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How to Care for Arborvitae—the Tall Screening Tree


Question. We planted eight large (8 foot tall) arborvitae in a row along our property line last spring. In September we noticed that one had brown leaves near the top. I pruned off those leaves and made sure the tree was adequately watered for a few days until the rains came. In October the rest of the trees turned a golden-brown from the inside out and we lost them all. Is there something we should have done to promote their well-being?

---Helyn in Lansdale, PA

Answer. Yes—any new tree needs to have the heck watered out of it the first year in the ground. If you wait until you see trouble, it's way too late. If it isn't going to rain immediately after planting, let a hose drip at the base of each tree for 24 hours (use a soaker hose for multiple trees) and repeat deep soakings at least twice a week for several hours at a pop any week you don't get rain.

It also sounds like you may have crowded them. It's better to plant so-called 'screening trees' in staggered, triangular grids than to try and jam them into a tight straight line.

Question. I planted nine emerald arborvitae last spring and kept them watered well throughout the summer. They look healthy from a distance, but if I get close and peek into their trunks, some of the greenery is turning a little...oh, not brown but gold. Is this normal? I want to make sure they're ok. We planted them correctly—not too deep, in a nice wide hole.

---Annmarie in Chesterfield, NJ

Answer. Whenever someone assures me they did something {quote} "correctly", I see the Red Cross rushing in with chocolate and lawyers for the poor plants. So let's review 'correct tree planting'.

Remove all wrappings from balled and burlaped trees. You may be told to leave the burlap on, to bury the burlap with the tree (perhaps to hide evidence linking you to the murder), etc., etc. The people telling you to do those things are wrong, wrong, wrong!

As you note, you should dig a wide hole, but not a deep one; you want the root flare to be exposed above ground. If the planted tree looks like a lollipop, take it out and plant it higher. Refill the hole with your lousy native soil. Surrounding the roots with an island of nice perfect loose stuff is like putting a big-screen TV into your child's bedroom after college. You need to force both of those kinds of organisms to make their way out into the world instead of making it easy for them to linger much too close to home.

If the tree needs to be staked its first year (which arborvitae and the similar Leyland cypress often do), do so very carefully and gently; don't let any of the material dig into the bark and get rid of that support the first day possible.

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