Thuja occidentalis (Eastern or American arborvitae) is a needled evergreen tree often planted in rows to create living borders between properties. It is very easy to grow, low maintenance, commonly sold, and available in many choices of cultivars, but if you placed it where hungry deer tend to roam during their forage for food, you are asking for trouble.
Deer favor American arborvitaes and will typically dine on the lower portions of the leaves when they are hungry enough. Your trees will end up looking like deformed topiaries, instead of full evergreens with a conical to pyramidal shape from top to bottom. This will be a big disappointed if you invested in planting a long row of them as a hedge.
Alternatively, if deer grazing is not a problem on your property, this plant makes an excellent evergreen candidate for hedges, as foundation plants, and as backdrops to perennial beds. You can use methods to protect the trees during the winter season with burlap, deer fencing, or wire cages, however, this is a process you may not prefer.
Mistake #2 – Planted it in full shade or exposed windy locations
If you have a lot of shade, beware when it comes to arborvitaes. Too much shade will make the plant a bit more floppy, open and loose looking. It may make it because they are generally easy to grow and tolerant, but they prefer full sun to “part” shade (and enjoy some light afternoon shade in warmer locations) to perform their best.
When planted in full shade, their stately upright form will suffer. Before you invest in planting a row or barrier of several plants in your landscape, consider the sun exposure during all parts of the day. Think about how the shade is cast throughout the day, especially if located near large homes or buildings.
Arborvitaes are generally picky about wind exposure as well, especially if the windy site is open with no protection around the plants. During the winter, when exposed to wind, the foliage will suffer and may display brown to yellow spots the following spring from winter burn. It is not super unsightly and can be cleaned up by pruning if limited, but could lead to some disappointment.
If planted in a container garden or patio pot during the growing season (because this plant also makes an excellent thriller in patio pots), be sure to protect the containerized plant during the winter months by moving it to a sheltered location such as your garage or shed.
When planted in the correct exposure, these evergreens will demand little attention. Its flat sprays with overlapping scale-like leaf patterns are densely packed on the trees and are slightly aromatic. Another interesting feature on this evergreen are the urn-shaped small cones.
Mistake #3 – Failed to protect it during heavy snowfalls
This plant can topple a bit during heavy snow storms and you may end up with arched plants from broken branches due to the weight of snow and ice. During heavy snowstorms, which are thankfully months away now, you may want to loosely place twine around them to help keep up their branches or protect them with a wooden frame during the heavy storms. Another option is to gently shake accumulated snowfall off the plants, if you feel like venturing out during the storm.
Mistake #4 – Planted it too deep or failed to water it
If your arborvitaes turn brown shortly after planting, this could be an indication you planted them too deep. Because roots require oxygen and arborvitaes are relatively shallow rooted, they will suffer from lack of oxygen below the soil if planted incorrectly.
Be sure to follow the instructions provided by your nurseryman, or hire a professional if you are installing a large barrier or hedge – it will be worth the investment and help protect you from hurting your back, especially if you are planting larger balled and burlapped trees which are very heavy to move and place in the ground.
Arborvitaes can take a wide range of soils from average to well-drained, and overall, they are not super challenging to grow, however, their preferred soil conditions are moist and well-drained. Think about the soil in your yard before you proceed.
After planting time, you should follow a watering routine as dictated by your nurseryman, especially when planting during the hottest parts of summer. Once these plants are established, they are more tolerant to drought, but it is important to get your plants growing with a good start. Do not leave them unattended during the heat of summer.
Planting any new plants, especially a row where you invested in purchasing several, should be monitored for watering during dry periods as well. Do not fail to water it, and if you plan to leave for vacation immediately after planting them, remember your neighbor may not want to water them for you seeing as you just put up a privacy barrier between your properties. Plan when you plant to avoid letting the new trees sit without attention.
Mistake #5 – Planted in compacted areas or where additives accumulated
Because arborvitaes are excellent candidates as tall hedges, many people will plant them alongside driveways or roadways on their property lines. Be aware of any hard packed areas where the roots may struggle to get established. And if planting balled and burlapped trees versus containerized ones, follow the instructions on how to property deal with the twine so you do not end up girdling the tree’s trunk near the soil line.
Additionally, roadside salts or runoff from lawn herbicides may injure hedges overtime. Always consider the soil conditions of your planting site before proceeding with planting a hedge. If planted at the base of a slope for example, accumulation of harmful additives in the area can affect the planting area. While these evergreens are tough, anything sitting in a pool of pollution will suffer eventually.
American arborvitaes are native to the northeast and commonly used in landscapes as hedges, foundation plants, backgrounds to perennial beds, and focal points – and they are relatively easy to grow with some tolerance, but they still need a bit of awareness of their prefer conditions to perform at their best. Avoid the 5 mistakes above, and you will enjoy your privacy in no time.
Thuja is pronounced kind of like “Fool-ya” but with a ‘th’ instead of the F. To hear how it sounds, check out wordHippo. By the way, many folks refer to arborvitaes as cedar trees.