I Hate my Arborvitae Hedge


I’m here to vent.

In order to provide some enclosure and block the primary view from my house of a parking lot, I did the only thing that my co-op’s rules would allow – use plants as screens. But even ardent plant-lovers like myself can see the troubles plants can cause when tasked with providing screening in small spaces. Especially when planted along sidewalks, but that’s another rant.

Problems caused by plants include getting too big, growing where you don’t want them (especially over sidewalks), and requiring resources like water and labor by the gardener.

Worst of all are plants used in single-species hedges, where varying growth rates and longevity can ruin the utility and appearance of the hedge, like mine in the sad photo above.

In the case of these ‘Emerald Green’ Arborvitaes, a stretch of hot/dry weather killed two of 11 (eight in the front and three in the back) and did the same to a similar percentage of Arborvitaes in my neighbors’ hedges (photo right).

So naturally we complained about it on the local Facebook group, which was  both comforting and instructive.

Some commenters suggested the problem was bagworms, but seeing no evidence of that, I’m inclined to agree with this comment:

Drought and possibly heat. A landscaper told me a few years ago that arborvitae are dying because our summer temps are getting hotter for longer periods of time, which isn’t what they like. Plus some of the winters are mild enough that some pests, which would normally die in winter, are able to live year-round.

I checked my plant notes and discovered this written on the ‘Emerald Green’ page: “NOT drought-tolerant.” Well, there you go.

So it looks like I hadn’t watered enough. (How are we to know? Conifers don’t warn us!)

With increasing temperatures and longer droughts, who wants to plant trees that can’t survive – even years later – without supplemental watering? Not me, so instead of buying two more of them, I’m just moving a couple of them from the back yard.

The Facebook discussion also shed light on a reason that just two of eight trees in a row bit the dust: they somehow collude to sacrifice just enough of them so the others may live!

Sometimes if one tree gets really sick it will dump all its nutrients into the soil for the trees around it so it dies but the others don’t. There was a Radio Lab about how mycorrhizae are a network between trees. But I’ve also seem all eventually die, one by one.  

Oh, no!

Then just when I think I’m getting a handle on what happened, I read this:

If it is the one on the lowest ground I would say last years excessive wetness killed some of the roots, followed by our recent hot dry spell which finished it off. I’ve seen it in several hollies and some trees. Plants don’t tolerate excessive moisture followed by heat and drought. If it is in a low spot Magnolia virginiana might be a better choice.

Or how about just construct a privacy screen and skip the plants altogether? Well, there’s good news on that front because the co-op has recently approved a process for custom-designing and approving screens!

Extra Photo for Commenter Marianne

See how the parking lot is elevated in this view from my kitchen? That’s why medium-height plants won’t do the job. (The lot’s almost empty in this shot, so you’ll have to imagine looking out onto a row of cars facing my house.) My dream screen would be just 2′ high but start at 4′ above the ground.


  1. I hate your arborvitae hedge too. And before some of it died. 🙂 How about some medium grasses? You’ll have a period of no privacy in the spring, but by late spring they’ll be so lovely they’ll stop the eye. Pedestrians look right past those ratty abvs to your front door. Panicum perhaps? Sacrifice a bit of your side of the bed to make sure they don’t brush against pedestrians and add an easy echinacea or two for color if you feel like it.

    • I’ve hated it from the start, too. But plant choices are highly restricted by the small space right next to a sidewalk AND the fact that the screening need is high up – say from 4 to 6 feet above the ground. I’ll add a photo at the end of the the post to illustrate.

  2. A drip line is essential for successful growth of Arborvitae, I have found. My tree guy recommended a good flow drip line for 4 out of 7 days of the week. Then leave it off for several days to encourage the roots systems to grow down and not be shallow. Seems to be working for me on my ‘new’ planting of three years. I also have well established arborviate of an old variety I planted 40 years ago, and they do fine with the watering of my lawn being enough. Unfortunately, this old variety is no longer available commercially. I do have them sprayed in the spring when my other evergreen trees are sprayed for aphids and such. Good luck replacing and think about a drip line.

  3. A screen that screens above and not below? Have you considered planting a tall shrub, then creatively pruning the lower branches? I did this with an old fashioned lilac and a burning bush (which has interesting bark), although those won’t screen in winter. Boxwood might be a good alternative: year-round foliage and prunable. Pruning is extra work but usually needs to be done only once or twice a year. Good luck!

  4. You can screen up and not below with some creative pruning of a row of inexpensive laurel. I have done this to provide screening above a fence height. I don’t know if the watering needs suit your zone but here in Canada’s Pacific SW they survive a wet winter, and are only watered once every 1-2 weeks in our increasingly dry summers. Arborvitae thrive very well here in the same conditions.

    Drip watering and soaker hoses are banned here, unless you utilize them on your alloted water days. At present twice a week from 5am-9am. It was hard to evolve mindset, but rationed natural resources are becoming a way of the future. I guess gardens will have to evolve too.

    • I don’t see why anyone would need to water more frequently than twice a week. If you bring the soil up to field capacity when you irrigate, it shouldn’t dry out enough in 3-4 days to cause problems.

  5. Well, if it’s not the drought, it’s the bagworms, at least here in Kansas. I still grow one, in a bed among other evergreens of varying height and form, but sadly the arborvitae and other evergreens have to be sprayed here to stay healthy…and be watered occasionally in the deep summer. I grew up thinking evergreens were “plant and forget”, but, sadly, not.

  6. I’m not a fan of this plant. I much prefer hollies. Hollies have horizontal branches for birds to sit upon to eat some seed from your feeder. They also produce desired berries which they’ll poop in your neighborhood wooded areas , increasing their numbers. They can be kept in checked with pruning. I think they have a more natural, less formal look. The U.S. drought monitor web page indicates the area is in D0 – abnormally dry. With no rain in the forecast for the next 10 days, we will be in D1 – moderate drought. It has barely rained in a month. The entire corn crop at the Ag Ctr. next to you failed this year from lack of rain. If the ground is dry one inch in depth, they need a deep soak, preferably out from the shrub, not right at the base of the tree, to avoid rot.

  7. One of mine (I have 3) is dead and the others look poorly. In 4 years they haven’t grown. drought 3 out of 4 summers.
    The blue junipers are doing well so will plant more after arborvitaes go.

  8. The thing about a slow-growing hedge plant, it is a good idea to stash a few elsewhere in the garden–if part of the hedge dies–then you have instant replacements. I’ve experimented for years trying this and that species for narrow screens. It takes several tries to find the right solution.

  9. My first thought is cotinnus. You can manipulate them any way you want. Check out Lewis the plant geek’s post about them. They are super versatile. Good luck!


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