Thuja occidentalis ‘Little Giant’

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If you need a little evergreen shrub, be aware the traditional pyramidal shaped arborvitae also comes in a dwarf form.  It is Thuja occidentalis ‘Little Giant’ or dwarf arborvitae.  This mini-version of the evergreen arborvitae also takes full sun (6 hours or more of sun) and grows to 24-30″ tall x 30-36″ wide.   It can handle some part-shade too, but will have a more open habit.

When a guest visited my home last year, and saw one by my house in a tight corner, she pointed to it in surprise.  “Isn’t that going to get too large?”, she asked.  I informed her its the ‘mini-me’ of the arborvitae. 

Little Giant

It seems not to many people are aware ‘Little Giant’ exists.  It has a rounded habit and is not too expensive compared to plants of similar size with more desireable qualities, but I think this mini can do for small spaces.  Should you want to create a knot garden, this is an alternative to boxwood.  Just space the dwarf arborvitae about 36″ apart.  One caution:  Deer eat arborvitaes so if you have a problem with deer, don’t use this shrub where they may browse. The tidy size of this plant would also make a nice container garden specimen for some greenery in the design.  It is small enough to fit other plant combinations within the container.  And it is easy to prune. 

The typical American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) is more familiar to everyone.  It serves as a great evergreen hedge or privacy wall, or as an anchoring plant.  Basically, they are easy care.  Many retain their green color throughout the winter months, but I suspect many were damaged this year by our heavy snow fall in Connecticut – some beyond repair.  They may require replacing, unless you took the time to shake away the heavy weight of the snow. 

To prevent winter damage (in the future), twine string or cord around them as shown in this photo I took of arborvitaes in a grower’s field.  Or create a framework to protect the plant but be sure to allow the sun to cast upon it.  But it may be a little too late to let you know about these techniques now!  The damaging snow fall this year took us by surprise.  If your arborvitae was too severely damaged, and you want to take it down, you could also wait (if you can stand it) until next winter to do so because arborvitae evergreen cuttings are great fillers for winter container gardens, so why not get use of it when you create your holiday arrangements?  I will be showing how this is done next winter in my winter class offerings.


About the only other requirements for T. occidentalis species is protecting them from strong winter winds and, again, not placing them where deer are found to dine!  They prefer full sun but can take shade.  In shade, their foliage will be a little less tight and dense, and a bit airy looking. ‘Emerald’ is a good cultivar with a narrow to pyramidal habit as a shrub form or small tree.  It can reach up to 10-15′ high and 3-4′ wide.  It is hardy to zones 3-8.  This is one I often recommend, among other cultivars.  I’ve also used arborvitaes in large containers.  Two I have still today.  I planted them in containers about 3 seasons ago, and I move them into my garage each winter.  Then as soon as the warm temps of spring arrive, I roll them back out as repeat performers.  Begin watering slowing, add some fertilizer and refresh the soil and mulch.  I’ll change out the decor around the arborvitae with seasonal annuals to add a splash of color.  It is a great way to save money.  The arborvitae still hasn’t outgrown the pot! 

I recently read the Latin name arbor vitae means “Tree of Life”  in a book titled, “Leaves. In Myth, Magic & Medicine” by Alice Thoms Vitale.  ‘Tree of Life’ because it has been a source of food.  We know deer sure enjoy them.  Ever see an arborvitae turn into a topiary as they dine on the lower portions at times?  But apparently deer are not the only diners – moose and rabbits?  Well, rabbits use this evergreen for shelter.  No moose sightings here in my yard so I’d have to ask my Canadian relatives about that one!  Native Americans had used it also for skin disorders – making salve.  There were other medicinal purposes.  Who would have figured?  Cathy T

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