Yew is the best hedge plant there is. In all my time around hedging plants, I have never heard anyone say anything against it. A yew hedge plant has it all, superb windbreak shielding you from prying eyes and blotting out the evidence of passing traffic a few feet away. Yes, it drops its needles, but discreetly and they seem to melt away before you have time to fetch a broom. Its colour is magnificent - it is to hedges what British Racing Green is to generations of Lotus owners. And that colour a dark, rich green, putting Lotus to one side, makes a wonderful backdrop for other plants - shrubs, herbaceous plants, roses, even vegetables.
Some think yew is a bit 'church yardy' - rather gloomy and domineering. Not if you keep it below 8 feet - by the way I can't contemplate a hedge that would not be the centre of attention if it was over 8 feet tall. Just think of giant hedges (the beech hedge at Meikelour for example) - they are the main attraction; people travel hundreds of miles just to see the hedge and forget the rest. But just tall enough to hide the top of your six foot neighbours head is about ideal - and easily trimmed.
Lower than that, and your hedge becomes an internal divider, separating garden 'rooms'. You can give this shorter style of yew hedging more definition by using upright forms such as Irish Yew (Taxus baccata fastigiata) at the ends and corners of hedge runs. The upright yews are 'more column and less spread' and so are purpose made to be clipped into square or round pillars; formal but effective.
The number one reservation that people have about planting a yew hedge is that 'everyone knows it is really slow growing'. At the risk of offending 'everyone' - they are wrong and it is not. Don't believe me; just take a look at a hedge near you. We are only a few months into the growing season and newly planted and young yew hedges are roaring away. I have a trough in which I grow bare root yew plants at 3 to the metre to show people what a newly planted hedge looks like. They went in at the beginning of December (a good time to plant most bare root plants by the way) and have grown by over 8 inches (20 cms) already. Given that the growing season has at least three more months to go they will easily top a foot (30 cms) for the year. Remember mine are newly planted and containerised. Established and in open ground they would have grown more.
No article on yew hedging would be complete without a few words on clipping and pruning. As with any hedge plant the early, formative clipping is important. Be gentle but firm. Trim the sides into a 'batter' so the hedge is wider at the bottom than at the top. This lets the light reach low down and stops the hedge getting leggy. Do this as soon as your plants begin to grow away strongly - by the end of June if they were planted before Christmas, not until the end of August if they were planted between January and March. Leave the top of your hedge alone until it has reached its final height (which for a six foot hedge is probably four years after planting). Then clip the growing tips of the plants - they will never regain their vigour after that.
Don't clip your yew hedge plant after the end of September - this leaves enough time for it to grow a little and smooth sharp edges or maybe cover any mistakes...
Talking of mistakes, the yew will re-grow willingly from old wood so the errors of your ways will not haunt you to the grave (as they do with Leylandii). As an illustration, if you cut a strongly growing yew plant down, the stump will sprout. This is a bit extreme, but if your yew hedge is gappy or, more likely, over time gets wider than it should, simply cut the whole of one side back to the trunks in the middle of the hedge in late winter. In a couple of years, that half will have regenerated and you can do it again on the other side.
Plant your yew hedge this winter - it will make your heart sing for the rest of your life.
Anna Stenning is knowledgeable on the world of yew hedge plants and planting hedges, for the best in long term growth and maintenance.