I detest plant snobbery. There are those to whom you might mention a certain plant and it would be like belching at the dinner table (or worse). I once wrote a story, “Hortus Non Grata,” in which I celebrated plants that are easy and undemanding to grow, readily available, and undervalued: Fatsia japonica, Photenia fraseri, Vinca minor, Petunias, among them, and Arborvitae. It made me feel good to stand up for these much maligned members of Mother Nature’s family.
I believe this: given the right place, time and opportunity, there really are no bad children and there are really no bad plants -- not even poison ivy. I learned that lesson one summer when Tommy Martin tried to beat me up. I shoved him up against a big tree trunk that was covered with the leafy and toxic vines. He backed-off, walked away and then scratched for the next two weeks. I still grin thinking of it.
So consider Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis). Yes, as much as 80 years ago, this plant was overused. There simply were not many choices to embellish a house frontage with greenery. Many a Madison Park homeowner planted one on each side of the front door. In those days the plants arrived in a burlap covered root ball, standing four feet high, bright green obelisks to welcome any visitor. Now those green spires may tower 20 feet or more. But unless they have been butchered, starved for light, or completely neglected, they remain tall, slim pillars of delicate green foliage that demand nothing of their keepers.
I’ve heard Arborvitae called the chain link fences of horticulture. Sniff, if you like. But should you need to corral an energetic Labrador Retriever or Jack Russell Terrier, you’ll need a chain link fence. There is nothing better to hide it than a row of easy-to-find, inexpensive-to-buy and cinch-to-grow Arborvitae. Usually available in five-gallon cans, plant them four or five feet apart. In no time, the fence will disappear behind a wall of green.
Once I heard a gardener cluck, “Growing Arborvitae is like shopping at Walmart.”
OK, I’ll swallow that one, too. They are available about everywhere (including the nursery sections at Walmart). They are as modestly priced (cheap, actually) and as sturdy as the underwear and everyday socks I myself buy at Walmart -- yes, I confess.
So what’s the problem?
Come on! Toss the snobbery. Give credit where credit is due. If you need a punctuation of green at a far corner of your garden, plant an Arborvitae. In time you’ll look out your window in the dead of winter and think, “Except for that green spire, back there, the garden looks bleak. I think I’ll wrap it in white lights for the Holidays.”
Growing a narrow bed of hybrid tea roses and want something somewhat formal looking on the east and west ends of the south-facing bed, something to take your eyes off the ugly row of sticks out of season? Arborvitae.
I’ve heard them called “the poor man’s Italian Cypress.” Yes. And I spotted three in a long planting of assorted deciduous shrubs up at my house in the North Cascades. They did for that bed what they would do for a rose bed or a far corner of a city garden, and they stand up to our often heavy Winter snows. The tight, dense branches never splay out, break off, or necessitate being tied up. They face the most fierce winter cold snap, never browning, no dieback. These plants do their job.
The needs of these much under rated old friends are simple. Give them good light (anything but heavy shade), reasonable soil, water them for their first two summers, then they’ll be happy with what our climate gives them. If they seem to lose their vibrant green, scatter a bit of high nitrogen fertilizer around the base of the plant about Valentine’s Day, or lay down a thick layer of rich compost around the trunk, over the root run. I know of no diseases or pests which plague them. They require no pruning. Allow Arborvitae to assume their natural form: columnar, growing to a point. Don’t hack them back. Tell them you appreciate them. For sure, talking to your plants works!
My first grade teacher Nora Stockstill had an old upright piano in our classroom. Daily she’d play and we would sing. About once a week, she’d pound out “Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other is gold!” We’d do it as a round. After a couple of rounds, Mrs. Stockstill would jump off the piano stool and say, “Now remember this, children. You’ll have people in your life who will quietly do their best for you, always stand silently by, never show-off or create a fuss, never ask anything of you. So don’t you ever forget, these will be your best, most steadfast friends. Never take them for granted.”
Once I became a gardener, I always I figured Mrs. Stockstill was talking about Arborvitae.