By: Teo Spengler
Japanese yew trees (Taxus cuspidata) are long-lived evergreens often selected for specimen shrubs or hedges in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 to 7. Read on for tips on cutting back Japanese yews.
Japanese yew cultivars range in size significantly. They can be quite tall or very short. Some cultivars, like ‘Capitata,’ grow tall – up to 50 feet (15 m.). Others, like ‘Emerald Spreader,’ stay short or mounded.
Japanese yew pruning is essential if you want to maintain the shrubs in a formal shape or a smaller size than they would naturally grow. Some gardeners make pruning Japanese yew and annual task, regularly clipping off a few inches (5 to 13 cm.) of new growth every year. Others prune harder but less often.
Improperly trimming a Japanese yew can create problems for the tree. That’s why it is important to learn the best techniques for pruning a Japanese yew tree.
When it’s time for cutting back Japanese yews, pick up the pruners in spring before the new growth begins. Sterilize the blades by wiping them with bleach or alcohol before cutting.
Protect your hands with good gloves since yews contain toxins that are poisonous to humans. Trim your yew into shape by removing dead branches and branch tips.
When you inherit an overgrown Japanese yew tree or put off cutting back Japanese yews too long, you’ll need to do a more severe pruning in springtime. These trees tolerate pruning well, so there is no problem in trimming out up to half of the canopy.
You’ll want to proceed in early spring, using pruners, limb loppers, and pruning saws for hedges, rather than shears. Most branches will be too thick to be removed easily with regular shears.
Take off crossing branches and those that turn toward the inside of the shrub. Prune out very long secondary branches at their points of origin, when this is possible.
If not, try pruning Japanese yews’ branches to an outward-facing side branch or to a bud. This type of pruning allows sun and air into the centers.
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You don’t need to prune any plant, and evergreens are no exception. Most evergreens have a distinct shape that keeps them rather attractive with no pruning at all.
There are a few instances where trimming evergreen trees and shrubs might be worthwhile. As with any plant, pruning out diseased, broken, or dead branches is recommended. Disease in any branch can quickly spread throughout the tree or shrub and dead branches are open invitations for disease and pests to move in.
The most common reason to prune evergreens from an aesthetic point of view is to get a fuller plant. A small amount of pruning at the right time can result in a denser, bushier plant, which can be very attractive. However, it is very easy to ruin the shape of an evergreen, by pruning to drastically or at the wrong time.
While many plants can be pruned to keep their size in check, this is hard to do with evergreens because most grow from a central leader. Practices such as topping a tree by cutting off the uppermost part of the trunk should be avoided. Pruning back this center stem will reduce the height of the plant, but the width will continue filling out, leaving you with an oddly shaped tree.
Another bad pruning practice is limbing up an evergreen or removing the lowermost branches because you need the space underneath it. You are much better off researching the growth habit of your tree or shrub and planting one that won’t outgrow the space you have.
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Evergreen trees and shrubs are often referred to as the backbone of the home landscape. These plants add life to the landscape year round because of the colorful foliage. Unlike deciduous plants which drop their leaves, pruning of evergreens does require a little bit more know how.
Prune during active growth
Evergreens are best pruned during their most active growth time which is normally April through September. Pruning earlier in the season can be done but it may require the plant more time to recover. To know when to prune and how to prune, a little background information is needed on their habits.
Evergreens can be grouped based on their growth. There are types that produce only one flush of growth a season such as pines and spruce. The other group is those that have more than one flush of growth each summer such as junipers, arborvitae and yews.
Pruning pines and spruce
Pines and spruce are best pruned in May after their spring flush of growth has occurred. It is best to only lightly prune these plants by either cutting the new shoots or candles back about one half. Cutting back into older wood will not initiate in new growth and will leave a stub which will die out over time. Older branches that are crowding a walk or building can be removed back to the trunk for best results. Young trees that are developing two leader shoots instead of one main trunk can also have one shoot removed for long term health. Limbs that are dead or a hazard should be removed anytime of the year.
Pruning junipers, arborvitae and yews
Junipers and arborvitae can be pruned just about anytime from April through September. Avoiding the hottest dog days of summer is advisable. There is a limit to how far back these plants can be pruned as they have what is commonly referred to as a dead zone. The dead zone is the area toward the center of the plant where all the green foliage has dropped. Cutting back into this area will result in no re-growth and a dead spot. Limit pruning to shorter tips or branches that will not leave holes showing dead wood. Hand pruning to retain the natural shape is often best, but clip out the overgrown limbs.
Yews can be treated similar to junipers. They are a little more forgiving as they will regenerate growth if cut back harshly into the dead zone. Although the recovery from such pruning may be slow and even take a couple of years to close, depending on the health of the plant.
Pruning evergreens is a chore that must be done from time to time. It is best not to let these plants become overgrown for the area as bringing them back into bounds is not always feasible based on their growth habit. Many times a large overgrown shrub around the foundation of a home should be replaced instead of pruning heavily. Evergreen trees placed too close to buildings and walks may also need to be removed as severe pruning may leave the plant unsightly.
With that being said, do not be afraid to prune, but learn a few basic rules so that once armed with the equipment you will be ready to make wise choices for a beautiful plant that will add value to the landscape.
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If you’re a homeowner with shrubs, chances are, one or more of them are yews. These soft, flat-needled shrubs are easy to maintain and attractive all year round. If you’ve chosen the right variety, you should seldom have to prune it. If yours is overgrown due to years of undisciplined “bolting,” though, you may be thinking about renovating it. Yews stand heavy pruning better than many conifers but follow these simple steps to increase the probability of success with yours.
Shear twigs back with a hedge trimmer or hand shears to old wood in late winter while the overgrown shrub is dormant. Reduce branches by one-third to one-half their heights to reshape it.
Round the edges around the tops of overgrown shrubs. Many shrub yews, given their heads, will grow “flat tops” that catch snow and leaves, pulling outer branches down and often breaking them.
Trim branch tips that suddenly shoot up (called bolting) after winter pruning so the yew makes no overall growth but only fills in bare spots. An additional trim in mid-June or early July will keep it from setting out new branches from which to bolt next spring.
Prune back gradually if possible, taking half the branch back each winter while the yew is dormant. After 3 years, you will have reduced the size of the shrub substantially.
Yews bolt in the spring after they begin their annual growth. In order to keep yours neat, trim them when the pale green growth tips begin to appear.
Hard pruning will spur healthy shrubs to grow faster the next spring. Keep them in bounds by trimming back growth tips in spring and shearing back bolting tips in early summer to keep your shrub compact.
Although some experts say that cutting yews back all at once is acceptable, the shrubs will look ugly for several years until they’ve had a chance to grow out. If this extreme pruning seems to be your only option, do it in late winter so some shoots can get going in the spring. Better still, remove the yew and purchase one that is the correct size for its place in your landscape. Yews are available in varieties whose mature forms range from 4-foot-square shrubs to 50-foot-tall trees.
Wear gloves and long sleeves when trimming yews their sap can be irritating in cuts or scrapes.
Spread a tarp or sheet under them to catch and contain trimmings because their foliage contains toxins.
I need an idea to replace the large yew on the left !
Exterior siding advice sought. Thanks!
At one time or another I have cut every one of mine right back to a six inch stump and they just come back fine. If you don't like the ugliness for the first year or two (I just stick a container plant in front of the stump that first year) you can do it one big limb at a time.
I don't care that much for yews but they are the very devil to remove and these were already in place when I got here, so I cut them back hard and now they are just the right size and shape.
Hi! first-timer poster-
We also have a massively overgrown front space shrub, a litteleaf? boxwood Buxus something. I have been hesitant to cut it back since it's now late summer, but I really like ReginaCW's idea of putting a container plant to screen the stump!
Are boxwoods also hard to remove? we're thinking of entirely redo-ing the front approach & may just get rid of the overgrown monster. I think it's about 40yrs old. Will drastic pruning it so late in the summer cause it to die anyway? Am i just better off getting rid of it?
We have to do something b/c it blocks the path & we're committed to laying a new walkway before winter.
Any suggestions welcome. thanks!
Well, if you might get rid of it anyway, why not cut it right down and see what happens? I think I'd wait as late as possible (if it's dormant you won't have to worry about it putting out too much tender growth right before winter) and then cut almost to the ground. My book on shrubs says that this is in fact exactly what you do with hedges that have, a half-inch at a time, gotten too high cut 'em way, way, way down and start over. Boxwood is one that they mention by name.
I have no idea if they are hard to remove. But it seems a shame to get rid of a nice, well established boxwood just because it got too big, when that part of the problem is really easy to solve.
Regina - thanks for your message! it does seem a shame to get rid of it, but check out the photo in the link below. it's quite walled in the front walk and completely blocks any alternative approach. =) fortunately there's another row of boxwood continuing on the lawn that we'll probably just prune down - I'll wait till late fall for that (it's pretty warm here til quite compared to Mass).
Here is a link that might be useful: MonsterBoxwood
I am not quite sure I understand: do you wish to get rid of it entirely? In that case, remove away! If you are wondering if you can cut it right down almost to the ground (I think I'd go with around a foot high) in order to make it a nice manageable size, then the answer is yes.
I can't say with certainty that doing this in the fall is foolproof, since I've only ever done it or seen it done in the spring. My gut feeling is that something so well established and healthy will probably do OK.
Yes, you sensed our indecisiveness. I think we'll drastic prune for now it'll give us a sense of how the front approach might be redesigned without the dominant effect of that huge shrub. Got my husband on board with the pruning now!
Appreciate finding all the information posted last fall on overgrown yew hedges!
I am planning to attack a hedge that measures about 150' by 6' wide by 8-9' high. I want to keep the hedge but on my terms. I want to end up with sopmething with sloping sides (hedge is oriented exactly east-west and my side is the north side). I am looking for something about 5'6' high and along the lines of 4' wide at the base and about 2 foot-ish at the top.
All suggestions welcomed as to when and how to do this. Thanx.
Yew can be rejuvenated by cutting back to a stump. Boxwood will die.
A friend of mine did remove her boxwood and the pieces that were left lying around the front yard for a while promptly began putting out new growth. I'm not so sure these are easy to kill!
Joe, your planned hedge shape is exactly what DG Hessayon recommends in his Expert Series. Spring is probably best.
The Electric Co. cut my 10' yew down to 1'. I was so mad I threatened to sue them. About 2 months later it looked like a Chia Pet. I have never seen anything grow back from old wood like a yew.
We have just moved into an old Vancouver home with an unkempt 40' by 16 to 18' yew hedge running on a north/south axis. We are on the west side.
Last December a heavy snow bent the yew onto the house and it is now shading camelias, etc. Should I just prop the hedge up for now then go at it in a month? And you all make it sounds so easy -- should I take on the pruning or bring in help?
Just been reading Christopher Lloyd on subject of overgrown yew hedges. He recommends halving them - cutting one side back drastically, feeding and then waiting until following year to cut back the other side.
Was glad to see it because the yew at the corner of my house was halved by the contractor who put new siding on last fall. They literally cut it in half. I'll probably wait until next year before trimming back the other half but am going to give it a lot of Osmocote (it has snowdrops,winter aconite and double bloodroot as well as hoop petticoat daffs under it so don't want to use anything that will burn).
We have 4 yew bushes at each corner of our lawn that are about 12 foot high and 5 foot wide that are roughly stepped in a kind of topiary, but are nw starting to get too big and i feel like a change
What would happen if i cut the trees right back to their trunks and lopped off the top 3 foot or so? eventually i would like some kind of narrow pyramid shape
Recently I bought a small 1941-built house. It has two landscaped areas fronting the foundation on either side of the front entrance. One side is attractively planted with two Purpleleaf Sand Cherry shrubs, Spirea Goldmound and Little Princess Spirea.
The other side has two overgrown 10-foot-tall upright yews, which have a dead-as-vaudeville juniper in between them. These shrubs are fronted by various spirea that grow no taller than 2 1/2 ft. The real estate listing with PHOTOS is at
I'd like to replace the three offending shrubs with something to make this side of the front entrance more in balance with the other side, but I cannot. Besides being next to the foundation, they are directly over the gas line, the water main, and the sewer pipe leading to the street.
I'm considering cutting them down as close to the ground as possible, tucking a couple of Nine Bark Summer Wine shrubs into the area behind the spirea, and hoping the new shrubs will live. Fortunately, there's unplanted space at the corner of the house, so I should be able to get at least one Summer Wine to survive.
Will a yew that's more than 60 years old really grow back and look like a Chia Pet in a matter of months, as happened with Harry Shoe's yew? If so, is it unrealistic to think I can just keep sawing it down? I've read that yew wood is extremely dense, so trying to kill the stump with glyphosate or tryclopyr is likely to get me nowhere, right? (A chipper is not possible because of the underlying pipes.)
Any suggestions, solutions, ideas for replacement shrubs, etc. are most welcome. If preferred, a personal response can be send to [email protected] Thanks.
Here is a link that might be useful: House&Yard/Photos of my yews.
Do you need to cover the cuts with tree paint or wax? No. If you have made a good, angled cut at the proper time, each species will safely heal its wounds without damage from frost, insects or disease.
The proper time to prune needled evergreens such as pines is the winter dormant period. Flowering shrubs are trickier because trimming them at the incorrect time can mean a loss of next year's flowers. The rule of thumb is that if the bush blooms in fall or in late summer, you should prune it in early spring before new growth emerges. By contrast, if the plant flowers in spring or in early summer, wait till after it has completed its flowering, then proceed with pruning.