening to envelope his terrace. I suggested cutting the whole hedge down to stumps. Following an anxious few weeks when I thought my suggestion perhaps overly bold, green sprouts began to appear along the stump. A few years later the hedge was dense with leaves, and within bounds.

Although usually pruned as a bush, yew can be pruned as a tree. A trunk, once exposed and developed, has a pretty, reddish color. Deer sometimes take care of this job, chomping off all the stems they can reach to create a high-headed plant with a clear trunk. 

As an alternative to being pruned to dot-dash spheres and boxes, yew hedges can be pruned to fanciful shapes, including animals, or “cloud pruned” (niwaki, the Japanese method of pruning to cloud shapes). Many years ago, I followed the herd and planted some yews along the front foundation of my house, pruning them to one long dash. No dots.
Yew caterpillar
Since then, I’ve converted that hedge to a giant caterpillar and, more recently, tired of the caterpillar and attempted to cloud prune it, not with great success so far. (It’s my shortcoming as a sculptor, not the plant’s fault.) The goal in this case is not the kind of cloud pruning with clouds as balls of greenery perched on the ends of stems. My goal is to blend the four plants together as one billowy, soft cloud.

Facing my kitchen window is another yew, a large one that was planted way before I got here. Its previous caretaker, and up to recently I, have maintained it as a large, rounded cone. Last year I decided to make that rounded cone more interesting, copying a topiary in Britain. The design is in its early stages, awaiting some new growth this year to fill in bare stems now showing in interior of the bush.
Yew topiary in progress

Not Too Late for Peaches

Moving on to more pragmatic pruning . . . peaches. No, it’s not too late. In fact, the ideal time to prune a peach tree is around bloom time, when healing is quick. This limits the chance of stem diseases, to which peaches are susceptible.

Peach tree, before pruning

Peach tree, before pruning

Peach trees need to be pruned more severely than other fruit trees. As with other fruit trees, the goals are to avoid branch congestion so remaining branches can be bathed in light and air, to plan for future harvests, and to reduce the crop — yes, you read that right — so that more energy and better quality can be pumped into remaining fruits.

To begin, I approached my tree, loppers and pruning saw in hand, for some Sawing peach limbmajor cuts aimed at keeping the tree open to light and air.

Peaches bear each season’s fruits on stems that grew the previous season. So next, with pruning shears, possibly the lopper, in hand, I went over the tree and shortened some stems. This coaxes buds along those stems to grow into new stems on which to hang next year’s peaches.
Shortening peach branch
And finally, I went over the tree with pruning shears, clipping off dead twigs as well as weak, downward growing stems. They can’t support large, juicy, sweet fruits.

Done. I stepped back and admired my work.
Peach tree after pruningAnd, of course, for more about pruning, there’s my book, The Pruning Book.

Read the Book, Bro’

To Prune or Not To Prune, That is the . . .

So I visited my brother and his family for Thanksgiving. As usual, we walked around his yard to look at his plantings. As usual, he asked my advice, this time about pruning. (As usual, he didn’t want to consult a copy of my book, The Pruning Book, which I had given him a few years ago. “Why read it, when I can just ask you?!” he says.)My brother's mystery shrub

He was considering taking blades to a row of handsome, evergreen shrubs along the front of his house. Over the years, the lengthening branches had sprawled out to encroach upon the bordering lawn, in some places leaving exposed bare stems. He questioned whether new growth would sprout if he lopped all those sprawling stems back to near the roots.Close up of mystery shrub stems

But what was the plant? I had an excuse, admittedly rather lame, for not knowing it: I learned all my ornamentals in Wisconsin where not many broadleaf evergreens are hardy. No matter. Sometimes you can figure out how to prune an unknown plant by just studying its growth habit.

Many evergreens, including most pines, Douglas firs, rosemary, and some rhododendrons, will not sprout new growth if cut back to bare old wood. (At the other extreme are boxwoods and yews, which sprout all over the place no matter how they are cut back.)

I suggested going ahead with drastic pruning of the unknown shrub. My confidence came from seeing many young sprouts emerging from the old stems right near where they emerged from the ground and then bent over from their own weight. Hormones within plants promote sprouting of vigorous, new shoots near the high point of a stem wherever it bends over. Pruning a stem back likewise promotes sprouting right near the cut.

I Pass Judgement

Looking across the front path, bro’ next asked me how I liked the pruning job he’d done on his rhododendrons. Hmmm, pretty good.My brother's pruned rhododendron

As often happens with rhododendrons, they are planted near a home and then too often grow so large as to swallow up windows, even the whole side of the home. His had done so, and he had pruned stems back to the height he wanted.

Two problems with this pruning. First, as noted above, when a stem is pruned back, most regrowth, and the most vigorous regrowth, occurs just below the cut. So although he cut the plant down to size, he should expect it to start growing back up to its previous size quickly.

The other problem with this pruning is that it leaves the plant looking butchered, large wounds gaping out atop thick stems whose upward mobility has been abruptly stopped. The best pruning jobs are ones where a plant looks nice without looking as if it has even been pruned.

My approach would have been to make a few cuts of the largest stems down in the interior of the shrub, where the stems originated. The largest stems would also be the tallest ones, so such cuts would be effective in lowering the plant. If too many need removal at once, the operation could be spread over 2 or 3 years. Then the pruning cuts would hardly be noticed, and letting light down low among the stems would promote healthy new growth starting low.

With all that said, my brother’s rhodies didn’t look too bad — and he has the opportunity over the next year or two to make my suggested cuts. Lucky for him, his rhodie was not one of the few that are reluctant to make new sprouts in lopped back older wood.

Moving On

Once I get started pruning, it’s sometimes hard to stop. As I looked at his yew shrubs along another part of his house, I suggested paring down the size of that rectangular block of greenery.My brother's yew hedge

Pruning yew is easy. Since it resprouts up and down stems no matter how severely it’s cut, you can do almost anything to it. His large hedge could even be cut down to stumps to begin life anew — quickly, because it has an established root system.

Most important when reducing the size of the hedge, no matter how it’s cut, is to reduce the whole hedge to a size smaller than finally desired. When maintenance trimming a shrub with hedge shears, trimming is generally further out from where the newest shoots began their growth for the season. That’s why hedges grow larger over time, unless they’re periodically lopped back more drastically, which doesn’t leave them looking that good until those cuts are covered by new growth.

And the Mystery Shrub is  . . . ?

I don’t feel so at a loss at not being able to identify my brother’s mystery shrub: I sent a photo of it to a few experts, none of whom could identify it.