How to Tell if My Arborvitae Is Dying?

Arborvitae, with its lush, green foliage and elegant shape, is a cherished addition to many landscapes. These hardy evergreen shrubs are known for their resilience, but like any living plant, they can face challenges that may lead to decline or even death. Recognizing the early signs of a struggling arborvitae is essential for homeowners and garden enthusiasts to take timely action and potentially save these beautiful shrubs from a grim fate. In this article, we will explore how to tell if your arborvitae is dying and what steps you can take to address the issue.

Visual Signs of Decline

The first step in assessing the health of your arborvitae is to observe its appearance. Visual signs of decline can offer valuable insights into the overall well-being of the shrub. Here are some key visual cues to look out for:

  1. Yellowing or Browning Foliage: One of the most noticeable signs of a struggling arborvitae is the discoloration of its foliage. If you observe yellowing or browning needles or leaves, particularly on the inner branches, it may indicate stress or disease. While some shedding of older needles is normal, an excessive loss of green foliage is cause for concern.
  2. Sparse Growth: A healthy arborvitae should have a lush and dense appearance. If you notice that your shrub has become thin or sparse, with gaps in its foliage, it suggests that it may not be thriving. Sparse growth can result from various factors, including disease, nutrient deficiencies, or environmental stress.
  3. Dead Branches: Dead branches are a clear indication of declining health. Check your arborvitae for any branches that lack needles or leaves and feel brittle to the touch. Pruning these dead branches is crucial to prevent the spread of issues to the rest of the shrub.
  4. Wilting or Drooping Foliage: Healthy arborvitae foliage should be upright and vibrant. If you observe wilting or drooping branches, it may suggest insufficient water or root problems. Wilting can also be a response to extreme temperatures or environmental stress.
  5. Unusual Growth Patterns: Pay attention to any unusual growth patterns, such as distorted or stunted branches. These abnormalities may be indicative of pest infestations or diseases affecting your arborvitae.

By carefully examining your arborvitae and identifying these visual signs of decline, you can take the first steps toward diagnosing the issue. In the following sections, we will explore additional aspects to consider when evaluating the health of your arborvitae and what actions can be taken to address potential problems.

Checking the Foliage

A closer examination of your arborvitae’s foliage can provide more specific insights into its health. Here’s how to thoroughly check the foliage for signs of distress:

  1. Inspect Needle Color: Carefully examine the color of the needles or leaves. Healthy arborvitae foliage should be vibrant green. If you notice yellowing, browning, or a grayish tint, it may indicate stress or disease.
  2. Needle Density: Gently run your fingers along the branches to assess needle density. Healthy arborvitae should have a dense and uniform distribution of needles. Sparse areas could be a sign of underlying issues.
  3. Needle Texture: Feel the texture of the needles. Healthy needles should be pliable and firm to the touch. If they feel dry, brittle, or exhibit signs of decay, it suggests a problem.
  4. Needle Retention: Test the retention of the needles by lightly tugging on them. If needles easily fall off in your hand, especially on the inner branches, this may indicate an issue with the arborvitae’s overall health.
  5. Needle Odor: Some issues, such as fungal infections, may be accompanied by a noticeable odor. Sniff the foliage to detect any unusual or unpleasant smells.
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Assessing Moisture Levels

Proper moisture levels are essential for the well-being of your arborvitae. Both excessive dryness and overwatering can negatively impact the shrub. Here’s how to assess moisture levels effectively:

  1. Finger Test: Insert your finger into the soil near the base of the arborvitae. If the soil feels dry to the touch at a depth of about 2 inches, it may be an indication that the shrub is not receiving enough water.
  2. Moisture Meter: Consider using a moisture meter designed for plants. These handy devices provide accurate readings of soil moisture levels. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for usage.
  3. Visual Clues: Observe the soil’s appearance. If it appears excessively dry, cracked, or has pulled away from the edges of the planting hole, your arborvitae may be experiencing drought stress.
  4. Water Drainage: Check the soil’s drainage. Poorly drained soil can lead to root rot and other moisture-related issues. If water pools around the base of the shrub after rain or irrigation, it may be a drainage problem.
  5. Root Moisture: Gently dig a small hole near the arborvitae’s base to examine the moisture content of the soil around the roots. Adequate root moisture is vital for the shrub’s health.

Assessing moisture levels is a critical step in determining the cause of your arborvitae’s decline. In the following sections, we will explore soil quality, pests, diseases, and other factors that may affect your shrub’s health, helping you make informed decisions on how to proceed.

Evaluating the Soil and Drainage

The quality of the soil and its ability to drain properly are fundamental to the health of your arborvitae. Here’s how to evaluate the soil and drainage around your shrub:

  1. Soil Type: Determine the type of soil your arborvitae is planted in. Arborvitae prefers well-draining soil. Sandy or loamy soils are generally better for drainage, while clay soils can retain water and lead to root rot.
  2. Soil pH: Test the soil’s pH level. Arborvitae thrives in slightly acidic to neutral soil (pH 6.0 to 7.0). If the soil is too acidic or alkaline, it can affect nutrient uptake and overall health.
  3. Digging Test Hole: Dig a small hole near the base of your arborvitae to inspect the soil’s structure and moisture content at deeper levels. This can help identify issues such as compacted soil or waterlogged conditions.
  4. Observing Drainage: After a rainfall or irrigation, observe how quickly water drains away from the planting area. Poor drainage can lead to waterlogged roots and root rot.
  5. Improving Drainage: If drainage issues are identified, consider implementing drainage solutions, such as amending the soil with organic matter, creating a raised bed, or installing a drainage system.

Checking for Pests and Diseases

Pests and diseases can significantly impact the health of your arborvitae. Here’s how to check for common issues:

  1. Inspect Foliage: Carefully examine the foliage for signs of pests. Look for holes, chewed leaves, or unusual growths. Common arborvitae pests include aphids, spider mites, and bagworms.
  2. Examine Bark: Check the bark for any unusual markings, discolorations, or lesions. Bark damage can be a sign of borers or canker diseases.
  3. Inspect Roots: Gently dig around the base of your arborvitae to inspect the roots. Healthy roots should be firm and white. Dark, mushy, or discolored roots can indicate root rot.
  4. Look for Webbing: Spider mites often leave fine webbing on arborvitae branches. If you notice this webbing or tiny, speck-like creatures on the undersides of leaves, you may have a spider mite infestation.
  5. Check for Fungal Growth: Look for fungal growth on the foliage or trunk. Brown or black spots, powdery mildew, or cankerous lesions are common signs of fungal diseases.
  6. Scale and Aphids: Keep an eye out for scale insects, which can appear as small, waxy bumps on branches and leaves, and aphids, which are tiny, soft-bodied insects that can cluster on foliage.
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Identifying and addressing pest infestations and diseases promptly is crucial for preventing further damage to your arborvitae. In the following sections, we will delve into environmental stressors and maintenance practices to consider in your efforts to revive your shrub.

Assessing Environmental Stress

Environmental stressors can take a toll on the health of your arborvitae. Here’s how to assess potential environmental factors that may be affecting your shrub:

  1. Temperature Extremes: Consider recent weather conditions. Arborvitae is generally hardy but can suffer from extreme cold or heat. Assess if your region has experienced temperature extremes that could stress the shrub.
  2. Drought Conditions: Drought can significantly stress arborvitae. Evaluate whether your area has faced prolonged periods of drought or insufficient watering.
  3. Soil Compaction: Compacted soil can limit root growth and hinder water and nutrient uptake. Examine if the soil around your arborvitae has become compacted, particularly in high-traffic areas.
  4. Exposure to Wind: Wind can cause arborvitae branches to bend or break. Assess if your shrub is exposed to strong winds and if protective measures like windbreaks are necessary.
  5. Sunlight: Ensure your arborvitae receives adequate sunlight. Lack of sunlight can lead to sparse growth and poor health. Observe if there have been changes in light conditions due to the growth of nearby trees or structures.
  6. Chemical Exposure: Check for signs of chemical exposure, such as herbicide or pesticide drift, which can harm arborvitae. Investigate if any chemicals have been applied near your shrub.
  7. Urban Pollution: Urban environments may subject arborvitae to air pollution or other contaminants. Consider your location and its potential impact on the shrub’s health.

Pruning and Maintenance

Proper pruning and regular maintenance are essential for the vitality of your arborvitae. Here are important considerations:

  1. Pruning Dead or Diseased Branches: Remove dead, diseased, or damaged branches promptly to prevent the spread of issues. Pruning should be done during the appropriate season, typically in late winter or early spring.
  2. Thinning for Airflow: If your arborvitae appears crowded, thinning the branches can improve airflow and reduce the risk of fungal diseases. Avoid excessive pruning, which can stress the shrub.
  3. Shaping: Prune to maintain the desired shape of your arborvitae. This can help promote healthy growth and prevent overcrowding.
  4. Fertilization: Assess if your arborvitae would benefit from fertilization. Soil tests can determine nutrient deficiencies, and appropriate fertilization can address these issues.
  5. Mulching: Apply a layer of mulch around the base of your arborvitae to conserve moisture, regulate soil temperature, and reduce competition from weeds.
  6. Watering Practices: Ensure proper watering practices, especially during dry periods. Deep, infrequent watering is generally preferred over shallow, frequent watering.
  7. Protection from Deer: If deer are a concern in your area, consider protective measures like fencing to prevent them from damaging your arborvitae.
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By evaluating environmental stressors and implementing appropriate pruning and maintenance practices, you can support the recovery of your arborvitae and improve its overall health. In the next section, we will discuss the importance of seeking professional advice when necessary and the potential actions to take based on your assessment.

Seeking Professional Advice

Sometimes, diagnosing and addressing issues with your arborvitae can be challenging. Seeking professional advice from an arborist or horticulturist is a wise step if you’re uncertain about the health of your shrub. Here’s why and how to do it:

  1. Expert Diagnosis: Arborists and horticulturists have the expertise to accurately diagnose issues affecting your arborvitae, whether it’s a pest infestation, disease, or environmental stress.
  2. Customized Solutions: Professionals can recommend customized solutions tailored to your specific arborvitae and its unique needs.
  3. Preserving Your Investment: Arborvitae can be a significant investment in your landscape. Professional guidance can help protect this investment and potentially save your shrub.
  4. Timely Action: Getting expert advice can lead to quicker and more effective action, preventing further damage to your arborvitae.

Taking Action

Based on your assessment and any professional advice received, it’s time to take action to revive your arborvitae. Here are potential steps to consider:

  1. Addressing Watering Issues: Adjust your watering practices to ensure your arborvitae receives adequate moisture without being waterlogged. Deep, slow watering is typically preferred.
  2. Soil Improvement: If soil quality and drainage are problems, amend the soil with organic matter to improve its structure and drainage capacity.
  3. Pest and Disease Management: Implement appropriate pest control measures, such as applying insecticidal soap for pests or using fungicides for fungal diseases. Follow professional recommendations.
  4. Pruning and Maintenance: Continue regular pruning and maintenance, focusing on removing dead or diseased branches and promoting healthy growth.
  5. Fertilization: If nutrient deficiencies are identified, follow professional advice on fertilization to address these issues.
  6. Protection Measures: Consider protective measures, such as windbreaks or deer fencing, to prevent further stress to your arborvitae.


In conclusion, recognizing the signs of a struggling arborvitae and taking appropriate action is essential for maintaining the health and beauty of this popular landscape shrub. By carefully observing visual cues, assessing moisture levels, evaluating the soil and drainage, and checking for pests and diseases, you can identify potential issues early on.

Taking steps to address environmental stress, regular pruning and maintenance, and seeking professional advice when needed are all crucial elements of caring for your arborvitae. Remember that each arborvitae is unique, and the specific actions required may vary. The key is to be proactive and attentive to your shrub’s needs to ensure its longevity and vitality in your landscape. With the right care, your arborvitae can thrive and continue to enhance the beauty of your outdoor space for years to come.