Plum Yew-Inspiration And Adaptation


Inspiration. What a concept. It comes from everywhere, it bombards the thought processes. It is difficult to filter at times, especially when full attention is needed on the project at hand. Keeping the focus while the mind wanders in pursuit of new ideas happens, especially when reading garden books and magazines. A phrase will open a door in the recesses of cerebral folds, letting out all manner of memories that lead to new paths which call out to be followed. Sometimes it is a way of looking at things with never before imagined vision. Sometimes it is the aha moment, the I can do that feeling, and even more importantly, the I will try that decision.

Such a decision happened as we were perusing the BBC’s Gardens Illustrated issue number 155. This particular offering was so chock a block full of inspiration that it has been set aside for daily gazing, not put on the shelf neatly and in numerical order with the others from before and since. On page 59 there is a photo, accompanying the story “A long way from Kyoto”, words by Inger Skaarup and Annemarie Jakobsen, photographs by Andreas Mikkel Hansen, of a tree. Not just any tree, but a tree pruned in the most arresting manner I have ever seen. The caption reads “Paths meander around the edge of the garden, past this cloud-pruned yew tree (Taxus baccata)”. Cloud pruned. Yew tree. The words are seared into my consciousness, the hissing of the white hot branding iron of inspiration threatens the still of the early pre dawn hours.

First things first, the search for this tree begins online with a visit to our friend google. It seems there are many varieties of Taxus baccata, but this may be the upright, or Fastigiata, or so it appears. Nursery sites are scanned for this gem. In a moment of distraction, we order three Taxus cuspidata ‘Nana Aurescens’ from Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm, to be shipped late March. To view this shrub click here. That happens sometimes, for impulsive is our middle name. It should be our first name. Anyway. There was a need for some golden foliage in the part of the garden now designated as the moment of Zen at the Fairegarden. It sits just beyond the boxwood hedge at the far end of the knot garden.


Okay. Please forgive the distraction, back to the quest for an upright yew on which to practice the fine art of cloud pruning. We have already spent some of the budget and will not even get the immediate gratification of a pot of living material riding home in the gas guzzler. No more online looking, the search will be done in real time, the here and now. We know about yews. We have had them in previous gardens, including our very first house that was encircled with cupcakes of yews at every corner and edge, by the house, along the sidewalk, there must have been a good deal on yews when these mass quantities were purchased, or the home builder was a johnny one note, or both. Most were removed and the remaining ones had to be pruned at least twice a year. Any enchantment held for yews was doused by that pruning imperative. A couple of houses later, there was a need to replace some dead Skyrocket junipers that flanked the gate to the swimming pool. Little was known about trees and shrubs, or any garden plants really, although at the time we thought we knew it all. A local nursery suggested Hick’s yew as replacements, fast growing and columnar. Despite the bad taste produced at the reminder of dealing with yew pruning, two plants were bought, planted and pruned to the desired shape and size. It was easy and they looked good. A shift in attitude had occurred.

Fast forward from this trip down memory lane to current day. On a recent trip to visit offspring and friends and watch an exciting youth basketball game, our team won and we even got to see points scored by offspring of offspring Chickenpoet, M.A. (my how he has grown!), brother G.A. did not have a game scheduled so we had some quality time together in the bleachers, we visited a nursery. Imagine that, visiting a nursery on a road trip. Enough of that, get to the point! It just so happens that this new nursery, Good Hope Nursery is owned by the same fellow who suggested the planting of the Hick’s yew, more than twenty years ago. Among his fine selection of evergreen offerings, a plum yew, Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Fastigiata’ was found. It jumped immediately into the vehicle. Whilst doing the online search, this type of nearly yew seemed a good fit for the growing conditions here and was added to the list of might works. Eureka! was yelled out loud when this specimen was found. The Financier jumped at this sound.


We have arrived at the right now. The plum yew was sawed in half after seeing that it was two trunks in the pot. With an eye to the clouds, many branches were removed with the bonsai tool substitute toenail clippers. While not aesthetically as pleasing as the real tool, they work well and were on hand. For those readers looking for a how to on cloud pruning, this is not it. This is the work of a total novice making an effort of trial and error. If the results are pleasing, it will be years before we know that, a post will be written telling what we did, how we did it and why we thought it was a good idea. For now, what we did was remove all but the stoutest branches, to form the main trunk and limbs.


Copper wire, leftover from the rewiring of the main house during the renovation that has been used and reused for a multitude of garden type duties, was wrapped around the branches to begin the bending process. As luck would have it, not a single branch snapped, as the touch was gentle and the pressure light, as we learned when weaving baskets, slow and steady bending is the way. The branches were bent with the purpose of horizontality away from a single trunk. The wire will be adjusted as the shrub grows to direct the limbs as desired. The cloud part will be at the ends of each stem. It is hoped.


Of the many branches cut, eighteen of the most likely prospects were trimmed, dipped into rooting hormone and potted into a mix of two thirds perlite to one third seed starting mix. The flat was wrapped in a clear plastic sheet and set aside in hopes of baby shrublets with stout roots to form. Can you imagine a plum yew hedge? We are nothing if not optimistic.



The two shrubs were planted at each end of the allotment of Asian influence. There is no false thinking that we know anything at all about Japanese gardens nor the intense study that accompanies their making. But there will be studying of the method and striving for the attainment of the easy peaceful feeling such a garden can offer.


As a side note, there was a small mugo pine that was the original evergreen to be artfully pruned at the end of the gravel zen bed. It had not grown a single new needle in the time it had spent in the ground. It looked rather sad, in fact. Digging it up to place the plum yew on that stage, the roots were inspected. A hosing off of the soil revealed girdling roots going round and round. No wonder it looked so pitiful. It is still a small plant though, and zealous root pruning and some top pruning may have saved it. It has been planted in a green glazed pot and placed near the back door where it can be monitored for new growth. And perhaps some practice pruning.

This is not the first post to feature an inspirational magazine photo. There was a post written about the search for a piece of driftwood to be used as a vertical accent that can be seen by clicking here-In Need Of A Focal Point. There will most likely be more.

Frances

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28 Responses to Plum Yew-Inspiration And Adaptation

  1. gardeningasylum says:

    A plum yew hedge sounds dreamy!

    HA, we’ll have to see if the cuttings root first, but a row of those pretty trees is the stuff of dreams. :-)
    Frances

  2. I think garden people are among the most positive people around:-)
    Nice project you plan. I’m sure it will be just as beautiful as you can imagine… eventually.
    Thanks for your visit, always nice to hear from other gardenlovers:-))

    Have a nice weekend, Hillevissan

    Thanks Hillevi, I agree. You have to be glass half full types to plan for the future with the sowing of little dried up seeds, and hoping for roots to grow on sticks stuck into the ground. Patience is required though. You too have a nice weekend. :-)
    Frances

  3. Rosie says:

    Frances what a great project well actually 2 projects – the other being the hedge.

    I have in the past considered doing this for my own little Japanese garden with Ilex Crenata (Japanese Holly) or Scots pine but mine would have to stay in a pot as there is just no more room left in that part of the garden.

    Gardening magazines used to give me lots of inspiration – I now get even more from reading great posts like this nowadays. I think I need a bigger garden lol

    Have a great day :) Rosie

    Thanks Rosie for those kind words. The Ilex would be an excellent subject for pruning and the pine as well. Inspiration is everywhere, blogs are full of it! :-)
    Frances

  4. Darla says:

    This is so exciting…I have often wondered about the art of pruning trees…I love to prune things..I have a pot of ivy with two clothes wires that I practice on….this is going to be great!!

    Thanks Darla. Pruning is so much fun, practice required! Your ivy pot sounds lovely. :-)
    Frances

  5. Liisa says:

    Frances,
    I so look forward to watching as your Japanese Garden plans unfold. Gardening magazines and books provide such inspiration, and the planning stages are great fun. So many possibilities to consider. The cloud pruned yews will be just beautiful. You are going to be quite the pruning diva, with your bonsai and cloud pruning skills. Look out! ;)

    Thanks so much Liisa. It is fun to plan, adrenaline flows with the thoughts of what could be. These types of pruning are perfect for aging hands and wrists, small cuts without being physically taxing, just mentally so. HA :-)
    Frances

  6. I am going to have to get that issue Of Gardens Illustrated off the shelf and re read it. So far your project looks great, and all those new babies to come.

    Oh Deborah, I am so glad you have that copy! I would love to hear what you think about that article. It grabbed my attention and sits open to that page still, months later. I have looked at it so many times, it is in my hard drive! HA :-)
    Frances

  7. Sylvia (England) says:

    Frances, I know the feeling about inspiration. I found an article about cloud pruning conifers and as I have a conifer that has outgrown its space and looks untidy – I am going to prune it as soon as the weather is better. If it doesn’t work, it would have come out anyway. Also I have two conifers either side of a path that have outgrown their space – I am thinking of replacing them with a ‘yew’!

    I hope you visit my snowdrop post that Pomona has kindly hosted on Tulips in the Woods.

    Best wishes Sylvia

    Hi Sylvia, thanks. I will certainly come see you at dear Pomona’s! Lucky you to find that article and even have a subject at the ready. Or make that lucky yew. groan. :-)
    Frances

  8. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    My interest was peaked when I read “Plum Yew”. It must be a southern yew because I have looked around here for that very shrub. I have read that they take more shade than some of the other yews. I have wanted one for some time. I can imagine your hedge of them. I will be interested in watching your clouds form. It looks like a great start.

    Thanks, Lisa. I was very surprised to find this even here rather than mail order, they are not common. You should be able to grow them as well, so keep your eyes peeled whenever you visit a nursery. :-)
    Frances

  9. Laurrie says:

    I am fascinated seeing your project at the moment of inspiration and the point of trial and error .. no how to’s or a review of success or failure .. just the birth of a thought and a plan. Love it! I also suffer “yew aversion” (I like your description of yew cupcakes). It’s sad as yews can be versatile and beautiful as the gardening article suggests. I really applaud your audacity trying this. No matter how the cloud pruning turns out, what you will end up with is going to be unique, interesting and all your own from the very beginning!

    Thanks Laurrie. This is indeed the beginning. It could end up a total failure, but nothing ventured, nothing gained is the philosophy here. :-)
    Frances

  10. gittan says:

    I like the idea and do hope that it works out that way. I also take care of all the cuttings, it’s hard to waste anything that could be a new start for a shrub or tree. The Carpenter has sometimes asked me what I’m going to do with all those new plants. I just stare at him wondering what planet he comes from “lol” He doesn’t ask anylonger, I wonder why… / kram gittan

    Dear Gittan, thank you so much. It is about wasting, isn’t it? I don’t need more shrubs, but will find a place or give them away if they root. I love hearing about The Carpenter, too. He must be catching on to your methods. :-)
    Kram,
    Frances

  11. You should have pretty good success with the yews. They root fairly easy this time of year! The cloud pruning sounds very interesting and I can see why you liked the image in the magazine. Seeing the propagation makes me want to get out to do some too!

    Thanks Dave, that is good to know and you are certainly the expert on rooting stuff! Hope you were able to get outside, it is cold here, but the sun is shining. Hope you are being warmed by the rays as well. And a big congrats!!! :-)
    Frances

  12. Gail says:

    Dear Frances, This yew is one of my favorites…I like the ground cover version and not even my well practiced benign neglect has killed it…so cutting it into two is nothing for this plant! How clever of you to think about rooting those other wise compost bound cuttings! So my dear friend, Frances The Orange/Brave/Clever/Inspired way to go! Love, love, love the opening photo! gail

    Thanks Gail, that is good to know. It was lucky that this was found at that nursery, the only one they had. I have seen the low spreading ones too, a nice evergreen for a shady spot. The gold ones I ordered so impulsively are low, they might look nice under the plums. And thanks for those kind accolades. The opening shot was supposed to suggest idea bubbles. :-)
    Frances

  13. Lythrum says:

    Wow, I *love* that tree. I’m not doing a Japanese garden, but I might have to work that idea in somewhere. :)

    Thanks Lythrum, it would fit into any style of garden as a stand alone specimen, Japanese style or not. I could stare at the photo for hours, and have. :-)
    Frances

  14. James says:

    What a lovely orient-inspired garden! From my gardening experience, ponds are great, but can attract more insects in warmer months. What are you planning to use for insect control for spring? I found this organic spray online, http://www.saferbrand.com/store/garden-care/5102, but was wondering if you had any recommendations.

    Thanks James. We have no insects in the pond, the fish eat them all and the pump keeps the water moving to prevent mosquitoes. Thanks for the suggestion though. We have had the pond for ten years.
    Frances

  15. Urban Green says:

    Loved the idea. My limited balcony space doesn’t allow for many ideas to fit in. Nevertheless, I keep dreaming…(one day!)

    Hi Urban Green. I do believe a cloud pruned shrub in a large pot on your balcony would be grand and fun, if your climate will allow. Give it a try, and never ever stop dreaming! :-)
    Frances

  16. Rose says:

    I find inspiration in so many places, too, Frances, but I don’t always carry through with ideas like you. Bravo to you for plunging ahead with another great project! The Zen garden is really taking shape with the addition of these yews.

    I’d add more to this comment, but I’m “babysitting” teens again and surreptiously writing this. As always, I’ve learned something new…like toenail clippers as a bonsai tool:)

    By the way, just ordered one of those little newspaper pot makers!

    Thanks Rose. I have lots of ideas that never come to fruition, but when we spotted this shrub at the nursery, it was meant to be! I am a bit of a plunger. Don’t get caught sneaking blog reading in while you babysit, Rose. The clippers are the ones that look like wire cutters, you can get right next to the trunk to make the cut, leaving no stub. Hope you have fun making those paper pots, and your seedlings will thank you. :-)
    Frances

  17. joey says:

    I dream of a Japanese/Zen garden, dear Frances, but in reality know I will only be able to enjoy others, which is OK ’cause I love to dream! I’m lucky to have 2 cherished pieces of earth … the moss garden at the lake is more of a reality for me now. Weekend *hugs* …

    Hi Joey, thanks so much. I do believe you can have your moment of zen wherever you might be, it is a place in the mind. You are lucky to have two spots of your own, and the moss sounds wonderful, well being at the lake sounds wonderful! You too enjoy a great weekend! :-)
    Frances

  18. Joanne says:

    Great post and wonderful to find two trees for one not to mention all those healthy looking cuttings. i look forward to watching your bonsai grow.

    Thanks Joanne. I do hope these are fast growers, I can’t wait to try out the pruning techniques. :-)
    Frances

  19. skeeter says:

    How exciting this quest of yours today! This will be an ongoing project for some time I reckon. Good luck with this adventure… Magazine and blog pictures get me into trouble at times. I see something and the brain starts to working on me. Next thing you know, I am knee deep into something. hee hee…

    Congrats on your book, seeds and glove win!

    Thanks Skeeter. It sounds like you have an active mind, the best kind to have. Knee deep is a good place to be. :-)
    Frances

  20. VW says:

    Ooh, sounds like a great project. Good luck with all those baby yews! I’ve got yews in mind someday for my backyard, as they’ll handle the shade cast by my trees as they mature. But the pollen is poisonous like the rest of the plant, and some people are very sensitive, so I’m hesitant to plant many of them.

    Thanks VW. I don’t know if the cephalo-yew has that same trait as the regular yews with the pollen. I did love your blue star junipers, we use them extensively here as well.
    Frances

  21. Stevie says:

    I hate waste too! I love the plan and can’t wait to see it unfold.

    Thanks Stevie, glad to hear it! Now all we need is some warmer weather to get things moving out there. :-)
    Frances

  22. Grace says:

    Hi Frances~~ Your Yew trims look great. And a nice set of cuttings in the process. Nice. The Mugo in the container is very tasteful with your careful trim and the white rock topdressing. Such amazing talent you possess, dear.

    I’ve got the ‘Hicks’ Yew and contrary to its purported fast growth, mine makes The Tortoise look like Boodie Miller. But I’m not complaining. There is always more than enough pruning to keep my arm muscles happy. :)

    Oh I almost forgot. I went back to see your driftwood post. My son brought me two lovely pieces last summer. Your brilliant usage has my wheels-a-turnin.’

    Big wheels keep on turnin’!!! Thanks for that Grace. You are so sweet. Slow growth on the Hicks? Maybe my memory is faulty, but it did grow to six feet high in a couple of years. I didn’t want to prune it, but the guy said to cut the top off right away, when it was only a small thing to make it grow better, and it worked. I am anxious to see what you do with your driftwood! :-)
    Frances

  23. Sweet Bay says:

    It’ll be interesting to see if your root pruning works. Girdling seems to be a hard problem to overcome.

    I’ve seen a beautiful Plum Yew specimen in a front yard in Raleigh. When I took a plant ID class at NCSU the prof took us into a beautiful neighborhood across the street from campus (the same neighorhood Elizabeth Lawrence I believe lived in) and we saw all sorts of interesting plants.

    If you want a start of Winter Honeysuckle it’ll be a cinch to layer one. I may even have a shrub started from layering from last year that’s small enough to dig.

    Thanks Sweet Bay. I agree about the girdling and hope to have staved off death by strangulation for the mugo. It was only in a one gallon container when purchased last year, I should have checked it right then, but it seems to be growing already now that the roots were pruned. How cool about the class going on the field trip, that is the best way to learn about stuff, seeing mature specimens. I would love to have a start of your honeysuckle! I will contact you directly. You are a sweetie! :-)
    Frances

  24. TC Conner says:

    “The hissing of the white hot branding iron of inspiration.”

    I’m quoting you for my Facebook status update.

    That’s one hot statement! I only wish it would occur more often during winter!

    Thanks, TC. I deactivated my facebook after my email was hacked last year, hearing that is was happening on there with the letter from England asking for money thing, so can’t check it out. You are right about the lack of frequency though. It has been a tough winter.
    Frances

  25. linda says:

    What fun Frances! The little Mugo already has a very ‘bonsai’ look to it. I wish you great success with your newly-divided plum yews and cuttings.

    Hi Linda, thanks. I hope the little mugo lives, it was in sad shape for such a small plant. It would have died for sure, and may have already been on that path when it was dug and pruned. As for the cuttings, nothing ventured nothing gained. The plum yews had nice healthy roots on both pieces, they should do fine. As for their pruning, hope they can take the hacking! :-)
    Frances

  26. How fun to see to beginning of a long term project. This is the best of garden blogging, I think, to see people growing not only their gardens but their imaginations and creativity too.

    Hi Hands, thanks. You are so sweet. I hope to encourage others to try stuff they might not otherwise, to not be intimidated by the fear of failure. Life’s too short! Try everything!!! :-)
    Frances

  27. What a wonderful idea of growing your own yews for your little garden. I love the blue line around the yew–I know it’s so we can see it better, but to me it looks like it’s a ghost with a yew center (mmm, crunchy!). Also, love the little ceramic pagoda!

    Thanks Monica. Glad you liked the blue ghost! And you were the only one who mentioned the little pagoda, thanks! :-)
    Frances

  28. LC says:

    I’ve just located your blog and am finding it to be very interesting… I’m anxious to check out more old postings… I love trees as well! LC

    Hi LC, thanks and welcome. Do feel free to peruse all the old posts, I do it. You have some incredible hostas, BTW! :-)
    Frances

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