Arborvitae Pros And Cons - Disadvantages And Benefits Of Arborvitae Trees

(Image credit: MariuszBlach)

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.

Teo Spengler

Teo Spengler has been gardening for 30 years. She is a docent at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Her passion is trees, 250 of which she has planted on her land in France.