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How to Prune an Overgrown Yew Shrub

By Laura Reynolds ; Updated September 21, 2017

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.

 

Things You Will Need

  • Hedge trimmer or hand shears
  • Pruning shears
  • Pruning lopper
  • Pruning saw
  • Garden gloves
  • Tarp or sheet
  • Broom
  • Rake

Tips

  • 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.

Warnings

  • 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.

About the Author

 

An avid perennial gardener and old house owner, Laura Reynolds has had careers in teaching and juvenile justice. A retired municipal judgem Reynolds holds a degree in communications from Northern Illinois University. Her six children and stepchildren served as subjects of editorials during her tenure as a local newspaper editor.