How to grow yew
This native evergreen tree or shrub has long been popular in gardens, often clipped to form hedging or topiary. As a hedge, large or small, it forms a year-round sheltering screen along boundaries or a dark green backdrop to borders. Its dense growth and red berry-like fruits provide valuable shelter and food for wildlife.
- Easy to grow and long lived
- Dense evergreen foliage
- Ornamental berries on female plants
- Popular for hedges and topiary
- Plant in autumn or spring
- Grow in any soil or situation
- Trim hedges annually
- Make new plants from cuttings or seed
All you need to know
What is yew?
Yew (Taxus baccata) is a native evergreen tree or shrub. A symbol of immortality, it can be very long lived, with some churchyard trees thought to be over 1,000 years old.
In gardens, yew is often grown as formal hedging or topiary, as its dense growth can be clipped into neat shapes. When grown as a tree, it has red-brown, peeling bark, a dense year-round canopy of dark green needle-like leaves, and red berry-like fruits called arils (on female plants). Yew can eventually reach 12m (40ft) or more over time, if left unpruned.
Yew is valuable to many types of wildlife. Its dense growth provides shelter for birds and insects all year round, while the fruits, produced by female yews, are a food source for various birds and small mammals in autumn and winter.
However, be aware that yew foliage is highly poisonous, to both humans and animals, and while the fruits are not poisonous, the seed inside them is extremely toxic. It would be wise to wear gloves when handling yew clippings, and never plant it within reach of grazing animals. For more advice, see our guide to potentially harmful garden plants.
Why grow yew?
Yew is an easy-to-grow plant that will thrive in almost any soil or situation, even deep shade. It will fit into any size of garden, as it can be pruned or regularly clipped to keep it within bounds or left to grow to its full extent.
It provides valuable year-round structure, and is well suited to all styles of garden, including:
hedging, either informal or formal, providing dense year-round screening or a backdrop to borders
wildlife gardens, as it offers year-round shelter, and female plants produce fruits
as majestic specimen trees
Yew hedges can form useful wildlife corridors, offering sheltered routes between gardens for wildlife such as hedgehogs.
Yew plants are widely available from garden centres and online suppliers, including the RHS Shop. They can be bought at various sizes, although younger plants tend to settle in more quickly. If you want to buy a large plant for instant impact, see our guide to buying specimen trees.
Yew plants can also be bought in quantity, often as bare-root plants (without soil), from online hedging suppliers. When buying yew for a hedge, choose plants that are 45-60cm (18in-2ft) tall, as these tend to establish more successfully and grow away better than larger plants. Bare-root or root-balled yews are usually cheaper than container-grown plants and seem to establish more readily.
As well as the common yew (Taxus baccata), there are several cultivars available too, offering foliage in various shades of green or yellow, and with different styles of growth. The most well-known of these is the Irish yew (Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’), which is distinctively columnar in shape, with vertical branches. There are also other species of yew, although most are not readily available in the UK. For the widest choice of yew cultivars, look for specialist tree and shrub nurseries online.
For more on the different cultivars, including photos, growing advice and where to buy, see RHS Find a Plant and search for ‘Yew’.
Yew is easy to plant and should settle in well. It can be planted in almost any soil, individually or as a hedge, or in large containers.
To give it the best start, prepare the ground before planting by digging in lots of well-rotted garden compost or manure.
Where to plant
Yew can be planted in a wide range of garden settings, including:
- Borders and containers, especially as formal clipped topiary shapes, to add year-round structure
- Informal and wildlife-friendly gardens, left unclipped to fruit freely
- As hedging along boundaries or within a garden to divide or screen different areas
When grown in containers, yew is usually clipped into compact topiary cones, pyramids or spirals, ideal for formal gardens, contemporary settings, small spaces, and more. Containerised yews work well as focal points or to add a formal feature to patios and doorways.
Yew can be planted in most soils, including chalky soil. Once established, it can cope with drought, but dislikes waterlogged conditions, which can cause the roots to rot.
As yew is highly poisonous, never plant it within reach of grazing animals. For more advice, see our guide to potentially harmful garden plants.
When to plant
Yew is best planted in autumn (late Oct-mid Dec) or spring (March), whether you’re planting an individual specimen or a hedge.
How to plant
When planting yews individually, simply follow our guide to planting trees and shrubs. For hedges, see below.
If your soil is compacted, dig the area thoroughly before planting to loosen the soil, so the roots can spread out freely. If the area is waterlogged, plant on a mound (see Planting hedges, below).
Yew is a popular hedging plant, suitable for most soils and situations, forming a dense evergreen screen. It is easy to plant – simply follow our guide to planting hedges.
For hedges, it is best to choose bare-root yew plants that are no more than 60cm (2ft) tall. These should be cheaper than pot-grown plants and will settle in quickly and grow strongly.
Newly planted yew hedges should then be pruned (formative pruning) to ensure they form an upright, dense screen – see our guide to trimming hedges.
Yew dislikes waterlogged soil, but you can still grow a yew hedge in heavy soil if you plant on a ridge. Simply make a long mound, at least 15cm (6in) high and about 1m (3⅓ft) wide, then allow the soil to settle before planting along the top. Cover the roots with no more than 3cm (1¼in) of soil. This keeps the base of the plants and some of the roots out of saturated ground.
Planting in containers
Yew is an ideal shrub for containers, as it can be trimmed to keep it compact and its evergreen foliage provides year-round appeal.
See our guide to planting in containers.
Once it has settled in, yew needs little attention. It is a robust and generally healthy plant. Just clip formal hedges and topiary to keep them in good shape, and give plants in containers regular water over the summer.
Newly planted yews should be watered regularly for at least the first year, until their roots have spread out into the soil.
Larger plants generally take more time to settle in after planting, so will need watering for longer.
Once established, yews shouldn’t need additional watering.
Plants in containers need regular watering on an ongoing basis, as they have limited access to water. Make sure the compost doesn’t dry out in summer or become waterlogged in winter.
Tips on recycling and collecting water
How to water efficiently
Yews are robust plants and don’t generally need additional feeding. However, to boost growth you can apply a general fertiliser, such as Growmore, in late winter, following the instructions on the pack.
Plants in containers will benefit from regular feeding, as the nutrients in the compost will soon run out.
See our guide to container maintenance.
A thick layer of mulch, such as well-rotted garden compost or manure, around the base will help to suppress weeds and hold moisture in the soil.
Apply it when the ground is damp, in spring or autumn. Leave a 10cm (4in) gap around the stem, to avoid any risk of rotting the bark. Top up annually.
Caring for older plants
Yews are long-lived plants that can grow quite large over time, but they can be pruned back down to a manageable size. Unlike most other conifers, yew will regenerate from old wood.
To renovate an overgrown or neglected hedge, see Pruning and Training below, and our guide to renovative pruning.
As yew is highly poisonous, it is best to wear gloves when handling clippings – see our guide to potentially harmful garden plants.
Fastigiate (or upright) yew cultivars, such as Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’, can lose their slender shape over time. However, you can tie the branches together, encircling them with strong twine, to prevent them falling open. The ties will soon be hidden by new growth. You can also prune them to reduce their outward spread – see Pruning and Training below.
Yew can be left to grow naturally or can be clipped or pruned to keep it neat and compact. Clipping also encourages dense growth, which is ideal for hedges and topiary.
Once established, yew can grow vigorously so is best trimmed at least once a year. It is also one of the few conifers that can regenerate from old wood if cut back hard.
Just bear in mind that yew is highly poisonous, so it is best to wear gloves when handling clippings – see our guide to potentially harmful garden plants.
Watch out for birds' nests
The main nesting season is early March to end of July, but it can go on for longer. Always check shrubs and hedges carefully before pruning or trimming, and delay if you find an active nest. It is an offence to damage wild birds' nests.
Once established, a yew hedge can grow vigorously, up to 30cm (1ft) a year.
- Trimming once a year, in summer or early autumn, will keep a yew hedge tidy and at the required size
- Formal hedges can be clipped more often – twice or even three times over the summer – to keep them really neat
- Regular trimming encourages a dense, smooth surface
For full details of how and when to clip, see our guide to trimming hedges. This also includes details of how to prune newly planted yew hedges (formative pruning), so they grow to form a dense, upright screen.
Video guide to using shears and electric hedgetrimmers
Step-by-step guide to hedge trimming
Overgrown or neglected hedges
If your yew hedge has become too large, it is best to prune it gradually over three years in mid-spring:
In the first year, cut the top back to at least 15cm (6in) lower than the final desired height. This will help to recreate a dense, even surface
The following year, reduce the width of one of the sides
In the third year, reduce the width of the second side
Also see our guide to renovating hedges.
If your hedge has developed bare stems at the base, you can coppice it, to encourage new growth lower down. This involves cutting the plants down to within 15–20cm (6–8in) of the ground in early spring. They will then produce multiple stems and fresh foliage. However, this is a slow process, and the hedge will take several years to recover.
Fastigiate (upright) yews
Fastigiate forms of yew (such as Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’, ‘Standishii’ and ‘Fastigiata Aurea’) have markedly upward growth that forms a columnar shape. However, over time the narrow shape can become more open as the branches start to fall outwards under their own weight. To remedy this:
Tie the branches together with strong twine, to keep them upright
Shorten outward growth in August. Trim shoots individually with secateurs (rather than with a trimmer), taking them back within the foliage to hide the pruning cuts
Once your fastigiate yew has reached the desired height, trim the top annually in summer or early autumn to prevent it getting any taller.
Yew is perfect for creating topiary, as it forms dense growth and copes well with regular trimming. Plants can be bought ready-trained or you can use a metal framework to guide you when trimming. Or you can shape a plant from scratch yourself.
Popular shapes include cones, spirals and pyramids. Upright (fastigiate) cultivars can also be used without needing much additional shaping.
For full details on creating and looking after topiary, see our guide to topiary.
With cultivars, if you want the offspring to be exactly the same as the parent plant, you need to take cuttings.
Take semi-ripe cuttings, 10–15cm (4–6in) long, in late summer or early autumn, and overwinter in a coldframe
Take softwood cuttings in early summer
Use hormone rooting compound/liquid to encourage rooting
Choose strongly upright shoots for cuttings (except with prostrate cultivars), otherwise the resulting plants may not form a strong leading shoot
Growing from seed
Yew seeds can be remarkably slow to germinate, so patience is definitely required:
To speed-up the process, mix fresh seeds with sharp sand and keep in warm, moist conditions at around 21˚C (70˚F) for four to five months, then sow outdoors in spring. Germination may take one to two years
Alternatively, sow fresh seeds either directly in a seed bed outdoors or into a seed tray kept in a coldframe. Germination may take two years or more
Once yew plants have settled in, they are general healthy and trouble free when grown in suitable conditions. The foliage, seeds and wood are also extremely toxic, so few pests feed on yew.
Poor growing conditions
- If yew leaves turn bronze or bronze-red, it is usually due to poor growing conditions, such as waterlogging or drought. Plants that are not fully established and those in containers are more susceptible. Improving the growing conditions should remedy this problem – see our guide to container maintenance
- Waterlogged soil can also cause yew roots to rot, so in damp soil plant yew on a mound and improve the drainage by digging in plenty of organic matter, such as well-rotted garden compost or manure before planting
All parts of yew (except the fruits) are highly poisonous, so take care when positioning plants. Keep them out of reach of grazing animals, and supervise young children carefully. While the fruits themselves aren't poisonous, the seed inside is highly toxic. For more advice, see our guide to potentially harmful garden plants.
Differences in leaf and shoot colour is normal in yew:
- Leaf colour along a hedge can often differ naturally, unless the plants were all grown from cuttings taken from the same parent
- If you've grown new plants from seed, leaf colour may not be exactly the same as the parent plant
- Golden-leaved cultivars are best positioned in partial shade – the foliage may get scorched (or bleached) by strong sun in summer, and will turn green in heavy shade
- Early-season growth tends to be paler, and will darken as it matures over summer
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