Archive for August 28, 2012

Wassup with arborvitae this summer?

In place several years, the entire row of arbs bit the dust this summer.

This will be a really short article, but it might answer a question for you:  Why am I seeing a bunch of dead arborvitae (cedars) this year?

While driving around town, I’ve been struck by the number of plantings of multiple arborvitae that are dead.  I’ve shown two here, but I’ve seen several others.  Not one dead in the row – but the entire row.

The short and sweet answer is, lack of moisture.

Thuja occidentalis (Eastern and American Arborvitae, a.k.a. white cedar), the more common arborvitae species in the Upper Midwest is a water-loving native evergreen shrub.  Take a trip “up north” and you will find cedars growing wild along river sites.

According to ornamentals expert Dr. Michael Dirr, the Eastern arborvitae

These arborvitae shrubs have been sucked dry by nearby trees in a droughty summer.

“should be grown in areas with considerable atmosphere moisture as well as soil moisture.”  Once established it will take considerable drought, he says.

People like arborvitae because they are soft to the touch, and don’t have poky needles like juniper; they have a nice texture and if the right cultivar is planted in the right site you won’t need to prune them.

But they really perform best where they get adequate moisture, or at least aren’t overly exposed.

The plantings I’ve photographed are either VERY out in the open alongside a street and were never ever watered, or they are competing with these tall trees.  They had been in place more than two years, but obviously they were closer to the edge than the owners realized.

When the entire row dies all at once, it’s pretty clear that growing conditions – rather than the slower spread of disease or insects – is to blame.

And they won’t be coming back.

The lesson to learn is that there are better shrubs for hot sunny locations, and even woody plants that look OK should be watered once or twice during a drought.  If only to protect your investment.

Butterfly bush blooms its butt off!


Butterfly bush – more accurately known as Buddleia (rhymes with Princess Leia) – is in

What better complement for the purple-flowering butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.) than an iron butterfly chair. Spotted at the Charlevoix Public Library.

its glory this year.

Abundant sunshine, warm temperatures and a mild winter have allowed this semi-hardy, semi-shrubby perennial flower to take off.

I have mixed feelings about this shrub.  On the one hand it’s a lot of work!  It produces scads of twiggy new growth every year, which must then be cut back in the spring.  Most of it dies back, but even if it didn’t you wouldn’t want a semi-shrub that got 20 feet tall with bunches of dead branches mixed in.

We had an easy winter in Michigan this year, so lots of the branches LIVED.  I have three of these, all purple – did I mention they like to seed themselves too? – and they all needed to be cut back to about 3 to 4 feet above ground.

That’s a lot of twigs to cut back artfully, then shove into a recycling back and haul to the road.  Or they burn really easily because they are dry and twiggy.

But once you handle that piece of maintenance there’s really nothing else to do except stand back and let them attract butterflies.  We routinely see monarchs, viceroys, black and tiger swallowtails, red admirals, pearl crescents, spicebush and other really cool butterflies.

We make sure we plant other butterfly-attracting plants as well, including petunias galore, calabrachoa in hanging baskets, honeysuckle vine, heliotrope, coreopsis, helianthus, verbena, penstemons and others.

Buddleia davidii is very tall (6-8 feet in Michigan, taller in milder climes) and robust.  This is not a bush to plant below your windows or in your front foundation.  Put it at the center of a flowerbed, with lower plantings around it, at the corner of a fenced-in yard, at the corner of the pool or other away-from-the-house location.

It does not require deadheading (pruning off the fading flowers).  I’m a stickler about doing this with other flowers, but it would be next to impossible with buddleia.  And there’s something attractive about seeing the flowers in various stages of color and maturity.

I’ve also never fertilized or provided winter protection for buddleia.  It is hardy to

You can probably get a butterfly bush for under $15, which is a bargain.  Remember that it’s not a year-around star (no fall color to speak of, no early spring features and no attractive winter bark), but it blooms its butt off in August when many other perennials are slacking.  - DD