With or Without Yew

For about 10 years, I’ve been plotting to get rid of the Japanese Yew (Taxus cuspidata) in a corner of the Back Garden. Clearly, the plot has been unsuccessful so far. There are 2 reasons for this. First, I suffer from GFS (Garden Fretting Syndrome), whereby the afflicted experiences intense anxiety when faced with making choices about the garden. And second, what would the replacement be (asking this question is a symptom of GFS)?

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Photo of the Japanese Yew taken this morning.

The Japanese Yew is boring and ugly. It just doesn’t do anything, it looks the same all year long. And it has this dark and foreboding presence. Perhaps my dislike of the Yew is partly a reaction to its overuse as a suburban foundation plant.

On the other hand, it’s the only evergreen woody plant in the entire garden. Birds like using it for cover, though it seems to have little wildlife value otherwise. Also, it’s a big shrub that provides privacy by blocking much of the alley. It would leave quite a big hole if it were taken down. In fact, the fence would look pretty naked without it.

As for a replacement, I’ve been all over the map. The spot is in part shade with alkaline soil. It can get quite dry in summer.

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Fringe Tree flowers

I used the Morton Arboretum’s Northern Illinois Tree Selector to get some ideas. They came up with a number of suggestions that I didn’t like or were impracticable. For example:

  • Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum) or Shantung Maple (A. truncatum). Just not a good fit with the look of our garden.
  • Seaside Alder (Alnus maritima). Do we look like we live by the seaside?
  • Several Serviceberry species (Amelanchier sp.). Works for me, but Judy just doesn’t like the name “Serviceberry”. Maybe I could just tell her it’s a Juneberry, or even a Saskatoon? This would be truthful.
  • Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus). I haveย 2 fringe trees out front and I like them. The problem is that I need to plant a fairly large specimen to prevent the Yew corner from looking too empty. I doubt I’ll find Fringe Trees at any of the local nurseries, so I’d have to order it online, which means starting with a fairly small tree.
  • Actually, the same problem would apply to American Plum (Prunus americana), which I’d otherwise be interested in.
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Peking Lilac ‘Morton’

Of all the suggestions, there were three which held the most appeal:

  • Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia). Has nice red flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Shiny nuts are eaten by squirrels but poisonous to people. The only one of the 3 finalists native to North America.
  • Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata). A hardy Magnolia with early white flowers. So early that the blooms are vulnerable to hard frosts, which is a concern.
  • Peking Lilac ‘Morton’ (Syringa pekinensis). This is a small Tree Lilac developed at the Morton Arboretum, so it should be well adapted to the Chicago area. It’s also called ‘China Snow’ due to the white flowers. Judy and I both love that Lilac fragrance. The bark is supposed to be fairly ornamental.

So, do you have an opinion? Should we get rid of the Yew, or leave it be? And what about a replacement? Please respond soon, I feel my Garden Fretting Syndrome kicking in.

64 Comments on “With or Without Yew

  1. What about some kind of nice holly? I may have read too quickly and perhaps you don’t want another evergreen. But I love hollies and there are so many neat ones.

    • No it would be nice to find something evergreen. We could try a Meserve Holly, but Judy likes to walk in the back garden barefoot and those leaves are prickly.

  2. I am cracking up down here — I really wasn’t planning to listen to Bono this afternoon, but now there’s no choice. As for the tree, I see the problem. It is a bit ‘blah.’ On the other hand, I’m not sure I could bear to take it down. On the other, other hand, the thought of lilac of any sort is exceptionally appealing. See? Now you’ve got me on the edge of fretting!

  3. I would definitely get rid of the yew but there are a thousand choices of what to use to replace it. If I were going to go with another evergreen I think I’d go with our native Canadian hemlock because it’s relatively inexpensive, relatively fast growing and responds well to shearing.
    You might want to get a sniff of a Peking lilac before you choose one because they don’t smell at all like Syringa vulgaris, if that’s what you’re hoping. They smell entirely different and the fragrance isn’t at all appealing, in my opinion.

  4. part shade and alkaline soil is what my whole yard is. Carolina Carpinus? I planted two in my yard because my neighbor has one and it is gorgeous. I also have a few yews – I hate them but am only keeping them because the birds do seem to use them for cover.

  5. You get a ‘love’ for GFS. ๐Ÿ™‚ I guess I’d trim it up first, then look at it for a while before taking it out. “Taking it out” also could have more than one meaning. To me, it means digging that sucker out myself so I’d be trimming. If you hire it done, well, that’s a whole different thing. Back to fretting. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I have dug yews out in the past, but these days I just cut shrubs to the ground, then cut off and live stems that pop up the following year.

  6. How about growing a clematis or other vine through it? The viticella group can be cut to the ground when they look ugly.That would give you some flowers in the summer and still leave the evergreen presence in the winter. It stands out because nothing else is around it. Is there any room for some companion plants?

  7. Wish I could give you some sage advice but I’m also up there when it comes to GFS, especially when I don’t know much about the subject matter (as is exemplified by the fact that my first thought was a Japanese Maple as I just love them…whether or not it fits in be damned ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

  8. Many years ago I had a yew just like that at the corner of the garage. I got out the loppers and sheared it back to about four feet high. I’ve kept it trimmed and it looks pretty good.

  9. I have absolutely nothing useful to add to the Yew tree discussion. However never, ever plant an Australian Eucalyptus tree or you really will be fretting..

  10. Keep the Yew and topiary the heck out of it! ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’ve long toyed with the idea of a Japanese Lilac, every time I see one I want one for myself even more- it would be a lovely addition!

  11. The lilac sounds like a good choice. I really like Buddleja, too, but they would be more of a perennial in your area like they are here. They come in an assortment of colors and sizes. I really like my ‘White Profusion’ although it gets much bigger than previously advertised. Now they advertise the correct size… I am not a fan of Yew and am looking forward to re-landscaping the front of my house… Dad planted Yew all along the front foundation and porch! looking forward to hearing about your decision and D-day for the Yew.

    • The lilac got crossed off the list when I was told it didn’t smell at all like common lilac. I’ve taken out a few foundation yews in my time, it’s pretty darn satisfying.

      • Several years ago, my dad and another guy from church removed the yew in front of the church. They took the bushes to the farm and the cows ate and four died… Very toxic! I agree about the lilac. What’s the point in havng one that doesn’t smell like a lilac.?

  12. Whew! I’m so glad to know that I’m not the only one afflicted with Garden Fretting Syndrome. How many times have I decided I don’t like something, it’s in the way, it doesn’t do enough for wildlife, blah, blah, blah and I feel the urge to grab a shovel, or ax or…SOMETHING! You might breathe deeply for a bit and see how that yew looks afterwards. All the best, keep us apprised. ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. How about planting a lilac tree either side of the yew to brighten it up a bit, it would give you even more privacy and more cover for the birds.xxx

  14. Have you considered limbing it up a bit, and underplanting with native blueberries? They turn a lovely red in fall, I understand. And perhaps flank it with service berries on either side. When they get established they have graceful trunks that would be the perfect foil for that dark green. I’ve seen photos of big, old yews and if you can stand waiting, they really do become rather majestic.
    Or, ooh, I love the idea of running a clematis up it. And a service berry on one side and a japanese maple on the other. Wouldn’t that be gorgeous?!

    • Do you think Clematis would do ok on it? It looks too dense for a vine to climb on. I fear the soil is not acidic enough for blueberries.

      • I wondered, too, about a clematis there. I believe you can get pine needle mulch that would lower the pH. Mine are happy under white pines and junipers.

  15. Or what about this~create a little pinery there in that corner. Add a few others, like a weeping something, pine or spruce, and a mugo pine. A small juniper to add a touch of blue…

      • my parents tried valiantly to keep their mugo pine short but when it got away from them I trimmed out the lower branches for them and it looked all noble. They still had a screen, but one they could look through. I believe it took over 20 years for it to get that tall.

  16. Star Magnolia is pretty but it even gets frozen out down here. Boy when it blooms it is pretty. I vote for the lilac. We used to have one of those. It took it 8 years to mature to bloom size. It was worth the wait.

  17. Prune it, plant something on either side. When the new plantings get big enough to provide the screen. Then either cut it down or keep it pruned to a shape and size you like. Service berry (Shadbush or Juneberry) and Bottle Brush Buckeye would work but they are not evergreen. An evergreen I love is Concolor Fir, smells like tangerines.

  18. Rather than get rid of it, I’d add one or two large shrubs / small trees between the yew and you, that would offer interest that shows up well against the dark foliage: spring flowers, fall foliage color, and even possibly winter berries.

    Amelanchier fills the bill so well that it would be a shame to rule it out over one common name (of many). Winterberry or sparkleberry hollies are also an attractive option, but might mean some watering. A small crabapple might do the same job and be more tolerant of higher pH and some dryness.

    All of these help tie the yew into the landscape, creating layers both aesthetically pleasing and biologically productive. These effects would be available soon after planting, even if you start with smaller plants (easier to find, cheaper, establish more quickly, and ultimately outperform large plants).

  19. I like all three of your finalists, along with the Serviceberry. If I had a decent place for it I would plant the latter…or two or three. Serviceberry is a fabulous native tree that’s beautiful in three seasons and has wonderful wildlife value. But really all your finalists. are great.

  20. I’d remove it in an instant! As for a replacement? I am not partial to any of your suggestions, but it’s your yard! Serviceberry is awfully pretty in bloom. What’s wrong with the name? It doesn’t look like it would be named that.
    How much room is there? I can’t tell if those wires are near it, or beyond it.

  21. Saskatoon! (I actually refer to it as ‘saskatoon’, just to avoid going along with the fad of a few years ago. It is no longer a fad.) But, it is difficult to identify with ‘wanting’ to get rid of a yew. They are uncommon for us. There is an ugly one at work that I really dislike; but I do not want to get rid of it because it is the only one around.

  22. Yes, if it doesn’t ever produce berries then get rid of it! The berries are the only reason I have tolerated them in my garden… the blackbirds and others love them. European yew is protected here and they also sow themselves around profusely. We have pruned a couple right down to a stump and they come back refreshed within just a few years! I’d go for the lilac. Anything with a pretty bark and flowers sounds like a major improvement. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Except for the smell, apparently. I think the Yews here are mostly the Japanese species, not sure why. I don’t think they are known to self-sow.

  23. Rather than replacing it why not prune it into a strong shape. Topiary! Then it would be a great contrast to your naturalistic planting. Even cloud prune it?

  24. I would leave the yew, since itโ€™s providing important wildlife habitat. But I would plant some vines,โ€”maybe clematis?โ€”to grow up it to provide some color in the summer. You could also try some winterberry hollies around it, because the dark yew background would make the red berries show up beautifully from the house. You might have to amend the soil to accommodate the hollies but clematis like alkaline soil. Yews take pruning well so you can shape it up if you wish.

  25. Hello Jason, I like the “GFS” as Gardening Fretting Syndrome! For the yew, I probably wouldn’t take it out, but just hack it back severely into a columnar shape – almost like topiary, then plant things in front of it with light/golden leaves that would stand out against the dark yew behind it. You could also take my favourite course of action with plants I’m not too keen on and that is to cover it in a vigorous climber such as a honeysuckle or Montana clematis.

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