Posted: Monday 27 February 2012
by James Alexander-Sinclair

[...] regardless of the type of garden, there are some plants that transcend fashion, time and style, plants that will work in pretty much any garden.

Yew hedges in sunlight

Over the years I have made a lot of gardens for a lot of people: big gardens, country gardens, modern gardens and period pieces. In fact I’ve made them in every possible combination and style you can think of, not to mention the odd eccentric fantasy.

But regardless of the type of garden, there are some plants that transcend fashion, time and style, plants that will work in pretty much any garden. And the king of these is Taxus baccata, known to its chums as the yew.

Left alone, the yew grows into a vast tree capable of living for centuries - the oldest in Britain is at least 2,000 years old and is growing in the churchyard at Fortingall in Perthshire. But yew is extraordinarily forgiving if you decide to hack it into topiary or a hedge. The reason for this is that, unlike the Leyland cypress (about which I wrote a couple of weeks ago) yew will happily sprout again from old wood. I have turned tall trees into manageable bushes simply by cutting them down and waiting.

Once planted, when it comes to yew topiary, the only limit is your imagination. At Waterperry Gardens they are growing a replica of Stonehenge, at Levens Hall in Cumbria there are extraordinary shapes and there is a wonderful garden in Gloucestershire with an entire tea set carved from the hedge.

As befits such a long-lived tree, there is a wealth of history and legend attached to the yew. It was traditionally planted in churchyards - in fact in parts of France, the hollow trunk of the tree served as the church. One tree was reputed to have been able to host a congregation of 40. The leaves have been used medicinally since the 11th Century, and more recently they have been harvested to make cancer drugs. Finally, as every schoolboy knows, the great six-foot longbows with which the English archers defeated the French during the Hundred Years War were always made from yew. (Come on at the back, surely you must have been paying attention in History lessons? Agincourt, Poitiers and Crecy and Henry V: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” etc.)

People sometimes get put off because they think yew grows slowly. Don’t be, it doesn’t! True, there are other hedges that will grow quicker, but this is well worth the wait. A five-foot hedge will take about six years to grow, which, in the greater scheme of things, ain’t that long. Just make sure that the drainage is good as they hate sitting in water.

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oldchippy 27/02/2012 at 17:41

Hi James,When we moved to this house 10 years ago we removed 48 trees from front and rear gardens,The garden is 112 feet by 42 feet,Each side had either yew or leylandii,when the foliage was removed they looked like telegraph poles spaced 4 feet apart we now have 7 feet space for borders each side and a view and more light in the garden we also found a path running down the garden.


Mark D 28/02/2012 at 20:50

I do like a yew...although the one opposite our house is much lived in by a variety of birds. Their favourite pastime seems to be excreting on whichever car is foolish enough to be parked beneath. My daughter is particularly fond of sitting at the window and letting us know when the car from number 3 has had a splartering.