How to Care for Arborvitae, the tree of life

Arborvitae is truly the “tree of life.”  To the early Indians, and the first French explorers with whom they shared their knowledge of natural medicines, arborvitae meant vitamin C and a cure for scurvy.  To the new home owner today, it is a quick hedge and a foundation planting to soften the corners of houses.                               

For a tree like this, what could be more appropriate than the name arborvitae, a Latin form of the French, “l’arbre de vie,” or “tree of life”?  Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who assigned the Latin name to this species, picked up on other traits.  The genus name, Thuja, is from a Greek word for perfume.  Squeezing the evergreen leaves releases an aroma that is nothing less than nature’s perfume.

The native North American tree, America Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), was useful in early canoes and medicines and became the first North American tree to be introduced to Europe.   The specific name, occidentalis, means “west,” the direction from Sweden where this tree was discovered.     

Tree Care Tips

Arborvitae is a tough and versatile tree – an urban survivor.  It can withstand compaction, most common kinds of air pollution, and a range of soils.  It can be planted in tight, narrow spaces in a landscape where height is needed, and adapts well to shearing and shaping.  However, for a good to fast growing tree of up to 2 feet per year, it is necessary to plant this species within its preferred range of conditions.

Conditions to Maximize Tree Growth Rate

  • Soil that is moist, rich and deep, but well drained; loam or sandy loam 
  • pH of 6.0 (slightly acidic) to 8.0 (alkaline)
  • Full sun if rapid growth is important, but will tolerate shade
  • Geographic regions with high humidity

Potential Problems

  • In times of drought, tree watering is important.
  • Young landscape trees will need protection from deer in many areas.
  • Pest and Disease Problems: Bagworms are sometimes attracted to this species, but can be removed by hand in winter, or controlled with a biological pesticide.
  • In forest or land development situations, large openings can lead to windthrow due to its shallow root system.
  • Protection from fire is a ‘must’ except from very old trees.

Share, Ask, and Plant

  • Share your photos with us on how you have incorporated arborvitaes in your landscape design. 
  • Do you have more Tree Care Questions related to arborvitae; please feel free to ask them in the comments section.
  • Plant an Arborvitae in your yard

47 Comments

  1. I hate to say it but I regret planting a row of arborvitae
    on the side of my house as a sound barrier to street traffic. They have been there 15 years and I have not had
    any disease or bug problems but growth problems are a biggie
    They grow tall and leggy and then drop over if they are not
    tied and the ties don’t stay long and cropping them shorter
    is not an option, would make shape worse. So I am not a
    huge fan of arborvitae.

  2. Although we are in zone 4, Arborvitae usually does poorly in Wyoming, with browning branches, perhaps from winter dessication. Our nursery in Cody, WY, recommends one of the many lovely pyramidal juniper varieties instead.

  3. The Green Giant variety works great for an attractive, aromatic privacy screen. I planted ours a few years ago to block our deck from the neighbors two story house next door. It was a narrow location, but they are growing wonderfully!

  4. We recently had to remove some existing arborvitae that grew too large for the small space and were growing into our neighbor’s house. They also grew into each other and were dying noticably on the inside. So we are considering replacing them with a dwarf variety to get the same effect that the previous owner’s attempts were trying to get at, which was some privacy between houses.

  5. I have two of these trees in the golden variety and they are beautiful with the winter gold on the tips of the leaves. Our soil here on the mesa outside Belen NM is Kalechi and our zone is 6. I do no special care or watering. This spring we went 10 weeks with barely a drop of moisture. The trees are about 15′ tall and 6′ wide at the base.

    These trees are in a place to be a barrier protecting the court yard. I have found one active birds nest in each tree every year. The lizards are also found under these trees and their evening song is beauty to behold.

    If you are in a location to grow Arborvitae, I highly recommend them. I am guessing that after they are established they do not like too much water. A neighbor has about a dozen and they have not been cared for since the first few months after they were planted. This is the desert SW and water is very scarce so these trees are a very welcome site.

  6. I am new to shrub planting….can the emerald green arborvitae [(smaragd) thuja occidentalis] touch each other as they grow? Should I strictly follow the 24″-36″ spacing when planting? The new shrub is 5-6′ tall in the pot now. I am in the process of digging and amending the soil now.

    • I would follow the recommendations we have online for spacing for hedges/privacy screens. Those recommendations are based upon scientific research from the leading experts in the field.

  7. Can you tell me how and when to trim arborvitae’s? I have two of them in the from of the house, and they are getting too tall.

  8. I have 8 aborvitae trees and they are about two years old and they are turning deep brown like they are dying how can i help them? Someone told me to put cow manure around them?
    It has been very hot here in Western TN

  9. My gardner trimmed the face of my row of arborvitae, now bark shows and they are ugly. Will the face of the arborvitae grow out and become full and green again?

  10. I have a number of Arborvitae trees which were subjected to -9 degree temperatures two winters ago. They are not looking healthy. Any suggestions?

    Thanks,
    Mary Hodges

  11. James, you say it’s been hot. What has your precipitation been like? Have you had a lot of rainfall or are you experiencing drought conditions?

  12. Mary,

    Arborvitae do suffer winter desiccation when cold, dry weather dehydrates the foliage. Injury occurs when water is lost from evergreen plants to the atmosphere faster than it can be replaced through absorption of water by roots. Wind and salt spray can also contribute to the lost off moisture from the foliage.

    You will want to remove any dead, brown foliage on your arborvitae. Be careful not to remove any live branches as they will not grow back.

    Make sure that the trees are well-hydrated going into winter, aand the ground is kept moist prior to it freezing. You can protect smaller and younger arborvitae by wrapping the sides in burlap. Leave the top open to allow light in. Larger trees can be tied up in a spiral of twine to prevent branch breakage caused by heavy snow. Lathe fencing or snow fencing should be used to protect the trees in extremely windy areas.

    Also apply a layer of mulch about two inches deep to help maintain a more even soil temperature and keep moisture inb the ground throughout the winter.

  13. About Diseases:

    We have about 250′. 40 plants of conical and technae(pyrimadal) arborvitae on a residenrial lot. We ignored the browning of the lower braches and browning of the branch tips above thimking it was from a couple of drought years.

    Turned out that the bkight was caused by “leaf miners”. They would have eventually destroyed our beautiful yard.

    My husband did his internet homework and bought and app;ied a lot of Orthene, which is a systemic pesticide. It has been about 6 years, but our Arborviate are better than ever. None of us wants to use pesticides, but,on balance, it was a very good decision. Because of the judicious use of Orthene we have a lovely back yard.

    • Karen,
      There is a couple of things to deer proof your trees.
      1) Is to pick Deer Resistant Trees and Shrubs. The link beside is an article based upon research conducted at Rutgers University to determine the Best and Worst Trees and Shrubs for Deer Browsing. Unfortunately it looks like American Arborviate is one of the worst.

      2. Since you already have some arborvitae planted it might be best to use something to protect them. I recommend a deer tube. The link beside is to Tubex deer tubes which have proven to be good quality and value. Since you are protecting against deer you will want to get the 4′ version because you want the tree to grow large enough so that the deer no longer find it appealing.

      Hope this plants and Happy protecting,
      Ben

  14. We live in Southern Mississippi. The zone is only optimal at the top of our state but accordinting to the description of soil, sun, and weather conditions, it seems ok for us. We love the look of the arborvitae and would like to know if anyone has had luck growing out of the recomended zone that was close to your location. If not, can anyone recommend a similar windbreaker?

  15. Question: How do you prevent Arborvitae from becoming leggy? We bought 5 footers 10 years ago for privacy. Over the past few years, they have grown to 6 feet, however, all the foliage at the bottom approx. 18 inches is gone.
    Any suggestions? Where did we go wrong?

  16. Hello I have an ever green tree in my front yard and it is turning brown. The rest of the are very green . What can I do. Thank you

  17. Do I need to apply fertilizer to my emerald arborvitae trees? When is the best time to apply? I have a few branches turning brown. Is it because of too much water as my sprinkler waters every other day?

  18. @Harry
    1. Fertilizing is usually only necessary if there is a deficiency in one or more soil nutrients (elements), which is rarely the case for trees. Nitrogen will help foliage color if that is a problem, otherwise it is pretty much a waste of money.

    2. Without an on-site inspection, it isn’t possible to say why some branches are turning brown. The sprinklers might be a problem, especially if the water is high in chlorine content or some other chemical. But if the water is hittting the entire tree and only some branches are browning, it may be something else. Again, diagnosis without a site visit is not recommended. Suggest he has an arborist or extension person take a look.

  19. We just bought 6 5′ Thuja occidentalis smaragl #7 pot, plants. We were a bit impulsive and aren’t ready to plant them. I wonder how long they can stay in their pots?

  20. @Harry
    I just learned this from a guy yesterday…don’t know if it’s related. If you fertilize trees in the spring they go through a massive growth spurt then this new growth often suffers winter kill the following season. If you fertilize in the fall then the nutrients can seep into the root zone where they can be used all through the following year and results in more steady and healthy growth.

    Always read the package instructions with fertilizers and contact an arborist such as Robert if you have questions.

  21. Thanks PK. Does anyone know what kind of fertilizer is best for arborvitae? I just planted another 20 Emerald Arborvitae trees of about 2 feet, hoping they will provide some quick privacy and also serve as a hedge for cold north wind in winter. Any idea how many years it will take for them to grow up to 8 feet? Any way to make them grow faster and healthy? Thank you!

  22. I want to plant a few arborvitae in the yard by my swell, I gets lots of water run off there. Will this be too much water for the arborvitae to handle? If I put grave around the Arborvitae in the swell will this help? Thanks

  23. Got 2 arborvitae 8 years ago. They’re in containers by my porch, about 8 feet tall. This year one has large areas turning brown, and the container seems to not drain. Do they need to be transplanted, or can I just make sure they get better drainage?
    Thanks a lot

  24. An 8′ arborvitae will need at least a few gallons of water each day during hotter weather and trees do not like being planted in pots, so I would recommend you plant them in the ground at the proper depth. There are planting instructions available on http://www.arborday.org

  25. my row of arborvitae may be dry. I find that if I open up the follieage there are dry clups of brown folliage I cac grab out from the inside. While the trees look perfectly green and normal on the outside. They were planted in the spring and I use a soaker hose maybe twice a week for a few hours eac htime. Living in the northeast its been hot and dry the last two months.

    Appreciate your thoughts.

  26. Towards the bottom of my arborvitae a few tips at the very end of the green leaves have tuned black but seem to be alive. there are no brown areas on the exterior of the tree at all. there are however brown areas inside the tree if you pull the branches back to look. the tree is nice and full and healthy looking otherwise. i would appreciate your comments. thank you.

  27. The roots of my shrubs were recentley flooded with salt water due to hurricane and since they are now turning brown, is there anything i can do to save them?

  28. My arborvitaes were partially browned by salt spray. If I cut back only the browned areas the global shape will be distorted. Can I cut back to point where only woody parts remain and should I cut back now (October) or wait til Spring?

  29. @ Chris
    Browning internal needles is normal. Arborvitaes are evergreen trees, but they still drop leaves. The interior browning is the trees way of shedding older needles, so it can devote more energy to producing new needles. Arborvitae may need an additional watering during extended dry periods. I would recommend a deep watering once a week. You want the soil around the tree to dry between waterings, so the roots can absorb oxygen.

  30. @Larry
    Blacking of the needles is most likely due to overwatering. Try backing off on watering see if the condition improves. Browning internal needles is normal. Arborvitaes are evergreen trees, but they still drop leaves. The interior browning is the trees way of shedding older needles, so it can devote more energy to producing new needles.

  31. @Joe
    Arborvitaes are sensitive to salt water. To counter the effects of the salt water damage, you will need to leach the salt out of the soil. To do this try watering more frequently (twice a week for a month). Hopefully, you will see improvements in the trees health. You can also send a soil sample to your county extension office and they can tell you if it contains dangerously high salt levels. You may notice that the foliage is developing black tips. This can sometimes happen from overwatering. While it can be unsightly but it will dissipate.

  32. @Bob
    I would wait until all of the trees in your area go dormant before you do any pruning. To find out when would be a good time, contact you county extension office. Be careful when pruning arborvitae as they have a thin layer of green and you do not want to expose the interior of the tree as it will look unsightly.

  33. I have 3 – 7 foot Dark American Arborvitae in 18″ pots. The plants are healthy and were just purchased. I need to keep them in the pots to overwinter till March. I think I have two choices: Put them in the cool unheated garage ( maintains about 40degrees all year) and take them out for a sun bath during above freezing days. Or, can I put them in an open space in the garden, cover base with peet moss and then plastic wrap on top ? Any suggestions would really help. Thanks, Michael

    • @ Michael
      I would suggest un-potting the arborvitae and planting them in a permanent location. Now is a great time to plant conifers and it sounds like the plants are large enough to be planted permanently. If this is not possible temporarily plant them in your garden area. If that is not possible, dig holes that are deep enough to cover the pots and sink them into the ground. Best course of action in your situation is to get the trees in the ground so that they can take advantage of the insulating properties of the earth. The ground will take 4 to 6 weeks of daytime freezing temperatures before I would advise you to not plant. Make sure to cover the base of the plants with a 2-4 inch layer of mulch.
      I would advise you against trying to over winter the trees in your garage. I don’t think they will not survive the winter with their roots above ground.

  34. We have arborvitae trees and there are parts that have turned brown.On one- one whole stalk is brown and the rest is green. On one other one the base leaves on one side are brown. and they are very tall, can I trim them down some. Don’t know the actual age as we bought the place 5 1/2 years ago. They had a little brown the first year we were here. Must be at least 10 feet or more now.

  35. We had a very hot, dry summer in MO this year. I have several arborvitae around our inground saltwater swimming pool. One of them is showing signs of distress. Since it’s late November, is there anything I can do to help it so it’s not lost over our cold winters? Thank you!

  36. I have techney arborviteas in rows around my property which we planted about 25 years ago in the Chicagoland area. We have topped them approximately once every other year. We try to keep them under 18 feet high. They look green & healthy on the outside, but on the inside the bark is falling off & we have always had some dead wood. We do not water much because we have been getting a lot of rain. Does anyone know what would be causing this bark problem or is this normal with aging.

  37. @ Jack:
    The bark issues that you are describing might be related to the pruning practice of topping. Topping can cause a tree to become stressed b/c you are removing a large portion of the trees crown. The leaves in the crown create food and help nourish the tree. Think of topping as causing starvation in the tree which in turn causes stress. This stress can manifest itself in many forms. The tree can become more susceptible to disease and inviting to pests. I would strongly recommend having a local expert advise you on how to care of the tree. If you have already talked to an Arborist and they told you to top them, I would recommend finding a different arborist.