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How to Use Arborvitae (Hint: Not As a Hedge) + 6 More Interesting Varieties


I just clicked through nearly 40 pages of google image results looking for one good image of an arborvitae hedge. That I found none, is my first piece of damning evidence in a little rant about hedging.

I’m just not a fan of the “Arborvitae hedge”.

The expectation is this:

and this:

(never-mind that neither of these are arborvitae, they are, in fact, yew…but I found them under arborvitae in google results)

and the reality is this (at best):

arborvitea hedge

I suppose arborvitae is fine if you want a hedge with holes, no uniformity across the sides, and inconsistent heights.  Add to it a general inability to recover from common winter burn and you have a recipe for crap hedge.

I know I am shaking the tree here, but the common mislabeling (on many a landscaper website) is leading me to believe there is a bit of overselling going on in the landscape industry – which might explain why there are far too many dumb looking arborvitae wannabe hedges in (at least my corner of) the world.

Arborvitaes do not equal Taxus, (or boxwood, or myrtle) and I for one am quite tired of the depressing results that are achieved with them when put in as hedges.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually like the arborvitae plant, either when used interestingly, or of interesting variety.  Take the stout, chubby variety of Berkmans Golden Arborvitae. Their happy rotund nature and fresh color would be a welcome addition to many planting schemes but as a hedge, I think they would look like a bunch of flabby soldiers who clearly aren’t cut out for their job.

berkmans golden arborvitae

The thujas that are commonly recommended for hedges go by the names of ‘Green Giant’, ‘Nigra’ and ‘Emerald Green’ (to name a few)….but here is the big secret here….this is their general form:  A Cone. (love it or leave it, but don’t plan to change it…you have little chance of getting smooth square hedge from this)

Thuja Occidentalis Nigra Form

Cone shaped can be very nice – and can even provide some screening, but I think they look best when clumped together (not in a straight line) or when they stand in a zig zag fashion.  I most like to see them interspersed with other plants.  Ultimately, they are a little like people; they all carry their chub in slightly different places.  If you use a little distraction, they can all look consistent and cohesive, but if you line them up, you suddenly highlight their differences.

And speaking of differences….I have another little arborvitae rant.  It seems that the word “arborvitae” has become synonymous with ‘green cone that you plant along the edges of your property or as a “foundation plant” .

You can’t just throw around the word ‘arborvitae’ and expect people to know what you are talking about.  There are hundreds of very different, interesting and exciting ‘arborvitae’; it is worth exploring some other more unique varieties.   Here are a few of my favorites:

6 More interesting hedging shrubs (that are all thuja)

6 More Interesting Hedging Shrubs  (That are all Thuja)

(from top)

  1. Thuja plicata “Emerald” clipped spirals
  2. Thuja plicata Whipcord,
  3. Thuja Occidentalis Sherwood Frost Folia
  4. Thuja occidentalis Degroots Spire
  5. Thuja Danica
  6. Thuja plicata daniellow

And to give you a few ideas about how to use the ‘Green Giant’ and it’s similar friends (in a good way), here is a little gallery.

thuja mixed with redbud trees

Thuja mixed with Redbud trees

thuja along a garden path

Thuja to draw you down a snaking path.

a grove of thuja

A grove of thuja.

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How to Use Arborvitae (Hint: Not As a Hedge) + 6 More Interesting Varieties

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  1. Sarah O says:

    I’m from Nova Scotia and had never seen a thuja hedge until I moved to Ontario for my MLA. I am pleased to be able to tell you that we were specifically warned away from using Green Emerald or any other narrow cultivar as a hedge in our plant class. If you google “Ontario cedar hedge” as I did, you may get some more satisfactory images. After learning about the benefits of white cedar hedges in our landscape analysis and microclimate class (they are excellent winter habitat and forage for many animals, as you are probably already aware), I was pretty well sold on them. And it doesn’t hurt that I’ve actually seen some decent examples – both young (20 years).

    I know cedar hedges don’t age as well as taxus ones (we’ll never have a 400 year old cedar hedge, for instance), but in the areas where _Thuja occidentalis_ are native, I think they can serve really great landscape functions. However, would I ever include one in an NS design, which is outside of their range? I’m really not sure!

    I love your website, by the way. I’ve been reading it for a few years now and have gotten so much inspiration for my in-class design work from here. 🙂

  2. p bargar says:

    Amen and Amen!

  3. louise says:

    I think this is interesting -mixed thuja and golden cypress- in the english gardening tradition.
    your points are well taken, though, a workhorse and a bit tiring…

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I am not a fan of arbovitae as hedge either. They are prolific here in Western Colorado and I was noticing one just this morning on my way to work. It was one of those varieties that turns coppery in the winter and everyone thinks that they are dying. There were maybe 5 of them planted on the “other” side of a fence and had grown through. The deer had been munching on them, doing a little pruning. The result is a coppery pointed top with a lush green bottom flush with the fence. Very striking. And not in a good way. In a way that makes you want to strike someone. 😉

    I enjoy your blog very much. Keep up the good work.

  5. Laurie Brown says:

    I think those arborvitae hedges might be more properly called ‘wind breaks’. They do serve that purpose well around here.

    I love the more interesting forms of thuja, especially the weeping. Very hard to find at local nurseries here.

  6. Jody says:

    I recently found your website, and it is full of wonderful information! Regarding this old post on arborvitae used as hedges — if you had asked me awhile ago, my opinion would mirror yours. But after seeing various images of, or viewing in person, arborvitae hedges used by landscape/garden designers such as Deborah Nevins, Deborah Silver, or at Ladew Topiary Gardens, I now have a different opinion. They can be beautiful in their own right.

    I agree that they will never have the look of such esteemed hedges of yew or boxwood, but they do have a place in the landscape when those plants cannot be used due to conditions related to size, weather, soil type/drainage, etc.

    Deborah Nevins arborvitae hedge: https://www.google.com/search?q=deborah+nevins+arborvitae&espv=2&biw=1412&bih=778&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiV1tPpxLnJAhXJjz4KHed7CU4QsAQIGw&dpr=2#imgrc=iCfWxOPYxJR4rM%3A

    Deborah Silver’s work using Thuja occidentalis ‘Nigra’: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/390968811380994655/ and https://www.pinterest.com/pin/390968811380995011/

    Ladew Topiary Gardens, the hedge was planted in 1995 with a 6′ hedge of Thuja occidentalis ‘Green Emerald’, which is now around 20′ tall (and has been cut back at least twice): https://www.pinterest.com/pin/390968811381095749/

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