POV: Arborvitae — Privacy Please

The writer is a member of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Albany County.

This is the season of the year we realize just how much privacy we have around our home. All the green vegetative grow that blocks our view in summer is now gone. One way to regain our privacy is through planting evergreen trees and shrubs.

Arborvitae trees have become synonymous with hedgerow plantings for privacy. It’s hard to just think of them as North American native evergreens of the cypress family anymore. I picture them standing guard in suburbia, screening street views, separating and isolating neighbors. Well, that’s what we had hoped for anyway. Somehow, it doesn’t always work out as well or simply as we expect it to. My comments are an attempt to address some of the reasons why.

In the wild arborvitae can be found in poor soils, which can be sterile, alkaline and rocky. The hybrids selected for the landscape grow best in a moist well-drained soil. A full sun situation is also best; too much shade will cause them to be too open and floppy in their habit. The most popular cultivars are “Techny,” “Pyramidal” and “Emerald Green.” In our area, Emerald Green has emerged as the most popular and therefore easiest cultivar to find. So why are homeowners disappointed in their “living” fence? Often it is a matter of information and expectations.

Contrary to popular belief, and sometimes left out of advertising, is the fact that these arborvitae are slow growing evergreens. Emerald Green will put on 4-9” in height and possibly 2-6” in width each year. Many homeowners would say “that’s all?” I have seen them touted as being able to grow four feet per year! That’s amazing considering this excellent evergreen, introduced from Poulsen, Denmark in 1950, matures at 10’-15’ with a 3’-4’ spread in the landscape setting. So if you don’t purchase a sizeable tree from the start, be sure to have plenty of patience waiting for that screen or privacy you were longing for.

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