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Gardening 101: Arborvitae

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Gardening 101: Arborvitae

June 22, 2018

Arborvitae, Thuja: “Tree of Life”

Arborvitae trees are North American natives that earned their appreciative nickname (arbor vitae translates to “tree of life” in Latin) a few centuries back when Canada’s early French settlers discovered that brewing a tea from thuja bark was a cure for scurvy.

Guaranteed, you’ve seen thuja trees—either in your garden or someone else’s: they’re the evergreen cedar trees with curiously flat, fanned foliage. Depending on the species and cultivar, their height at maturity can range from “shrub” (dwarf thuja bushes can grow to heights of from 15 inches to  10 feet) to “major tree” (giant thuja trees can be 200 feet tall).

Commonly known as white cedars, red cedars, eastern arborvitaes or other nicknames, Thuja trees are hardy, fast-growing workhorses often planted en masse to create windbreaks. Planted in a row in front of a fence, they’ll grow together to create a dense screen within five years.

Is arborvitae the best tree for your garden? Keep reading to find out:

Thuja occidentalis &#8\2\16;Rosenthali&#8\2\17; can be grown in USDA zones 3 to 8, depending on the cultivar. Photograph by F.D. Richards via Flickr.
Above: Thuja occidentalis ‘Rosenthali’ can be grown in USDA zones 3 to 8, depending on the cultivar. Photograph by F.D. Richards via Flickr.

Also known as eastern arborvitae or northern white cedar, T. occidentalis varieties will grow to a height of about 50 feet at maturity (making them medium size trees). They will thrive in spots with either full or partial sun so long as they have well-drained soil.

Arborvitae seedlings in window boxes create a green privacy screen for a dining area in a Paris apartment. For more, see 9 Small-Space Ideas to Steal from a Tiny Paris Apartment.
Above: Arborvitae seedlings in window boxes create a green privacy screen for a dining area in a Paris apartment. For more, see 9 Small-Space Ideas to Steal from a Tiny Paris Apartment.

Some dwarf varieties of thuja to consider: Thuja ‘Fire Chief’ (height of up to 4 feet and has gold-green foliage which turns red in autumn); T. ‘Anna’s Magic Ball’ (a mere 15 inches high, it’s a small-space evergreen shrub), and T. ‘Filip’s Magic Moment’ (height of up to 8 feet and golden foliage).

A ruffled arborvitae, Thuja occidentalis &#8\2\16;Tiny Tim&#8\2\17; is a specimen plant that creates a visual focal point. Photograph by Leonora Enking via Flickr.
Above: A ruffled arborvitae, Thuja occidentalis ‘Tiny Tim’ is a specimen plant that creates a visual focal point. Photograph by Leonora Enking via Flickr.

Cheat Sheet

  • A fast-growing tree, Thuja makes an effective privacy screen.
  • A row of arborvitae trees planted at the base of an ugly fence will soon make the backdrop disappear.
  • With a wide range in shape and size (including 15-inch balls and slender, 20-foot-high pyramids), thuja trees can solve problems in nearly any size garden.
Also known as emerald green arborvitae, evergreen Thuja &#8\2\16;Smaragd&#8\2\17; thrives in USDA growing zones 4 to 8. Photograph by Dan Keck via Flickr.
Above: Also known as emerald green arborvitae, evergreen Thuja ‘Smaragd’ thrives in USDA growing zones 4 to 8. Photograph by Dan Keck via Flickr.

Keep It Alive

  • Depending on the cultivar, Thuja can be happy in USDA growing zones 2 to 9.
  • Thujas will be happy in sun or partial shade as long as they can count on well-drained soil.
  • When planting thuja trees, dig a wide hole, but not too deep—the top of the root ball should sit at or slightly above ground level when you fill in the hole. To help the tree get established, put it on a drip irrigation line or water for 24 hours with a soaker hose twice a week during its first season in the ground.
Photograph by William Zhang via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by William Zhang via Flickr.

A few Christmases back, Justine bought a live thuja tree to decorate indoors—and then planted it in her garden after the holidays. Are you thinking of doing the same thing? See DIY: Plant Your Christmas Tree in the Garden.

For more growing tips, see Arborvitae: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.

Are you wondering which tree would be the best choice for your garden? Get ideas from our curated guides to Trees 101 in our Garden Design 101 section. For more evergreen conifers, see our guides to Yew Trees and Cedar of Lebanon Trees. See how some of our favorite trees look in a landscape when they reach maturity:

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