Between Yew And Me

THE REAL DIRT

October 23, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Pass the bandages, I've sprung a leak. My arms are scratched; my legs are raw. My face looks like I shaved with a pruning saw.

I'm a mess. I have the physical appearance of a man who has wrestled a Bengal tiger or, worse, Weet-Weet, our cantankerous house cat.

I'm a wreck because I just trimmed the shrubs in front of our house, a 30-foot row of curmudgeonly yews. To do this, I must squeeze into a narrow space between the yews and the house, a fissure that gives me fits. The tough, ornery undersides of these hardy evergreens stab me at every turn. The tops of yews are soft and fluffy; the lower branches are hard and sharp. These woody knives could pierce a rhino's hide. Once, I trimmed my yews dressed in T-shirt and shorts. I still have the scars to prove it.

I would rather prune a thorny pyracantha than do a row of yews. But trim them I must, each fall, lest the shrubs devour the front yard and consume the house.

The yew is among America's favorite foundation plants. Its resistance to drought and disease, plus its year-round greenery, makes the yew a popular choice to grow beside the house. But the shrubs must be kept in check. That's the rub. Try giving yews a haircut. I postpone the job as long as possible -- for my sake, not that of the bushes. Blood clots more quickly in cool weather.

Armed with saws and electric shears (and a first-aid kit), I descended on the yews. I was dressed for battle, wearing two sweat shirts as well as sweat pants over a pair of jeans. Never mind the temperature (80 degrees), or that I was perspiring heavily. Better that than the red stuff.

I squirmed into the tight niche between bushes and brick wall, skirting the tough brown stems that stab at my legs. Have you ever examined an old yew up close? Foliage aside, the rest of the bush is hardly handsome, with gnarled limbs reminiscent of those ancient bristlecone pines in California.

An English gardener, Viscount Lambton, describes the aging shrubs: "Stems of [old] yews . . . lose their foliage and create the effect of rows of inverted corkscrews only admirable to people who love the venerable, twisted and antique."

Those corkscrews want my blood.

I sidestepped the nastiest branches and started trimming. All went well for a while as the electric clippers hummed along the tops of the yews, shearing off the unkempt growth. I felt like Mother Nature's barber; I conversed with each shrub in the "chair."

"A little more off the top, you say?" Clip-clip-clip. Green hair tumbled to the ground.

"Too long on the sides?" Whirrr.

Yews respond well to regular shearings and can be carved into virtually any shape, from peacocks to presidents. Animals of all sorts have been made from yews, a practice many gardeners find appalling. It's cruel, they say, to force a shrub from its natural shape. I doubt that yews really care about this, except for those fashioned to look like dogs. Considering the abuse that plants take from dogs, it seems unfair to train shrubs to resemble the pooches themselves.

Nearly all varieties are derived from either the Japanese yew, which is hardier than most, or the English yew, whose dark green leaves have been sculpted into topiary for hundreds of years.

Most Americans forgo such shenanigans and choose the humdrum hedge.

Left on their own, many types of yew will attain unusual shapes of their own, from conical to columnar. There are low-growing prostrate yews, which reach 2 feet in height, and giant treelike yews, which rise 50 feet or more.

Yews thrive in sun or partial shade, and in ordinary, well-drained soil. Female plants produce pretty, though poisonous, red berries in fall, but only if bushes of both sexes are planted together.

Though characterized as dawdling shrubs, yews really grow quite rapidly -- as much as 1 foot a year, if fertilized regularly. My bushes grow nearly that fast with no help at all.

I just wish I could slow them down. Less pruning means fewer mishaps.

Midway through the last trimming, I backed into a sharp branch, triggering this chain reaction: The stem punctured my pants, pierced the skin and sent me sprawling across the tops of the yews. The trimmer slipped from my hands and neatly severed its electrical cord -- a blessing, it turns out, as the appliance was headed for my groin when the power stopped.

One way or another, the yews are going to get me.

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