Arborvitae (Thuja spp.) are one of the best landscaping conifers you can add to your yard’s landscape. They’re low-maintenance evergreens that will help you create an enthralling scenery outside your home. They also come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors which allows them to be used for many different landscaping needs. Whether you want to create a privacy screen in your backyard or accent your front porch, arborvitae may just be the plant you’ve been looking for. Let’s jump right in and see how you can use these alluring plants for your next landscaping project.
Most Common Varieties of Arborvitae for Landscaping
There are five species of arborvitae found throughout the world:
- American Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis)
- Giant Arborvitae (Thuja plicata)
- Japanese Arborvitae (Thuja standishii)
- Korean Arborvitae (Thuja koraiensis)
- Sichuan Thuja (Thuja sutchuenensis)
The American and Giant arborvitae are native to North America and are the most common species used for landscaping. They have many other common names such as Eastern white cedar, Western red cedar, Northern white cedar, and Eastern arborvitae. Sichuan thuja is native to China and was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in the early 2000’s.
Since American and Giant arborvitae are popular landscape plants, they have been selectively bred for decades by botanists who have created a wide variety of cultivars. Cultivars have unique characteristics such as foliage color, growth form, and mature size but aren’t genetically different enough from their parent plants to be considered a new species. They are given cultivar names which are put in apostrophes after the scientific name of the parent plants such as Thuja occidentalis ‘Little Gem’.
Some of the most popular arborvitae cultivars include:
- ‘Degroot’s Spire’
- ‘Golden Globe’
- ‘Hetz’s Midget’
- ‘Hetz Wintergreen’
- ‘Little Gem’
- ‘Little Giant’
- ‘George Peabody’
With such a large variety of arborvitae to choose from, we’re sure you’ll find the perfect one for your landscaping needs!
How To Grow And Care For Arborvitae In Your Yard
Before planting arborvitae, you’ll want to make sure you can provide it with the right growing conditions. Horticulturist Neil Bell from Oregon State University Extension Service says, “Some people look down on arborvitae, but it fits in places that other things can’t, and it’s about as low maintenance a plant as anything you can buy, if it’s sited correctly.” While they are low-maintenance plants, they still need a few things to remain healthy and happy in the long run.
Arborvitae grow best in USDA Hardiness Zones 2 through 9 depending on the species you choose. They’re adaptable to many different soil types as long as they are well-drained but also able to retain moisture. You can add organic matter to break up clayey soils which helps it drain better. If you have sandy soil, you can add organic matter to help it retain more moisture.
When it comes to sunlight, make sure you plant your arborvitae where they will get full to partial sunlight. If they are planted in the shade, their foliage will thin out making them look unhealthy.
Make sure Thuja plants get at least 1 inch of water per week during the first year after planting. After roots are established, they shouldn’t need much supplemental watering unless a drought occurs in your area. Add 3 to 4 inches of mulch to help the soil retain moisture and reduce the need for supplemental watering.
You can fertilize your arborvitae plants with a 10-10-10 slow-release fertilizer in early spring to kick-start their growth. Fertilize again in mid-summer if you want your plants to grow faster.
Arborvitae tolerates pruning without issues. They can even be sheared if you want to create a formal, manicured look. It’s best to prune them at the beginning of spring and again at the end of summer if needed.
When it comes to pests and diseases, most arborvitae trees don’t have major issues if they’re planted in the correct place and watered correctly. When they’re overwatered or planted too close together, they can develop bot canker. If you plant them outside their recommended range where summers get too hot, they can become infested with spider mites. Make sure you choose the correct cultivar and plant it in the right location in your yard to avoid dealing with insects and disease issues.
13 Arborvitae Landscape Design Ideas
1. Line Walkways With Arborvitae Shrubs
Arborvitae shrubs hand pruning and shearing very well. That makes them ideal plants to use for lining walkways or driveways. You can shear them into perfectly shaped square hedges or selectively prune individual branches to keep them looking more natural. Here they’ve gone for a more formal look with shearing which looks fantastic running along the brick walkway.
TIP: There are several short varieties of Thuja occidentalis that are perfect to use for shorter hedgerows. Thuja occidentalis ‘Little Giant’ and Thuja occidentalis ‘Hetz’s Midget’ are two popular cultivars that don’t grow very tall.
2. Highlight Entryways With Arborvitae Trees
Planting tall, slim trees near entryways can draw attention to them and make them feel more inviting. The Thuja trees used here also help to brighten up the dark gray and brown fence. There are a few small shrubs with purple foliage planted at the base to add a pop of color that isn’t overwhelming for the overall style of this home.
If you have a more traditional looking home, you could use spiral arborvitae topiaries to frame entryways. If you live in a smaller, cottage-style house, potted arborvitae shrubs are probably a more appropriate size for your entryway.
TIP: Make sure you select arborvitae that will grow to a size that won’t overtake your entryway. Using plants that are too large around your doorway will have the opposite effect and make it feel less inviting.
3. Add Privacy To Backyard Patios With Arborvitae
There’s nothing better than having a quiet, private oasis in your backyard where you can hang out and relax. Arborvitae trees can be installed around your backyard patio to create a small privacy screen. As the trees around this patio mature, they’ll form a wall of greenery around the porch. Not only will they provide privacy but also shade to keep you cool during summer.
TIP: It’s best to use shorter varieties of Arborvitae like ‘Degroot’s Spire’ and ‘Holmstrup’ which only grow to about 8 feet tall and 3 feet wide, so they don’t encroach on your patio as they mature.
4. Accent Garden Beds With Arborvitae Plants
Arborvitae come in a variety of colors and sizes making them useful as accent plants for front yard flower beds or backyard gardens. They’re also evergreen which is ideal when selecting a focal plant for your yard, so it looks beautiful year-round.
This homeowner has used a small, globe-shaped arborvitae variety as an accent in their garden. They’ve even limbed it up slightly, turning it into a short lollipop topiary. This makes it stand out even more as an accent plant among the other low-lying conifers. The miniature globe conifers they’ve planted on either side complement the accent arborvitae to create an eye-catching design.
5. Pair Arborvitae With Colorful Flowers
Colorful plants and flowers are a popular choice for landscaping. Their vibrant colors can be combined together to create breathtaking scenery in your yard. However, most colorful plants and flowers disappear during the cold winter month leaving your garden feeling empty and drab. Adding evergreen arborvitae to your garden will help you avoid the winter lull in your garden.
Here they’ve used a row of arborvitae trees to create a backdrop for their bountiful flower garden. The red and pink flowers contrast with the green foliage of the arborvitae trees magnificently. When the flowers fade in autumn, the arborvitae will keep the space feeling lively throughout the winter.
TIP: For even more winter color, use arborvitae varieties like ‘George Peabody’ or ‘Aurea Nana’ to add some golden hues to your garden.
6. Surround Trees With Arborvitae Groundcover
Many people simply create a circle of mulch underneath the trees in their front yard. They may add some flowers too but finding something that grows well under trees can be tricky sometimes. Mulch and flowers also require maintenance to keep them looking their best. Consider surrounding your trees with low-maintenance arborvitae shrubs instead.
Here they’ve added a circle of low-lying arborvitae shrubs around their tree which looks delightful. The shrubs will help the soil retain moisture and prevent weeds from growing. By using arborvitae with simple, green foliage, they’ve allowed the tree to be the focal point of this landscape feature. You could add Thuja shrubs with more of a golden or blue-green coloration if you want them to stand out more.
7. Mix Different Shapes, Sizes, And Colors Of Arborvitae
To create a truly stunning landscape design, you’ll want to have a variety of colors, shapes, and textures to make it look dynamic and interesting. You can create a gorgeous and low-maintenance landscape using a variety of different arborvitae shrubs.
Here they’ve mixed two cultivars together to create variability in this small garden space. The dark green pyramid-shaped arborvitae variety is quite different from the golden colored globe shaped arborvitae. Get creative and design a mixture of arborvitae that is appealing to you and works with the rest of your landscape design.
TIP: This simplistic row of mixed shrubs has some variation but still complements the contemporary style of the building’s architecture. It’s important to make sure your landscape design complements your house for maximum curb appeal.
8. Landscape Fence Line with Arborvitae
Hardscape features can stand out like a sore thumb in your yard. However, certain hardscape features like fences or toolsheds are a must for many homeowners. You can soften the look of hardscape features and help them blend in with your landscape by using arborvitae trees.
Here they’ve added a row of narrow arborvitae trees in front of their privacy fence to liven it up a bit. Narrow, pyramid shaped arborvitae varieties like ‘Holmstrup’ or ‘Thin Man’ are perfect since they only grow to 2 or 3 feet wide, preventing them from taking up too much space.
9. Prune Arborvitae Trees Into Spectacular Topiaries
If you’d like to add a bit of art to your front yard flower beds, consider transforming an arborvitae tree into a custom topiary. Arborvitae can be pruned into a variety of shapes from simple lollipop topiaries to intricate spiral shapes.
Here they’ve created a more abstract topiary by layering different shapes up the trunk of the tree. You can use your imagination and create a masterpiece that’s pleasing to you. Topiaries can be planted in the center of flower beds as focal plants or placed on either side of entryways to make a statement.
TIP: If you’re not super artistic, purchase an arborvitae tree that’s already been pruned into a topiary. Then you can simply prune off new growth once or twice a year to help the plant keep its shape.
10. Grow Arborvitae Shrubs In Decorative Containers
Porches and patios are another hardscape feature in your front yard and backyard that can benefit from the addition of some living décor. Dwarf varieties of arborvitae can be planted in flowerpots and placed wherever you please. Choose a pot that coordinates with the color of your home or the other decorations you have on your porch or patio.
Here they’ve used a simple square planter with a reddish-brown color. It matches perfectly with the shapes and colors found in the brickwork of the patio.
TIP: Make sure arborvitae plants grown on porches and patios get enough sunlight. Also, don’t forget to water them at least once a week to keep them healthy.
11. Edge Flower Beds With Low-Lying Arborvitae Shrubs
Low-lying arborvitae shrubs work great as an edging plant in flower beds or around your backyard patio. They tolerate pruning well so you can keep them trimmed back as needed. Since they’re slow-growing plants, you won’t have to prune them more than once or twice a year to keep them looking well-maintained. ‘Danica’ is one of the shortest arborvitae varieties and works well for edging front yard flower beds.
12. Arborvitae Hedgerows Have A Variety Of Landscape Uses
Arborvitae shrubs are ideal for creating evergreen hedgerows. Hedgerows can be used in a variety of ways to improve the overall look of your landscape design. You can use them instead of fencing along your property line. You can also use them within your property to delineate areas like gardens and lawns from one another in a more formal way. Here they’ve pruned their hedgerow into a nice clean-looking square shape, but you can round off the corners for a softer look.
TIP: Cultivars like ‘Golden Globe’ and ‘Little Giant’ work well if you don’t want to block your view. Use taller cultivars if you want your hedgerow to add privacy to your yard as well.
13. Arborvitae Shrubs Look Superb In Rock Gardens
Rock gardens are becoming more popular as water restrictions become more common in certain regions. They’re a popular type of xeriscaping that can reduce water use while still making your property look beautiful. Arborvitae shrubs can be grown in rock gardens though they aren’t as drought-tolerant as some other conifers. You’ll still need to water them every week or so if it doesn’t rain to keep them looking fabulous. Here they’ve planted a ‘Danica’ cultivar which uses much less water than larger varieties. This little beauty won’t lose its leaves which would make a mess in the rocks, providing color year-round.
Jauron, R. (2004). Arborvitae: Versatile Evergreens for the Home Landscape. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
Pettis, S. (2021). Plant Health Alert – Arborvitae Problems. North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension.