Q: The Round clipped yews in front of our 1917 farmhouse are overgrown and nearly hide the windows. The house faces north — a shady, windy site on dry clay. We would like plantings that fit the period of the house and give birds the nesting place and cover from winter winds that the yews now provide. Can we just cut the yews back by half? All their greenery is on the branch tips. Will they die if pruned so severely? — Christine Aylesworth, Hebron, Ind.
A: Many a house has been engulfed by upright yews, junipers, and other once-low foundation plantings that have outgrown their site. Your easiest option is to stop barbering the yews into tight mounds and allow them to develop into the open, attractive trees they naturally are, with lovely reddish brown, flaky bark. Brace yourself, however, for several years during which they’ll recall that dreaded phase when your hair is growing out of a short cut. Ultimately, the yews’ airy, spreading branches will obstruct less window area than the dense mass you have now; but even then, the trees may still block more light and view than you’re willing to sacrifice.
A more drastic, though reliable, option is to cut the yews back hard. Unlike juniper, pine, or spruce, these evergreens sprout well from old, thick wood. Prune them in early spring, apply a balanced fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, and water them through the summer. It may take a few years, but the yews will revive — so vigorously that only annual pruning will hold them in check. In the long run, you might be better off replacing your upright yews with a compact variety such as ‘Nana’ or ‘Cross Spreading,’ which matures into a soft, graceful shape that won’t encroach on the windows.
If you’d simply rather dispense with yews, the alternatives for foundation plantings that can handle your site are limited. Other evergreens don’t take kindly to dry shade and harsh winter wind — rhododendron, boxwood, holly, and mahonia would all resent the conditions you describe. Deciduous shrubs such as Korean or golden barberry, snowberry, flowering ‘Benenden’ raspberry, Korean spice viburnum, or a dwarf form of Tatarian honeysuckle are your best shots, and they all supply fruit and nesting opportunities for birds. As for working with the period of your house, forget about foundation plantings altogether. Using greenery to “anchor” a building (as if it would otherwise drift away) wasn’t de rigueur until the 1940s and ’50s. Provided your foundation is in good shape, there’s nothing to conceal. Let your lawn lap the masonry. Soften the lines of the façade with a small flowering tree such as redbud, Cornelian cherry, or serviceberry underplanted with shade-loving ground covers, bulbs, and perennials for color.