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  • Writer's pictureAnne Jennings

Yew Are So Beautiful

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

The most urgent thing to do was to plant hedges. We were extravagant over this, and planted yew, and have never regretted it. Everybody told us it took at least a century to make a good yew hedge, but the photographs will, I think, disprove this: the hedge is now only seventeen years old, a mere adoles­cent, and, at the end where the ground slopes and it has been allowed to grow up in order to maintain the top-level, it is 16 feet high.

Vita Sackville-West on her garden at Sissinghurst (1950)

House and Garden Archive

There is much to say about Vita Sackville-West that lies beyond the scope of this Blog. Her family background, marriage, love life, writing, poetry and gardening are worth a time investment, as to read about her and study her work provides glimpses of this remarkable - and I’m guessing pretty scary - woman.

Training in horticulture as a second career I eagerly consumed everything available about plants and gardens, and soon stumbled across features on Sissingurst Castle in Kent. I studied all I could, reading about the intriguing Vita, absorbing her own writing, following her pained considerations about the layout of the new gardens at the Castle, and of course researching the plants she grew.

When I finally visited in the early 1990s, my eager anticipation was that of a horticultural pilgrim, journeying to a destination that for so long had captured my imagination and fanned a flickering flame of possibility for my own garden writing.

I was not disappointed and fortunate to have seen the garden before the huge number of daily visitors started to take its toll. Soon after my visit, one of the main management decisions was to replace turf paths, so important to the garden’s creator, with York stone, better to take the millions of pounding footsteps each year, but piercing the garden’s aesthetic with harsh directional routes.

One of my overriding memories of that visit is of the yew hedges, essential structures that create rooms within the garden to allow different themes to dominate each space, the most iconic being the White Garden.

My remembrance however is not of dense green palisades defining the boundaries but of a craftman’s bold intervention, reducing the façade on one side back to the central stems. By this time the yew hedges were around 50 years old and due for renovation to ensure a solid but contained hedge could be maintained long into the future.

It was quite shocking but also exciting to see. A few years on the hedges had recovered and regenerated and the exercise was then to be repeated on the other side.

In a much humbler setting, my own yews are now undergoing a similar process, although I suspect the Sissinghurst plants were in far better condition than mine when work began. Here, drought, lack of nutrients and an odd year or so when clipping had been ignored combined to create a hedge which although half a metre deep was full of bare spindly wood in the centre. Impoverished foliage grew only on extreme tips, resulting in a very poor structure which could only marginally justify the designation 'hedge'.

It was a sorry sight.

Yew - Taxus baccata - is perhaps the most enthusiastic of garden plants in terms of regeneration. It needs the tiniest encouragement to develop dense

clusters of bright green leaf tips along old wood and these, given the right conditions, can quickly develop and thus the regeneration process begins.

When the box hedges that fronted the yew were removed last year, light flooded bare wood at the base of the plants and winter moisture was more available in the soil for the plants to draw from. Lo and behold, tiny emerald jewels began to cluster along the bare wood, an irresistible enticement to start work.

As the growing season began (and after checking for birds’ nests), I made a start. Old growth on the lower section of the 2m high hedge has been completely removed, exposing dormant and newly emergent growth, with such potential for the future.

Having gently forked around the base of the plants to open up solid, neglected ground, the plants are being watered and slow release fertiliser added to encourage and support new growth. Hands and fingers are calloused and blistered and the compost bins and spare tonne bags overflowing, but regeneration is evident and exciting.

Over the next couple of years I’ll do more work on the top sections and will finally - again - end up with the hedge as it was intended. In the meantime, I make many and regular apologies to this Queen of Hedges for the thoughtless neglect she suffered, backed up by promises to do better in the future.

She is terribly forgiving.

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