Last post focused on the radical renovation of forsythia, as an example of how cane-growing shrubs can be ‘refreshed’ by cutting them back severely very occasionally. Today I’m posting a series of photos illustrating one method of renovating a tired yew (Taxus) hedge.
The driveway renovation in these photos required that one drive entry be moved uphill slightly. To do so required that we remove a couple of shrubs from one end of the hedge; the other shrubs stayed in place.
The owners of the house were very attached to these plants, but weren’t pleased with how tired the plants looked: they were narrow at bottom and wide at top, they had been sheared for years, and as a result were now leggy and sparse.
To preserve the shrubs, in 2006 I asked the arborists to cut the shrubs down and thin them out from the interior. Originally, the outer branches were supposed to stay, with the severest thinning to happen inside, behind a wall of older foliage. The crew missed that part, and really went to town on the hedge. The client saw the work only after the crew had left, and was understandably concerned.
When I went over to look at the newly cut hedge — now lowered to 3′ in height, and drastically thinned — from a distance it looked horrifying. It looked horrifying close up, too.
But here’s the cool thing about Taxus, and other plants belonging to the group of ‘mound-growing’ shrubs. (For more information on groups of shrubs — cane-growers, mound-growers, and tree-likes, see the writings of Cass Turnbull, the Seattle shrub pruning guru and founder of Plant Amnesty.) Mound growers have tons of dormant buds along their stems, and when foliage is cut from the plant, those buds break and cover it with fresh new foliage; the buds are stimulated to grow by this type of cutting.
The arborists (Hartney Greymont of Needham, MA, who know what they’re doing) knew this, and took what horticulturally was a very good approach to the work. The short-term aesthetics were a little alarming, but produced a great result, as you can see here from this 2009 photo. Three years of growth have given back the most of the hedge height, and have left it lush and dense with fresh growth.
Aftercare of this kind of work is essential, especially in the first year or two after the cut-back: the shrubs should be given enough water and some mild fertilizer, to help them recover from what they’ve just been through. If hand-pruning isn’t practical on a bigger hedge, it should be sheared with a slight batter (make the bottom wider than the top), and then gone over with hand pruners to loosen up the outside ‘wall’, so that light and free airflow can still reach into the plant’s interior.
As with the forsythia renovation, this is extreme pruning, to be done only when it’s the one solution short of removal and replanting. It can be done on the same plant or hedge once every 12-15 years, or even less frequently…