How to Plant and Grow Arborvitae

Learn to grow arborvitae, or 'tree of life,' a slow-growing evergreen tree with dense foliage often grown for privacy.

Native to North America, these rugged evergreen trees, hardy in zones 2-7, are often found growing in places where little else might. Some varieties take on a bronze cast in the fall and winter, so be selective when picking an arborvitae variety to plant in your yard. These trees stand up well to trimming and can be made into whimsical topiary plants to create living garden art.

Arborvitae Overview

Genus Name Thuja
Common Name Arborvitae
Plant Type Shrub, Tree
Light Part Sun, Sun
Height 10 to 60 feet
Width 3 to 15 feet
Foliage Color Blue/Green
Season Features Winter Interest
Special Features Low Maintenance
Zones 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Propagation Stem Cuttings
Problem Solvers Good For Privacy

Where to Plant Arborvitae

Arborvitae trees offer year-round interest and grow best in full sun or partial shade. They will flourish when given a spot that gets at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day—preferably early in the day. They are also thirsty trees and prefer consistently moist soil. Make sure your arborvitaes are in an area where you can regularly water them to keep them green and healthy.

It’s also important to consider the full mature height of your arborvitae. Some types (like the green giant arborvitae) can reach 60 feet at maturity, so make sure yours is clear of powerlines and buildings.

Arborvitae trees create dense evergreen foliage that can make excellent "living walls" when privacy is needed. They are often planted in neat rows to provide a windbreak and sound abatement at the edges of gardens, but can also be used to frame a walkway or as a backdrop for other plants.

How and When to Plant Arborvitae

If you are planting a nursery-grown tree, you can plant it in early spring after the last frost or late in the fall if you prefer. Dig a hole at least two or three times the size of the root ball and remove your
arborvitae from its nursery container (or unwrap it). Wet the roots slightly and loosen them up before placing your tree in the hole. Backfill the hole halfway and then soak the soil in the hole. Finish backfilling the hole with soil to the top edge of the root ball and then water again thoroughly. Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch at the base of the tree to help the soil retain moisture.

Allow 3 to 4 feet between planted trees when using arborvitae as a privacy fence or windbreak.

Arborvitae Care Tips

Arborvitae are easy shrubs to care for and add green to the outdoors year round.


Arborvitae loves full sun (preferably 6+ hours per day), but they can also manage in part shade. Too much shade, however, and their growth may be stunted or their foliage sparse.

Soil and Water

Arborvitaes grow best in consistently moist but well-drained, loamy soil with a neutral to slightly alkaline pH (6.5 to 8.0).

Most arborvitae types will want weekly, “low and slow” watering, especially in the first year following transplantation. Use a soaker hose or trickle system to water the tree slowly and gently. You can also hold a garden hose (on a slow trickle) at the base of the tree and let the water slowly penetrate the entire root mass.

Once your arborvitae is established, periodically check the soil. Whenever the first inch of soil feels dry, give the tree a deep soaking by watering under the canopy, but several inches from the trunk of the tree. This avoids wasting water and helps prevent root rot from developing.

Arborvitaes grown in containers may need more frequent watering—possibly as often as daily in hot, dry conditions.

Temperature and Humidity

Some arborvitae types are more cold-tolerant than others, but many can tolerate moist temperatures as low as -30 or -40°F. If you live in a colder climate (zones 2 through 4), you will want to stick with Thuja occidentalis or eastern arborvitae (as opposed to Western arborvitae (Thuja plicata) as they are slightly more cold-tolerant.

In the winter, it is normal for some browning and needle dropping to occur, but if your tree has progressive browning that is isolated to one side (usually the windward side), it may be winter burn. This happens for many reasons, including delayed winter dormancy, sudden temperature changes, frozen soil, and a shallow root system that can’t take up enough water to nourish the needles. You can prune away dead or damaged limbs as new growth emerges in the spring. If the entire tree has turned brown, it may not be salvageable.


To protect your arborvitae from winter damage, apply 2 to 4 inches of mulch around the base of the tree (a few inches from the trunk). This will help insulate the roots and reduce moisture loss. Keep your arborvitaes well-hydrated throughout the season (particularly if they are exposed to drying winter winds). Even in chilly temperatures, they will still need about an inch of water per week or more.

Heavy snow and ice can cause damage to arborvitae limbs—especially when paired with high winds. If you can, brush off snow before it bends or breaks the branches. Wrapping young and sensitive plants in burlap can also help prevent winter burn.


Arborvitaes do not require fertilizer to thrive, but if you would like to encourage more lush foliage or faster growth, you can apply a nitrogen-rich, slow-release fertilizer once a year in the spring.


Since heavy snow can break branches, brush them off after a storm. Broken limbs should be pruned, and the plants may need to be staked upright until they recover.

Prune arborvitae in the spring for thick foliage. Only trim where leaves grow, not back to the base of the plant. If there are dead branches, they should be removed.

Potting and Repotting Arborvitae

Arborivitae does well in pots, but only outdoors. Use a 20 gallon pot to start so it won't need transplanting, which can be hard on the tree. Use a soil-based potting mix. Keep the soil damp but not soggy.

Pests and Problems

Winter burn may happen in frigid weather, and the first sign of it is the browning of the leaves. This can cause significant damage in severe situations and even kill the trees. Luckily, there are burn-resistant varieties.

A few pests may bother your arborvitae. Spider mites can appear, especially during hot and dry summer days. Unfortunately, by the time you find these pests, it'll be too late, as you'll most likely notice browning that can't be reversed on the foliage where they're feeding. Use insecticidal soap or horticultural oil, but be careful during summer heat since these sprays can also cause the plants to burn.

Bagworms can also attack arborvitae. In midsummer, you may see little brownish "bags" that look like small pine cones hanging from your tree. These are the cocoons of bagworms.

How to Propagate Arborvitae

You can propagate arborvitae from cuttings rooted in late summer or early fall. Using sharp garden shears, snip a 5 to 9-inch twig from a healthy branch (preferably one less than a year old) at a 45-degree angle. Make sure your cutting has soft, green foliage and a woody base. Strip any foliage from the base of the cutting and dust it with rooting hormone powder.

Stick the bottom half of your cutting into a prepared grow pot filled with moist organic soil mix or moistened horticultural sand and tamp down the potting material to keep the cutting upright. Place it in a location with filtered light and keep it under a glass or plastic dome. Water your arborvitae cutting every time the soil feels dry. It will likely take about 6 weeks for your cutting to take root and may need almost constant moisture to thrive. Transplant to a bigger pot if necessary and plant your new arborvitae plant outside in the spring.   

Types of Arborvitae

Eastern Red Cedar

Arborvitae in a row
Bob Stefko

Thuja occidentalis is an especially tough type of arborvitae, native to areas of North America. It grows 60 feet tall and 15 feet wide at maturity. Zones 2-7

Mr. Bowling Ball

Thuja occidentalis Teddy, dwarf eastern arborvitae
Dean Schoeppner

Thuja occidentalis 'Bobozam' is a unique form of arborvitae that maintains a very tight, ball-shape form, usually reaching two to three feet tall and wide. Zones 3-7

'Smaragd' Arborvitae

arborvitae thuga occidentalis smaragd
Jason Wilde

Thuja occidentalis 'Smaragd' is a dwarf variety that forms bright green cones. It grows three feet tall and wide. Zones 2-7

Woodward Globe Arborvitae

Thuja occidentalis Danica
Denny Schrock

Thuja occidentalis 'Woodwardii' forms a dark green sphere that grows eight feet tall and 15 feet wide. Zones 2-7

'Hetz Midget' Arborvitae

Shrubs in Containers
Laurie Black

Thuja occidentalis 'Hetz Midget' forms compact globes that turn bronze in colder weather. It grows 32 inches tall and wide. Zones 2-7

'Little Gem' Arborvitae

'Little Gem' Arborvitae
Peter Krumhardt

Thuja occidentalis 'Little Gem' is a dwarf variety that forms a compact, dark green sphere three feet tall and six feet wide. Zones 2-7

'Rheingold' Arborvitae

Blue spruce with golden arborvitae
Paul Vandevelder

Thuja occidentalis 'Rheingold' bears golden foliage that is sometimes pink-tinted when young, on a conical shrub growing three to six feet tall. Zones 2-7

'Sunkist' Oriental Arborvitae

'Sunkist' Oriental Arborvitae
Peter Krumhardt

Thuja orientalis 'Sunkist' is a dwarf globe-shape variety with gold-tipped leaves. It grows three feet tall and wide. Zones 6-9

'Pyramidalis' Arborvitae

'Pyramidalis' Arborvitae near purple fence
Jay Wilde

Thuja occidentalis 'Pyramidalis' is a fast-growing, conical evergreen often used for hedges and windbreaks. At maturity, it grows 60 feet tall and 15 feet wide. Zones 2-7

'Techny' Arborvitae

Thuja Occidentalis Garden
Peter Krumhardt

Thuja occidentalis 'Techny' slowly grows into a dense evergreen pyramid; an excellent choice for for a hedge. It grows 15 feet tall and eight feet wide. Zones 2-7

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why is arborvitae called 'tree of life'?

    When early French settlers reached North America, they learned from Native Americans that these plants could be used to treat scurvy, a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency, from which many sailors suffered. Young foliage is high in this nutrient, which led to the plant being named arborvitae, which translates to "tree of life." It's not recommended to be used for this condition now.

  • How long do arborvitaes live?

    The lifespan of most arborvitae trees grown in yards and gardens is estimated at 50 to 150 years. In the wild, it can be quite different. With surrounding forests and wildlife, arborvitae can mature slowly and live for 200 to 400 years. In fact, there are accounts of T. occidentalis trees in Ontario, Canada that are said to be over 1,000 years old.

  • What can I do to help a leaning arborvitae?

    If the lean is significant or seems to stem from the trunk, you may need to reposition the root ball and stake the tree. Wait until early summer or late fall and use wooden or metal stakes that are at least two-thirds the height of the tree (plus 24 to 36 inches to be anchored underground). Sink the stakes evenly around the tree at a 45-degree angle away from the trunk. Dig around the trunk (at least 2 to 3 feet deep) and loosen up the roots. Wrap the tree with a thick towel and then use your hands or a sturdy rope to grab the tree where you have padded it. Once the tree is upright, secure it in place with guy lines attached to the stakes you have planted.

  • How big does arborvitae get?

    The eventual size of arborvitae depends on many factors—not the least of which is the type. The American arborvitae can get as tall as 40–60 feet and spread 10–15 feet when fully matured. Techny and North Pole cultivars will only grow to about 15 tall and 7 or 10 feet wide. Some globe-type arborvitae trees grow in a compact spherical shape that typically only reaches 3 to 6 feet tall and wide.

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  1. Arborvitae. Bellarmine University.

  2. On the lifespan of arborvitae trees. Elisabeth C. Miller Library. Washington State University.  

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