Ballad of the Yew Slayer

If I were a superhero or a Viking or something like that, I would like my name to be “Yew Slayer”. Fact is, I have taken down a lot of Yews, particularly Japanese Yews (Taxus cuspidata).

It’s nothing personal, it’s just that I really don’t like Yews (although I guess that does make it personal). To me they are just big green blobs. Most of the Yews I’ve taken down were installed as foundation plantings around various houses we have lived in.

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Now I have removed almost all of the Yew that stood in the southwest corner of the back garden, by the alley gate. It was 20-25 feet tall, the largest I have ever liquidated. And I did it all with my little loppers and my folding saw. I started in January and would put in a few hours whenever we had a spell of milder weather over a weekend.

Judy and I have been talking about removing this Yew since we moved into our house almost 16 years ago. Here’s a post I wrote in December about our ruminations on the subject, with a lively discussion in the comments.

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The thing is, now that it’s down to the last few trunks, I’m thinking I’ll let the rest of the Yew stand. And it’s not just because these trunks are too thick to be taken down with a folding saw. I just kind of like their shape, and I’m wondering about giving them some sort of role in the back garden. The question is, what?

I should mention that we have decided to plant two Red Osier Dogwoods (Cornus sericea) on either side of the deceased Yew. These are tall enough (7 to 10 feet) to provide some privacy, but not too tall. They are wide enough that eventually they will mostly obscure the Yew trunks if you’re looking from the house.

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Which raises the question, why not just get rid of them? Well, they will be visible from the alley, for one thing. Also, they will serve as a monument to my prowess as the Yew Slayer.

Maybe I’ll paint these last Yew trunks. A light green or sky blue. Or maybe I’ll grow a vine on them. A Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), or a Clematis, or maybe a smallish climbing rose? Of course, these would be eventually enjoyed mostly by people passing on the alley side of the house.

folding saw
Corona folding saw. I gotta say, it worked like a dream. Small but mighty.

A lot of folks suggested leaving the Yew up and surrounding it with smaller shrubs. I thought about this, but I was concerned that the Yew would shade and generally out-compete its neighbors. And beside, my folding saw was calling to me.

46 Comments on “Ballad of the Yew Slayer

  1. It always feels good to eliminate an ugly spot in the garden by your own power. This should lighten up this area too. Your dogwood replacements will be nice here.

  2. I’ve read of people drilling holes in old tree trunks to provide homes for native bees that nest that way, rather than in hives. The leaf-cutter bees around here often use very small vents on the side of boats for their nests, so they’re obviously skilled at finding spots that suit them. It might be a nice way to provide a little something extra for the bees. Whether yew wood is suitable I don’t know but it ought to be easy enough to find out.

  3. Not so fast, Yews have a way of re-sprouting. Trees want to live. Your Viking moniker may have to be changed to “Yew Wounder.” Kind of rolls off the tongue doesn’t it? Try cutting off a little more and painting the stubs with a brush killing herbicide and you might re-claim your title.

    • I’ve used that approach with some other shrubs and small trees, like buckthorn. Or sometimes I just snip off any green stuff that sprouts from the branches or trunks. After a season, that’s usually the end of it.

  4. Perfect for some kind of climber without having to build a structure. And it can act as a snag to house/feed assorted small critters. I’m impressed with how much you could do with hand tools. Give me confidence to do some pruning of my own.

  5. My experience in removing several yews – cut completely to the ground or they come back. I did trim a ten foot one back to about four feet and it filled out beautifully. Just have to trim up the new shoots each year.

  6. Good suggestions in the previous comments. I too would plant a climber, a rose or a honeysuckle.
    You create the best post titles in the blogosphere. 🙂

  7. I say, take the rest down now! I’ve waited too long on several about that size, and once it’s all dead the wood becomes too hard to saw. (Besides, honestly? It looks like you just got lazy and gave up when the work got too hard!)
    I hate junipers. Any and all. The ones in my yard were the first things to go. Hate them in all their shapes and sizes and forms. So, I understand taking yews personally!

  8. But what makes you think it is a deceased yew? You may not be a yew slayer at all, it is quite possible that you have just given it a bit of a headache. Yew will come back from bare trunks.

    • With shrubs and small trees I usually paint the fresh cuts with herbicide. Other times I just keep snipping off any green growth that emerges. A year of that will kill most woody plants I’ve had to contend with.

  9. I think it’s a perfect size for a manageable come-back. I love the history attached to these trees. You can still have all sorts growing on the stumps…win-win. xxx

  10. I think you may need to remove those trunks as yews will reshoot and grow just as big and even faster too! 😉 We have first-hand experience…

  11. I kinda like the trunks as well & really like the idea of making them a feature by painting them some lively colours. Like a colourful obelisk, it’s a focal point on its own without the need of a vine draping over it. P.S. I’ll be considering the Red Osier dogwood for the bed that I’m currently redoing (thanks!)…I knew I wanted a dogwood to replace the honeysuckle shrubs but am still trying to decide which one(s).

  12. Jason … I have two Xmas tree yews in the front that hide the AC unit .. they can be a bit bare in spots but I keep deciding to leave them until I can figure out something else.
    BUT !! .. YES !! .. in my back garden I have a “dead” multi framed lilac tree that I use for 3 President clematis .. it looks amazing in bloom and even when the flowers stop the greenery looks great .. so consider the vine climber option on the trunks .. I think it would work nicely !

  13. How violent . . . and unfortunate. Yew is very rare here. There are some that I really like in the right place. However, I do often dislike how they are rarely (on top of already being rare) in the right place, and how so-called ‘gardeners’ ruin them. I am not familiar with yours. I might not like it if I met it.

    • Yews are as common as dirty around here, particularly as foundation plants, where they suffer as they are pruned into shapes much smaller than they are meant to be.

      • I sort of think that is why they get planted in the wrong places here. One that I work with was planted at the foundation of the building where it is at, but was not one of the compact types. If it were not a yew, I would cut it down. I will probably cut it down anyway, just because it deserves it.

  14. Jason, I agree with the previous comments – it ain’t dead yet! Thanks for the heads up on the folding saw. I have a question for you about northern sea oats. I let one go to seed (it looked so pretty, waving in the breeze) and I now have tenacious seedlings all over the place, grrrr! Please tell me they won’t come back from roots alone? I’m digging out the original plant and trashing it (wouldn’t give to my worst enemy)! This grass should come with a warning.

    • Um … I’d like to tell you they don’t come back from roots alone. I try to cut the seedheads off after they turn to tan.

  15. The yew trunks could be painted if it is indeed deceased. I have a large yew that is pruned quite severely and serves as a backdrop to a yellow David Austin shrub rose. I can understand anti-yew feelings, but they do have their uses.

  16. I like the idea of painting the trunks a fun color, as I think a nice blue on those substantive trunks would provide a clean, fun, artsy contrast to the red osier dogwood. I would worry that most vines would engulf the dogwood too, and cause you endless pruning chores. Mind you, now that your yew is mostly gone, you might miss using that folding saw, and let loose on other things…? Maybe you NEED something you can periodically hack away at…? Also, yews are tough – are you sure it won’t come back? Here in OR, they seem remarkably resilient.

  17. Hello Jason, I don’t know about japanese yew, but English yew will come back from trunks like that. It’s how I’ve seen old yew hedges that have grown too wide be treated, one entire side is cut back to the trunk and when that’s grown back, the same is done to the other side.

    • Interesting. I don’t know much about English Yews, but I’ve been able to send quite a few Japanese Yews to the Great Garden Center in the sky.

  18. Are your ears burning? I just finished whacking down two yews that were about as useful as a Republican Senate. I was thinking about your post whilst I was cutting away. Just waiting for the compost guys to come take it away.

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