Caring For Yew Bushes
Yew bushes are narrow-leaved evergreens which are popular as landscaping plants. Unlike many evergreens, especially the narrow-leaved species, yew bushes respond quite well to pruning. The general rule of thumb when pruning an evergreen plant is to prune the plant back carefully, more or less following its growth pattern. Another rule of thumb might be, don't make a pruning mistake, as evergreens are generally slow growing, and if pruned in the wrong place may not produce more foliage on the branch that's been cut back.
Also, most evergreens show new growth in the spring and grow very little during the rest of the year, making early springtime the ideal time, and for some evergreens the only time, to do a little pruning or cutting back.
Easy To Prune - Yew bushes are a little different. Their flat needles, which are wider than those of either the spruce or the fir, coupled with a denser growth habit, make the yew an ideal candidate for either a hedge or a stand alone specimen shrub. Some species however reach tree size, growing to a height of nearly 60 feet. More importantly, yew bushes have growth buds all along each branch, so the branch can be trimmed just about anywhere and new growth will still emerge later. On many evergreens, the growth buds are located on the end of the branch, or only a few growth buds are present, and if these are pruned away, nothing will grow back. Yews can be pruned back to old wood if need be and new foliage will still appear, giving the gardener a wide range of options and latitude in shaping a tree, shrub, or hedge. Because it is so forgiving as far as pruning is concerned, the yew is also a great candidate for topiary.
To maintain the shape of a yew, once the desired shape has been established, it's generally recommended that the shrub be pruned twice a year, first early in the spring just before new growth is starting to appear, and again in late spring or early summer (June is best) to give the yew a bit of a trim. Heavy pruning, which would mean removing about a third of the branches, something one would dare not do with most evergreens, will encourage dense growth in yew bushes.
Low Maintenance - Yew shrubs are for the most part easy-maintenance plants. Easy-maintenance does not mean they will necessarily thrive on neglect, though some might. A little compost worked into the soil around the trunk every spring will benefit the tree. A light mulch, designed to hold in moisture and keep the weeds down is also recommended. Although not necessarily a drought tolerant plant, the yew does better with too little water than too much. Heavy watering will often cause the needles on the plant to turn yellowish. More importantly the shrubs should be planted in well drained soil where water is not allowed to stand for any length of time.
A Cautionary Note - It's worth mentioning that, in spite of the fact that many species of yew have medicinal value, as well as being useful in Christmas decorating, especially in Europe, parts of the plants are poisonous, with the red berries in particular being quite poisonous. Yew bushes are best located where the berries are beyond the reach of small children, and the shrubs themselves should not be located where livestock could get at them. The foliage of the yew is especially deadly to horses. If you have neither horses, nor small children around that are apt to try to eat the berries, feel free to use yew bushes to your heart's content when landscaping.