Everyone loves yew. It has been woven into our culture and history since before the English Channel existed. Yew is a symbol of immortality, wisdom, strength, protection against evil and so on. We used Yew as Christmas trees at Christmas and in place of palms on Palm Sunday at Easter, until the arrival of the Norway spruce and proper palm leaves.
And we all love yew hedges. No other plant creates a hedge with the character and style of a yew hedge. No other plants lives as long or is as resistant to disease or clips as well or ages with such dignity as a yew hedge. It is the perfect hedging plant really.
Or it would be if it were not for the fact that yew hedge plants hate starting off life in wet ground. Since a large part of the United Kingdom enjoys soil that is quite heavy - clay soils are not just the preserve of the Potteries - young plants and wet feet are often synonymous.
What happens is that the would be yew hedge planter, conscious that he or she is planting a hedge that can (literally) last a thousand years, takes out a trench a full spit deep and probably three spade widths wide. This is hard work in clay soil. Then they 'prepare' the ground. All sorts of rubbish from roots to perennial weed to stones are assiduously removed, while manful efforts are made to produce a fine tilth by incorporating masses of compost, or well rotted you know what. If the clay is really heavy, my imaginary gardener probably also digs in masses of gravel or horticultural sand to improve the drainage.
And they plant their little yew at the right depth, water them and then watch them die wondering why it all went wrong.
The answer is that they simply took too much trouble. That lovely trench, full of compost or manure where the soil had been opened up with expensive grit or sand is, on clay soils, a death trap. Drainage works both ways in gardening. Well drained soil lets water run out, but it also lets it run it. So that lovely trench in winter is more like a cold bath. The rain runs off the non-draining clay around and into the trench, which it fills, and in so doing it drives out the oxygen almost all plants need to survive (and yew certainly does). So your precious yew is now exactly where it does not want to be, with its roots in cold water for several months at a time. The yew hedge plants that survive the first winter will die 12 months later if a wet summer does not get them first.
You will undoubtedly have seen yew growing in wet ground. So here is the tip. Actually there is more than one. Don't buy yew in pots, always use bare root yew hedge plants. Don't dig a trench. Don't improve the ground at all. Actually don't dig it at all. Don't make any holes that can fill up with water and drown your yew roots.
Hanging on to the thought that clay soils are rich and need no improving, take a spade and insert it full length into the soil. Push it forward and back to make a V shaped slit. Take a small yew plant (30-40 cms is perfect) and with a sweeping motion brush its roots into the slit. Hold it in place and really firm the ground back around the roots. It matters that there is good contact between the soil and the roots of a bare root plant. So, while holding the plant steady, stamp and really make sure the slit is completely closed again. When you have finished it should be quite difficult to pull the plant out of the ground.
By all means water when it is dry (remember clay can really dry out in summer), then stand back and watch your yew hedge grow.
Anna Stenning is an expert on yew hedge plants, when they should be planted and how to keep them from dying.