How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Arborvitae

Arborvitae are all the rage for adding a luxurious living fenceline to your landscaping. But what are the care requirements, and how easy or difficult are they to grow? Gardening expert Kelli Klein walks you through the steps to provide optimal growing conditions for your arborvitae hedge.

A line of triangular arborvitae trees stretches along the roadside, their lush green foliage creating a natural barrier. In the distance, a serene cloudy sky paints the backdrop, adding depth to the peaceful rural scene.


Arborvitae is a coniferous tree or shrub in the Cyprus family. This North American native tree has quickly gained popularity as an ornamental. It is commonly used to create a living privacy screen, fence, or windbreak in the landscape. It grows in a wide range of environments throughout North America within USDA growing zones two through eight. 

This tree is adaptable to a variety of soil conditions provided that they are well-drained and that it receives full sun. It is also a long-lived perennial and can survive for anywhere between 25 and 150 years! This means it will be a long-lasting presence in your garden. 


A close-up of an arborvitae shrub, showcasing its delicate, scale-like leaves against a soft backdrop. In the distance, a blend of purple shrubs and meticulously groomed grass adds depth to the serene garden scene.
Arborvitae is a perennial plant belonging to the Cupressaceae family.
Plant Type Perennial
Family Cupressaceae
Genus Thuja
Species Thuja occidentalis
Native Area North America
Exposure Full sun
Height 40-60 feet
Watering Requirements Moderate
Pests and Diseases Bagworms, scale, mealybugs, mites, canker, tip blight
Maintenance Low
Soil Type Loamy, well-drained
Soil pH Neutral, alkaline

What Are Arborvitae?

Also known as northern white-cedar, eastern white-cedar, and the shorthand slang “arbs.” Other common names include swamp cedar, American arborvitae, and eastern arborvitae. The name arborvitae is Latin for “tree of life.” They are perennial evergreen shrubs or trees in the genus Thuja that are widely used in ornamental landscaping today


A close-up of arborvitae foliage, with rich green leaves arranged in intricate, scale-like patterns, catching the sunlight. The glossy surface of the leaves reflects the radiant beams, creating a captivating play of light and shadow.
Arborvitae was the first North American tree brought to Europe by French botanists.

French botanists brought this evergreen back to Paris in 1536, making it the first North American tree species to be brought to Europe. It was quickly adopted as an ornamental plant. Because of its rot-resistant wood, these trees were used by Native Americans to build canoes

Native Area

Small arborvitae trees stand before a rustic brown wooden fence, their vibrant green foliage contrasting the weathered backdrop. In the foreground, lush green grass carpets the earth, adding a sense of serenity to the scene
Arborvitae trees thrive in cool climates.

These trees are native to North America, specifically eastern Canada and north-central and northeastern United States. In Canada, its range reaches the Arctic tree line and the southern tip of the Hudson Bay. It prefers to grow in places with cooler summers and a shorter growing season. Connecticut is on the southern edge of its native range. 


Sunlight illuminates the intricate, scale-like leaves of an arborvitae, revealing their verdant hues and delicate texture. Each leaf basks in the warm glow, casting gentle shadows and creating a captivating display of natural geometry.
The tree is known for its pyramid-like shape and scaly dark green needles.

Arborvitae are upright trees with feathery sprays of flat, dark green, scaly needles that resemble juniper foliage. The trunk has red-brown bark, and they produce seed cones that start slender and yellow-green and turn brown as they mature. It tends to grow in a pyramid-like shape which can be exaggerated through pruning. Many varieties are available, which can range in size and foliage color.


An arborvitae hedge creates a boundary in a well-kept garden, offering privacy and structure with its dense foliage. Nearby, lush plants add layers of greenery, enhancing the garden's natural beauty and creating a serene outdoor retreat.
Arborvitae was historically used for tea to treat scurvy.

Nowadays, it is used as an ornamental. Historically, the bark and foliage has been brewed into a vitamin-C-rich tea used to treat scurvy. The rot-resistant wood is also used for fencing and log cabins.

An oil can be extracted from the boughs and is used in cleansers, soaps, and perfumes, which smells like cedar. As an ornamental in the landscape, is it used to create a living privacy fence, a windbreak, or to add a pop of evergreen color to the landscape year-round. 

Where To Buy Arborvitae

Several arborvitae plants, vibrant and green, thrive within black plastic pots, adding a touch of nature to any space. The foliage shimmers under the sun's rays, casting a mesmerizing gleam and infusing the surroundings with natural beauty.
The plants are accessible at big box stores and online retailers.

Arborvitae plants are widely available at big box stores, online retailers, and local nurseries. Searching online retailers will give you the biggest range of varieties available.

On the other hand, shopping at a local nursery will likely result in picking up a variety that is well-suited to your area, not to mention the in-person information that you can receive at a local nursery. If you have a friend growing arborvitae, then you might be able to get your hands on some cuttings. More on that later! 


Newly planted arborvitae saplings stand tall in a neatly arranged row, promising future greenery and privacy. A sturdy metal fence provides a backdrop, hinting at the protection and boundary it will offer as the saplings grow.
Ensure adequate root establishment for winter survival when planting arborvitae.

The best time to plant is in early spring before they are actively growing. Planting in early spring will ensure that roots can establish before the first frost and successfully survive over winter. To plant your tree, dig a hole twice as wide as the root ball and just deep enough so that it matches the depth of its original container. Backfill with a mixture of the soil that was dug out of the planting site and compost. Water it in well. Space trees at least three to four feet apart to give them space to fill in.

How to Grow

Arborvitae are low-maintenance once established. However, they will require a moderate level of care during their first few years and regular pruning throughout their lifetime. 


A close-up of arborvitae leaves catches sunlight, radiating a verdant glow. In the blurred background, another plant adds depth, enhancing the lush greenery of the scene with its own unique silhouette and hues.
Make sure that arborvitae get enough sunlight, even during winter.

These perennial evergreens require full sun. This equates to six to eight hours of direct sunlight for most varieties. In scorching and dry climates, they can benefit from afternoon shade. They can survive in partial shade conditions, meaning four to six hours of direct sunlight per day, but their foliage will not be as full and dense when grown in shady conditions. 

Since this is a perennial plant, you should also consider where the sun will be during the winter when it is at its lowest point in the sky. Your plants will still require six to eight hours of sunlight per day then, too! For this reason, it is important to make sure it will not be shaded out by taller structures during the winter. 


Fresh rain glistens on arborvitae leaves, forming delicate droplets on their tips, a testament to nature's intricate artistry. In the backdrop, a lush array of verdant foliage extends, providing a serene canvas for the intricate dance of water and leaf.
Check the soil moisture levels prior to watering the arborvitae plants once more.

You will need to water weekly during the first year after planting. Arborvitae do not do well in overly wet soil conditions, and for this reason, they prefer a slow release of water around the root zone. This can be achieved by using a drip irrigation line or watering bag that sits in a ring around the base of the tree and slowly drips water into the soil. 

Once established, they will require ½ inch to one inch of water per week. Depending on where you live, you might receive this via precipitation and not need to provide any supplemental irrigation. A one to two-inch layer of mulch around the base of your plants will help retain moisture as well. The most important thing is to make sure that the first inch of topsoil has dried out before watering again. 


Rich, nutrient-laden dark loam soil, perfect for nurturing vibrant plant life, with its deep color indicating abundant organic matter. Rugged stones scattered atop the fertile earth, providing a textural contrast.
Arborvitae can adapt to various soil types with good drainage.

These trees prefer loamy, well-drained, neutral to slightly alkaline soil if you want to provide optimal growing conditions. However, ultimately they are not picky and can survive in a variety of soil types as long as they are well-draining.

Waterlogged or heavy clay soils can cause a wide range of growing problems for your arborvitae. Adding compost or organic matter to the soil at the planting site will help improve the drainage and soil structure. 

Temperature and Humidity

Numerous lush arborvitae trees, vibrant green against the light, stand proudly, reaching for the sky in a tranquil scene. Behind them, the cloudy sky adds a dramatic backdrop.
The trees thrive in temperatures between 60-75°F (16-24°C) and prefer moderate humidity.

The ideal temperature range for arborvitae during the growing season is between 60-75 degrees Fahrenheit (16-24°C). They also enjoy moderate levels of humidity. They do not like to be completely dry, but overly humid conditions can cause fungal issues. Adding a layer of mulch around the base of your plants can help protect them from temperature and moisture fluctuations in both summer and winter. 


An orange slow-release fertilizer basket rests on mulched earth, filled with nutrient-rich granules. Embedded securely into the soil, it gradually nourishes plants, ensuring steady growth and vibrant blooms with its continuous supply of essential nutrients.
Arborvitae require minimal pruning if fertilization is avoided for slow growth.

Whether or not you choose to fertilize your arborvitae depends on your growing goals. If you want your tree to grow fast and fill in a hedge, you should fertilize in the spring using a nitrogen-heavy slow-release fertilizer like 10-5-5. This will give a much-needed boost just as new growth appears, and you will see an increase in foliage growth. However, keep in mind that with increased growth, you will also need to stay on top of pruning and shaping your plants, or they can quickly become unruly. 

If you want slow growth so that you can easily contain the overall size and shape with once-yearly pruning, then fertilizing is not necessary. The tree will grow slower but will be more manageable when it comes to pruning chores. This is an attractive option for gardeners who want to keep it low-maintenance. 


Gloved hands carefully wield a grass cutter, positioned to trim the arborvitae bushes with precision. The warm sun casts a golden glow, illuminating the diligent gardener's task, creating a serene and tranquil ambiance in the garden.
Avoid more than a one-third reduction to prevent stress when pruning arborvitae.

Once yearly, pruning is required to maintain the overall shape of your evergreen shrub. This is also an opportunity to remove dead or damaged branches. It is best to prune in mid-spring after new growth has begun to appear. This is because arborvitae grow on new wood. 

When pruning, it’s important to make sure not to reduce the plant by more than one third in size. Any more than this can stress, damage, and ultimately kill the plant. Use sharp pruning sheers, loppers, or an electrical saw when needed. Make sure the base of the plant stays wider than the top which will give it the overall pyramid shape that they are admired for.   

Growing In Containers

A group of young arborvitae saplings, their green foliage peeking out of sleek black pots, promise future lushness. Arranged neatly, they await planting, clustered on a pristine white porch.
The plant can’t be permanently grown in pots due to their eventual size.

The short answer is no; arborvitae can’t be grown in pots. The long answer is yes, but only temporarily. They can be grown in pots for a few seasons until they are finally placed in the ground.

Since this tree can grow to be quite large, there is not a pot or container that will be big enough for its fully mature size. However, if you need to keep your arborvitae in a container for a few seasons while you clear an area in the landscape or otherwise prepare the planting site, then this can be done. It is not recommended to attempt to grow these trees in containers for the entirety of their lives


Arborvitae saplings, young and vibrant, nestled in black plastic pots, eagerly await their place in the earth. Bathed in the warm embrace of sunlight, they stretch their delicate leaves, yearning to grow tall and strong.
Propagation involves taking a cutting and removing lower foliage.

Arborvitae can be propagated from softwood cuttings taken in November to December when the tree has gone dormant. These cuttings will readily root when placed into sand or well-drained potting mix, provided they are kept evenly moist. The branches root so easily that the branches of fallen trees will often root where they touch the ground. 

Take a cutting, remove the lower foliage, and stick the stem into the soil. In a few weeks, roots will develop. The following spring, you will have a young sapling ready to go out into the garden. 

Common Problems

Arborvitae do suffer from a few common growing problems. Luckily, with their increase in popularity, there has also been an increase in information and tactics to manage these issues. 

Winter burn

Arborvitae trees in a forest, their green foliage blackened by the touch of winter's flames, a stark reminder of nature's cycle. The charred leaves cling to the branches, hinting at the resilience within the forest's heart.
Arborvitae foliage facing sun-exposed directions tends to brown due to moisture loss.

This type of browning of the foliage is the most common growing problem for arborvitae. It occurs when the tree is grown in an open and unprotected area that is exposed to severe winter conditions. This is common because arborvitae are often used as a windbreak or privacy screen, which means they are often standing on their own and exposed on at least two sides.

Foliage facing south or west is most often affected because foliage that is facing the sun will begin to transpire or lose moisture through the leaves. This moisture loss, combined with severe winter weather, results in browning foliage at the tips of the branches. 

This is compounded by the fact that during extremely cold weather, the ground is frozen, and plant roots can’t take up water to replace what has been lost from the foliage. As a result, it dries and browns and is unlikely to recover. Winter burn does not necessarily indicate the overall death of your tree. In the spring, you can prune back any dead, damaged, or dying foliage, and new growth should appear to replace it, providing that your tree is otherwise healthy. 


A cluster of brown bagworms clinging to an arborvitae branch, their woven cocoons resembling hanging bags. Surrounding them are needle-like leaves, providing a verdant backdrop to their intricate, natural abodes.
Caterpillars and scales can be controlled with methods like removing infected leaves.

Bagworms are a potential arborvitae pest. Signs of bagworms include defoliation and the characteristic two-inch-long “bags” hanging from the tree, just like ornaments. These caterpillars live in silk bags covered with bits of foliage taken from the host plant. Large populations can strip a tree of its foliage and eventually result in plant death. Bagworm adults are most active during May through July.

Male bagworms transform into a moth that seeks out the females for mating. The females never leave their cocoon. If you notice the presence of moths around your arborvitae, then this can be another sign of a bagworm infestation. 

Scale will appear as small, brown, rounded lumps on your plant’s stems and leaves. Pop off these insects with a Q-tip dipped in alcohol. If the infestation of these brown spots has not progressed too far, then remove infected leaves to prevent their spread. 

In more serious cases, you can apply an organic insecticide such as neem oil. Conventional contact insecticides work as well. Parasitic wasps are a natural predator of scale insects and will lay their eggs on the adults. When the larvae emerge, they kill the host insect. Attract these wasps to your garden by growing a variety of umbel flowers like dill and yarrow.   

Depending on where you live, deer and mites can be considered pests as well. In their native habitat, arborvitae provide a food source year-round. Deer may munch on the bottom portion of the trees but rarely cause anything other than cosmetic damage. Mites are common pests that you don’t need to worry about if your tree is thriving.


Dried and damaged arborvitae shrubs, their vibrant foliage turned brown, stand in the foreground. Among them, lush green grasses provide a stark contrast. In the blurred background, taller arborvitae trees stand tall, a testament to resilience.
Arborvitae diseases can be managed by using fungicides sparingly while avoiding wet foliage.

Diplodia tip blight is a common fungal disease that affects pines and can also affect other evergreens like fir, spruce, and juniper. The disease is most common in older trees that are under some sort of stress from drought, hail or snow damage, overshading, or compacted soils. The fungus affects current-year shoots and can be identified by the tips of new growth turning brown. If you see cankers in the crooks of branches, this disease has reached an advanced stage. 

When possible, remove infected plant material to remove the fungus from the tree. In extreme cases, you can also use fungicides to treat this blight. Since fungus loves overly wet conditions, a good preventative measure is to avoid wetting the foliage on your trees whenever possible

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the downside of arborvitae?

They can face a variety of pest and disease issues. Young trees need regular care to ensure they can get established in the landscape.

Why are my arborvitae turning brown?

This is likely caused by poor watering practices. Do not let the soil dry out completely or become overly waterlogged or soggy.

How do you stimulate arborvitae growth?

In the spring, fertilize with a high-nitrogen 10-5-5 slow-release fertilizer.

Final Thoughts

Arborvitae makes a great addition to the landscaping by providing structure when used to create a border, fence, or mark a property line. They are also beneficial for the rest of the garden when used as a windbreak.

Whatever your reasons for planting arborvitae, it is a great low-maintenance evergreen. With consistent yearly pruning, they will look stunning in your yard for years or even decades to come.

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