Arborvitae Pros And Cons – Disadvantages And Benefits Of Arborvitae Trees

By Teo Spengler | January 21, 2020 Co Author: Mary Ellen Ellis
Image by ClaireLucia
by Teo Spengler
January 21, 2020
and Mary Ellen Ellis

Some people love arborvitae, and some hate them. Before you take a stand on one side of the aisle or the other, be sure you understand their advantages and downsides. The group of evergreen shrubs known as arborvitae is commonly used in the home, urban, and suburban landscape, to the point of being overused.

Arborvitae shrubs and trees have their pros, but there are enough cons, and enough better alternatives, to choose other evergreen species. Of course, we’ll leave this up to you to decide as we explore both the benefits of arborvitae planting and reasons why you shouldn’t plant arborvitae in the landscape.

Pros of Planting Arborvitae

(Teo’s viewpoint) If you want an easy-care, fast-growing evergreen that creates the hedge or privacy screen you need in record time, arborvitae can’t be beat. And they are lovely specimen tree too. Arborvitaes (Thuja spp.) are evergreen members of the cypress family. They thrive in many regions in this country, with some varieties that do well in USDA plant hardiness zones 3 to 11, though more varieties grow in the cooler zones than the warmest ones.

Fast-growing and evergreen – Arborvitae rose to the top of the popularity list thanks to the fast-growing, easy-care ways of these trees. And if you judge them by these terms, they still cannot be beat. Arborvitae is a very fast-growing tree or shrub and that alone has won it many fans. Most gardeners thinking about a privacy hedge or wind screen wish they had acted months or years earlier, so the rapid growth that arborvitae trees show is a great advantage.

Even if you are growing an arborvitae as a specimen tree, it’s nice to see it shoot up from seedling to “tree” in record time. It’s a shame that so few gardeners view arborvitae as real trees, since, planted alone and allowed to mature, they are lovely evergreens.

Just how fast does this species grow? Each species has its own growth rate, but some grow a full 3 feet (1 m.) or more each year and achieve soaring heights of 15 or 20 feet (4.5 to 6 m.) tall. The fact that they are evergreen means that the privacy protection or wind block lasts all year long.

Undemanding and easy-care – Arborvitae is not a picky plant. Although the trees prefer deep soil with excellent drainage, they can grow happily in most kinds of soil. Just be sure that the site gets some sun and is large enough to accommodate the tree’s full size. Once an arborvitae is established, you don’t need to do much to tend it. These trees have no serious pest or disease issues, don’t require fertilizer or pruning to thrive, and are moderately drought tolerant.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t irrigate, though, since the healthier the trees are, the stronger is their resistance to any pests in the area. And if your arborvitae trees get too tall, don’t hesitate to prune them back. They accept pruning and shearing with grace. But never prune the trees back to bare stems since they usually won’t regrow.

Inexpensive and beneficial for wildlife – Another of the arborvitae pros is its price. You can usually find arborvitae plants that are inexpensive, especially if they are fairly small. And, given how fast they grow, your hedge won’t be delayed very long if you buy the younger shrubs.

Since arborvitae are evergreen, birds, squirrels and small mammals find shelter in their dense branches all year long. Some trees also provide nurture in the form of seeds. In this day and age, taking care of nature in all its forms is important.

Cons of Planting Arborvitae

(Mary Ellen’s viewpoint) Many people turn to arborvitae for screening and privacy for a variety of reasons, and some of these are good. For instance, they grow quickly, giving you a tall screen in just a few years. Arborvitae are also easy to find in your local nursery and easy to grow in the right conditions – all this is true. But there are some serious issues and reasons to look for alternatives if you’re planning a hedge or screen in your landscape. These arborvitae disadvantages need to also be considered.

Arborvitae can be sensitive – A major draw for arborvitae is that they are low maintenance, but this is only true if you can give them ideal conditions. They will quickly brown in a drought and poorly tolerate dry winds and salt. The typical response to stress is to brown and drop needles, sometimes permanently.

They’re just plain boring – This may not be the case with for everyone, but in my neighborhood, you can hardly walk a block without seeing a row of tightly packed arborvitae. These shrubs have simply been overused. Variety is good.

Arborvitae shrubs split and break easily – These shrubs often throw out double leaders, a tendency that makes them susceptible to unsightly branch breaks. A brisk wind or a pile up of snow in winter may be all it takes to create a gap in your hedge.

Deer and bagworms love arborvitae – Teo is right about wildlife, but if you live in a region with a lot of deer with no natural predators, watch as they chew down your hedge. Deer will nibble away at arborvitae, especially in winter when greenery is harder to find.

Bagworms will also eat your arborvitae. Arborvitae varieties generally don’t have a lot of pests, but bagworms can do a lot of damage. They eat the needles and can spread quickly, especially since most of these shrubs are planted so close together.

How to Remedy Arborvitae Disadvantages

Arborvitae trees and shrubs aren’t all bad, it’s true. But because they can become unsightly due to needle drop and branch breaks, and because bagworms spread through them like wildfire, break up the monotony and use some other types of evergreen hedges. Great alternatives include upright varieties of juniper and some types of holly and cypress.

If you are planning to still put in arborvitae, use these shrubs and trees as part of a mix of species for a healthier ecosystem and better overall appearance.

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  • Alyssa
    Comment added March 5, 2022Reply

    They just seem like a boring tree to me and give off a dated appearance. I’m moving into a tract house where the current owner planted a privacy fence made out of these things and it just doesn’t look right. It’s a small back yard but you step out the back door and you have a wall of trees hit you in the face. I’d like to soften it up a bit. Plus they planted so many of them and smashed them so close together, it leaves no room to add any other plants in there. It’s just a solid row or bushes.

  • Johnnie Covington
    Comment added December 10, 2021Reply

    Are arborvitae poisonous to cows?

  • DANNY SNEED
    Comment added December 10, 2021Reply

    Shannon Holland
    Dece6mbp430er m2mi ats 610:01ra84 hAM ·
    well last Sunday morning my cousin woke up and discovered 10 of his cows laying dead in the pasture field . then another cow died Tuesday morning .after investigating the matter and confronting with local vet , the cows had ate tree clippings from a arborvitae tree my cousin had previously cut up and had In a pile out in his pasture . Of course not knowing about this resulted in a devastating loss . we had even spoke with the Mennonite neighbors and they never even knew or had heard anything like this . it had caused the cows to have instant heart failure . according to the vet .

  • Christine Miner
    Comment added October 29, 2021Reply

    Our planting project was delayed because of contractors being so far behind. We will have to winter over our 5 emerald arborvites. We have them buried in wood chips and they look great. They are in the hole where our hot tube came out and are a little below ground level. They are in burlap bundles. We are older and moving them anywhere else would require us to hire someone. Help? We live in Buffalo New York.

  • Christine Miner
    Comment added October 29, 2021Reply

    Our planting project was delayed because of contractors being so far behind. We will have to winter over our 5 emerald arborvites. We have them buried in wood chips and they look great. They are in the hole where our hot tube came out and are a little below ground level. They are in burlap bundles. We are older and moving them anywhere else would require us to hire someone. Help?

  • Jim Behrens
    Comment added May 21, 2021Reply

    I have 10 arborvitae each about 10 feet tall. Over the winter the local deer population stripped the bottom 3 feet of each of all vegetation. Will this grown back?

    • jones
      Comment added May 21, 2022Reply

      Actually, the green can grow back and I've seen it happen when deer have eaten the bottom 1/2 of shrubs. It takes about 5 years, but does come back.

  • Joseph Pauldine
    Comment added April 19, 2021Reply

    I haven’t seen this question asked yet, so here goes...we have a deck with 36” rails around it. One side of the deck faces unpleasant neighbors. I wanted to buy 4’ tall Arborvitae’s from a local nursery, that are being sold in 5 Gallon Pots.

    I asked them if I could carry them onto my deck, LEAVE them in the pot, (or put in a CB larger pot if currently rootbound) and water then weekly and enjoy the summer w/o my neighbors being on display.

    Is it possible to leave them potted on the deck, bring them inside in winter(or in garage) and them NOT DIE??

    Help!!

    • davers
      Comment added August 23, 2021Reply

      Yes. Arborvitae can make beautiful indoor plants. The pots can prevent them from getting too large too. I'd worry about putting them in a dark garage though.

  • Rshank
    Comment added April 7, 2021Reply

    I have 2 arborevitae about 6 ft wide and 4ft tall. Can I remove them easily, I was told the root systems go very deep which makes t hen difficult and pricy, is this true

    • Nicholas William Ringelberg
      Comment added April 11, 2021Reply

      I would think you might have trouble removing an arborvitae that size. I removed a Pyramidal Arborvitae that size but it was growing in sand and the roots were restricted to a compact root ball. Very heavy, probably 200 pounds. I had the hole to transplant it into predug and dragged it there and immediately planted it. It survived and thrived in its new nicely humus rich home. It depends on the soil they are in. If they are currently in good soil, they might have a bigger root ball. Expect to have to cut some of the roots with some type of ax or saw. Use a chain to wrap around the bottom of the root ball and a comealong pulley to pull it out. hard work...good luck!

  • Paula
    Comment added March 21, 2021Reply

    What are some good alternatives to arborvitaes for the New England area? We are dealing with lots of snow and salt problems in the winter and full sun all day long in the summer where the soil can be quite dry. We also want to plant a barrier down by our swimming pool and want something that is not going to drop leaves or needles into our pool as it grows. We need something that is going to eventually create a great barrier with low maintenance in these conditions. Thank you.

  • David
    Comment added January 26, 2021Reply

    I would like to use them for a 6' to 8' hedge in my yard. Problem is this would be under some very large trees. Can the Arborvitae survey in mostly shade?

    • Nicholas William Ringelberg
      Comment added April 11, 2021Reply

      Arborvitae require full sun to do well. We planted a 40 foot row but the last 10 feet shaded by a maple tree did not survive

  • Celeste T Dodd
    Comment added January 14, 2021Reply

    If as the statement says there are better alternatives to Arborvitaes could you list some. I am trying to decide what to put in-between my neighbors and my back yard.

    • Bill Z
      Comment added March 24, 2021Reply

      I have the same question as we just cleared out 1 acre of forest and want to create a berm and line it with a combination of evergreen species.

  • Hector Lopez
    Comment added November 11, 2020Reply

    How do you keep them safe from deer?

  • Susie Chambers
    Comment added October 15, 2020Reply

    My arborvitae (potted and planted in yard) turn brown next to their trunk every year. Why is this? They've gotten lots of rain water this year.

  • Chuck moyer
    Comment added October 1, 2020Reply

    I have an arborvitae row that is probably 20’ tall, too tall for the area they exist in. Can I cut them down to 10’ tall and expect them to survive?

    • Chris Parham
      Comment added November 1, 2020Reply

      Yes you can trim the top of them down to the desired height you want them to be. The tree should have no issue afterwards just trim them during the appropriate time probably in the spring.

  • CInzia Torres
    Comment added August 26, 2020Reply

    Landscaper planted 20 arborvitaes 6 feet tall in the spring they did great till summer
    Half turn yellow
    I water them about 2 to 3 times a week on high temperature in early am for 10 / 15 minutes
    They were planted on a mound
    People tell me to little water others tell me to much water
    Are they coming back ?

  • Brand E. Gustus
    Comment added August 20, 2020Reply

    Good afternoon.
    I had 6 arbor vitae planted last year. The landscaper planted them on a small berm
    and indicated they are better off if they don't get excess moisture. They seem to be
    thriving but are not growing as fast as i wish they would. Would it be okay if i dig
    out a circle around them-- a circle no bigger than the diameter of the tree (s) themselves so that when i water the water is retained inside the ring and can percolate
    straight down and not run off?

    • John Strazzanti
      Comment added December 18, 2020Reply

      I have green giants and I get better than 3 feet every year BUT that only started once established which took about 2 plus years. Two other important points. I built a hill of topsoil 3 feet high and 100 feet long to plant the 5 foot trees in. Then along the row I placed a drip line for irrigation which is only necessary (once established in Late June through September. Good sun, good soil, good drainage and irrigation and you'll get 3 to 4 feet every year up to maturity. I also stake and tie every 3 to 4 years to avoid damage from heavy wet snow in early and late winter. If they are allowed to bend too far to fast they will split! Trunk diameter to height ratio is sacrificed for height. Hope this was helpful!

  • Mal Gunasekera
    Comment added August 9, 2020Reply

    I have many Nigra Arborvitaes. Several trees have brownish yellow seeds on the tips of the branches. The branches are drooping because they are loaded with these seed pods. Do these seed pods indicate a problem with my trees? I have had these trees for about 4 years. This is the first time I have seen this many seeds. Thank you

  • Maria
    Comment added July 22, 2020Reply

    Iam having a problem with my arbovitae and I cant figure out what seems to be the problem, 6 of my Arbovitae turned brown. I have 40 trees and they are 5 years old 9 feet tall, can someone please give me advice. Its really depressing to see them die.

    • Lynne S.
      Comment added August 4, 2020Reply

      When established trees begin browning it is generally due to either weather or root damage. Arborvitae has shallow roots and can dry out during drought. The roots can also rot when there is too much water combined with poor drainage. Winter is especially hard on these trees because they get less moisture and the dry winds cause desiccation.

      I suggest watering deeply once each week unless there is significant rain. Drip irrigation is best, so the water is applied slowly over a long period of time. You can check the soil moisture by feeling whether it is cool and damp about 2 inches down. If so, apply an inch of water. Also, spread 2 to 3 inches of woodchips across the soil out to the dripline. Be sure to pull the mulch several inches away from the tree trunk to prevent rot. This will help retain moisture, mitigate temperatures, and feed the soil.

  • Terra Ayres
    Comment added July 19, 2020Reply

    Bagworms are driving my crazy, year after year.
    I think I need to intersperse another evergreen into my hedge,
    and gradually (or quickly) get rid of the arborvitae.
    Ughhhh. I hate bag worms.

  • Olive Reynolds
    Comment added May 21, 2020Reply

    We've just put in a line of American Pillar arborvitae and North Pole arborvitae. Due to our town having height limits on fences, we still had to look at our neighbors from hell even after installing vinyl fencing. We thought why not kill two birds with one stone: Help the planet and visually erase the NFH. With the many trees we now have on our property, it motivates me daily to get off the couch, get outside, and make sure they're getting what they need to thrive. I do have a question: Can you plant Juniper trees within 50 foot of fruit trees? I read that the fruit trees can damage the Juniper. Is this true? Thank-you

  • Evaleen Klein Whittingham
    Comment added January 23, 2020Reply

    Eastern White Cedar--as we call it in Canada--especially the variety "Emerald," is hugely popular because it is readily available at every big box store, affordable, and we don't have as many choices in zones 3 and 4. It is disheartening to see it overplanted as close hedging or inches from the corner of a house or front door with no room to grow naturally. It is very susceptible to damage from wind borne salt and hungry deer. But it is gorgeous paired with birch or other high contrast bushes and perennials. It will grow taller than the advertised 12'/4m as the species grow to 40'/13m--but you can prune it a couple of feet shorter than you want it to grow. And unlike Juniper it is soft to touch.
    Personally, I am at the point of being really tired of seeing Colorado Blue Spruce planted in every other yard so that it is more common that our native black or white spruces, although I do like the dwarf varieties.
    I enjoyed the article but I would like to know more about alternatives for northern zones, and for conifers for shade.

  • Josephine Pirrone
    Comment added January 23, 2020Reply

    I'm in the "hate them" category, mostly because they are usually planted too close together and in a straight line, so they make a boring (I agree with Mary Ellen) and unnatural planting. I get it why they are popular, but can you suggest alternatives?

    • Lois
      Comment added June 15, 2021Reply

      Con: can cause extreme allergic reactions. After trimming mine, I broke out in rashes, my eye swelled shut, my throat tightened. Over 2 weeks of steriods and complete misery. 3 months later and my skin is barely healing in spots and looks like I will have scars.

  • kesha
    Comment added January 23, 2020Reply

    ohh nice

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