Arborvitae (Thuja) may be Essex County’s most popular privacy tree. Arborvitae is Latin for ‘Tree of Life’ which was the name it was given for saving early sailors from scurvy. Apparently, the fragrant trees can be brewed into tea. These evergreens are native to North America and Asia and have been bred into many varieties for use as hedgerows and living fences. At maturity in the wild, they can get 50 feet tall, but most hybrids sold at the nursery for homeowners only grow to 20 or 30 feet tall.
Arborvitae likes full sun and is tolerant of most soil types and has few pest issues. The biggest problems they develop are browning and yellowing of needles and winter damage from snow and ice. Heavy snow weighs down flexible branches and the result is flopping and cracked stems that need to be tied and pruned come spring. As they get older, they become ragged-looking for these reasons. I have seen these trees butchered many times, from removing all lower branches to shearing too aggressively, which results in dead patches. Unlike some other trees and shrubs, if you remove too much of the foliage from an Arborvitae, it will be permanent and the branches in that area will die. It will not fill in with green growth or grow back from the older trunk wood or branches.
If you have an Arborvitae hedge, it’s wise to keep it lightly sheared and repaired annually to keep it healthy and tidy looking.