How to plant a yew hedge the right way (step by step, + FAQ)


yew needles branches arils
The red arils, surrounding yew seeds, are on display in this yew hedge

Yew trees make absolutely tremendous, formal-looking hedging, IF you know the right way to do it. Recently, I visited a friend’s garden where the hedge was growing poorly; it was too late to salvage and I wished I’d been there to help at the start!

How to you plant a yew hedge? Well, in a nutshell:

Yew hedges are best planted in the autumn and spaced 45cm (18 inches) apart. After breaking up soil and digging a trench, trees should be planted on a slight mound. Yews will grow best in well-drained soil. Only the sides should be pruned until the hedge has reached the desired height.

Having plenty of experience with yews and a solid understanding of the science that governs this species, I’d love to share with you everything I’ve learned about the RIGHT way to plant a yew hedge.

As well as plenty of ‘do’s, there are some important ‘do not’s for yews hedges! I’ve even made a checklist for everything you’ll need. Read on.

What time of year should I plant a yew hedge?

Yew hedges are best planted in the autumn, when the soil’s cool and moist, but it won’t freeze.

The upcoming dormant period gives the hedge a chance to establish its roots before the next period of new growth.

If you’re keen to plant at some other time of the year, you might still get away with it if you water frequently. Particularly, potted yews have a better chance of doing well when planted at other times of the year, though they’re likely to cost significantly more than bare root trees. The key thing will be making sure you water them regularly (usually weekly in summer, monthly when it gets cold).

Bare-root trees generally need to be dug up and planted between early winter and early springtime.

Yew hedge spacing – how many will I need?

As a general rule, you should plant yew trees 18 inches (45cm) apart when creating a hedge.

The first thing you’ll need is to measure the length of your intended hedge. Do your best with the measuring tape that you have.

You could probably get away with spacing them further apart, given that yews can grow 20 feet wide! But it’ll take longer to create a dense hedge.

I would suggest planting the first tree about 1 foot (30cm) from the end, and then each one every 18 inches thereafter. If getting them delivered, always order a couple of extra trees in case you find one that looks sickly or has a broken main leader.

Length of hedge (feet)Number of yew trees required*
107
1510
2014
2517
3020
4027
5033
6040
7047
8053
Approximate for 18 inch spacing. Unless inspecting beforehand, order at least 2 reserve trees./

Essentially, take the length of the hedge you want, divide by 3 and multiply by 2 to get the number of trees that you need.

What sort of yew trees should I buy for a hedge?

There are three questions here: which species, what size, and how they’re prepared (rootballed, in containers or bare-root).

Which yew species

The vast majority of commercially sold yew hedging is either:

  • Taxus baccata, the European yew (aka common or English yew). This is the absolute classic hedging species, planted for centuries, which when grown singly with adopt a tall tree form. If you’re looking for a tall (6ft +) hedge, I’d go for this.
  • Taxus x media – a hybrid between European yew (Taxus baccata) and Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata) that’s sometimes known as the Anglo-Japanese yew. or simply Taxus media. It’s very similar to European yew, but a little more winter hardy and naturally adopts more of a columnar, shrub form. The best known cultivars of this hybrid are Hicks yew and Hill’s yew; Hick’s yew will grow tall and thin; Hill’s yew is usually used for low hedging – up to 3 feet or so. The cultivar Densiformus is good for low, wide hedging.

Click here to check the price on naturehills.com – again I’ll get a small commission if you buy using this link. I only recommend sites that I’m happy to use myself.

My personal favorite’s the quintessential Taxus baccata – I love the idea of planting a hedge that’s been planted and pruned by gardeners through the ages, particularly as yew hedges can live many hundreds of years. This is the type of hedge you might have found growing in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace in the days of Henry the Eighth. In fact, there’s a yew tree hedge maze, planted in the 1700s, that is now the oldest surviving hedge maze in the UK – and it still looks marvelous.

Container, rootball or bare-root trees?

Trees for hedging will come in these 3 forms. What’s the difference? Here’s a comparison table.

FormBare rootRootballedIn container
DescriptionRoots trimmed and soil shaken looseRoots and soil wrapped in hessian/burlap and tied up with twineRoots in a pot
Planting timeEarly winter to early springEarly winter to early springAutumn/winter best, but can be planted in spring/summer
How quickly do they need planted once bought?Within a few days (spray roots with water every couple of days) unless heeled in*Within a few days (spray roots with water every couple of days) unless heeled in*Can be kept in pot for months
CostLowestMediumHighest

*’Heeling in’ means temporarily burying the roots in some soil anywhere on your property to keep them insulated and moist. This takes the pressure off having to plant immediately. It doesn’t even matter if the trees are in straight – sometimes they’re just thrown in lying on their side, if it’s just going to be for a week or two. Rootballed trees can even be heeled in for a few months (keep the hessian on the roots).

Bare root trees tend to be small, up to 3 feet or so. Potted or rootballed tree can be any size – but if you’re buying trees that are already a few years old, be prepared for some huge and weighty root systems that will be much harder to transport (delivery likely costing more if you’re not transporting them yourself) and much harder to move and plant.

Gardening legend Monty Don prefers planting trees no taller than 3 feet (90cm) – they’ll develop a strong root system and soon catch up (and even overtake) a tree that was 3 times taller when planted.

So if you can, I recommend buying bare-root yews that are 2-3 feet tall. They grow well and are more environmentally friendly to transport.

Here’s a short but informative video about the difference between bare root, rollballed and containerized trees.

How much are yew trees to buy?

In the UK, bare root yews that are 2-3 feet tall will usually cost £5-10 each, or around $10 in the US. Yew’s a slightly expensive tree generally, but so, so worth it.

Expect to pay a good bit more for a rootballed tree of a similar size (£20ish) and a little more for a tree that’s potted (£30ish).

If you want to plant trees that are taller to begin with, you likely won’t have the bare root option, and boy will the costs go up. 6-foot tall rootballed yews sell for around £100 in the UK or $120 in The States.

The planting process

a) Loosen the soil

Beforehand, if you’ve got grass where the hedge will be, scrape off and discard all of it, including the roots.

Now, we aren’t just digging a hole for each tree and plopping it in – we need to dig up, break up and turn over the soil in the whole hedge area – go for at least 1 foot (30cm) deep and 1 metre (100cm) wide. You’ll obviously need it to be deeper if your tree has a large root ball or comes in a large container – but not too deep; you’ll want the trees to be planted on a slight mound, not in a basin.

It’s so important with yew trees that the soil is well drained. Unless your soil’s naturally sandy, mix in some grit with the soil – no more than 5-10% grit is good. Remove any large stones.

You could add some organic matter such as compost in as well (a maximum of 20%) – but some gardeners think it’s good for trees and hedges to adjust to the natural soil on your property when they’re young.

a) Mark your hedge line with string

At the two ends of your intended hedge area, push a short stick into the ground and stretch a length of twine between them. This keeps you working in a straight line as you start to set out your trees. Run the string along ground level as a guide to make sure your line isn’t undulating up and down.

b) Dig a trench down the middle and space in your tree

This tends to be an easier method than digging individual, round holes for each tree. You can pile it up either side of the trench.

Possibly, a trench will drain a little better too, preventing the yew from sitting with ‘wet feet’. This is most important if you have clay soil.

If your soil is heavy clay, you could avoid digging a trench and just make a slit wide enough to set each tree in.

c) Set in your trees

Use the string as a guide both for a straight line, and a guide for depth and height.

Cover the roots with the piled up soil either side of the trench you’ve dug, and gentle compact around it with your boot. Make sure you’ve spaced them carefully – it isn’t easy to slightly move a tree a week or two later if you think you’ve made a wonky hedge.

You should ideally be left with a slight mound. Trees form better roots if they’re planted on a slight mound. The root flare – the part at the base of the tree where the trunk gets wider – should be visible. If it isn’t, you’re planting too deep, and the tree will be slower to thrive and may blow over in the next storm.

If you’re planting rootballed trees, do not remove the hessian sackcloth that the roots are in. It will slowly decompose – all the better to give your roots time to adjust to their new environment.

If you’re planting yews that came in containers, loosen and tease out the roots before you set them in. Some even advice making 4 shallow cuts down the side of the root system with the corner of your spade (12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock positions). There’s ongoing debate about whether this stimulates the roots more than just teasing them out – but it shows you that you can afford to be a little rough with them- you want to avoid them staying in that container shape, rather than venturing outwards.

d) Water them in

While yew trees don’t like to sit in wet soil all the time (it’ll harm them) they still need to be watered – especially when they’re young. Hopefully the grit you’ve mixed in with the soil will help with the drainage aspect.

Give the soil a really good soak as soon as you’ve planted your hedge. This will lessen the risk of transplant shock (read about transplant shock in yews here).

e) Apply mulch

Mulch such as barkchippings is inexpensive and will give your hedge the best possible start. You should have a 3-4 inch thick layer that covers right to the edges of the 1m strip of loosened soil.

Why bother with mulch?

  • It suppresses weed and grass growth which would compete with your yews for water and make your hedge look untidy. Saves you from having to weed constantly!
  • It insulates the roots from temperature change, and helps rainwater to permeate through
  • It decomposes, providing organic matter for the trees to feed on.

Think about a forest floor – years of broken down leaves, needles and bits of bark – that’s what you’re trying to emulate.

Remember it’s OK for there to be a slight mound at the base of your yews, but leave a few inches mulch free just around the stem of each tree, where it can cause root rot. I recommend you read a bit about yew trees and root rot here, as yews are particularly susceptible.

How to care for a yew hedge

Healthy yews are green all the way to the tips.

Once your hedge has been planted, congratulations, the hard part is done! But there are two particularly important considerations:

a) Watering

As I’ve mentioned, even though yew trees do badly when their roots are constantly sitting in boggy soil (read about that here), they still need a lot of watering, particularly when they’re young.

As a rule of thumb, for the first couple of years, I’d water them once a week in the warm half of the year, and once of month in the colder half. Yep, you need to water them in winter – the exception being when the ground’s frozen.

The main reasons to water frequently are to prevent transplant shock and to limit winter desiccation, also known as winter injury, which yews, like other evergreens, are susceptible to.

I’ve written more extensively about winter injury in yew trees here.

b) Pruning

This part’s important. Until your yew tree has reached the height you want, don’t prune the top – only prune the sides a little in winter or early spring to keep them neat and stimulate bushy growth. Yew trees will grow 6-12 inches per year, until you prune the main leader – and then this tends to make them stop growing upwards! They’ll only put on a couple of inches a year after that.

Yew clippings can be left on the ground under the tree to decompose. They’ll contribute to a helpful layer of mulch under your hedge.

c) Fertilizing

If your tree’s putting on 6-12 inches in height each year and is looking healthy, you might not need fertiliser. But provided you stick to the manufacturer’s instructions, a little slow-release evergreen fertilizer (such as Jobe’s evergreen fertilizer spikes) may help it to grow a little faster.

How fast will a yew hedge grow?

A yew hedge that’s growing well will put on between 6 and 12 inches (15-30cm) per year:

Years plantedHeight gain lower estimate (ft)Height gain upper estimate (ft)
10.51
212
31.53
424
52.55
636
73.57
848
94.59
10510
115.511
12612
Height gained by a yew hedge over 12 years (assuming not a low growing cultivar such as Hill’s yew)

Bear in mind that some yew hedges don’t grow much in the first year, while they’re adjusting to their new soil.

And finally:

A checklist for planting a yew hedge

  1. Your trees
  2. Twine or string, and 2 sticks
  3. Organic mulch
  4. Organic compost
  5. Grit
  6. A spade
  7. A hose to water them in

OK, 1 and 6 are a bit obvious!

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