Emerald Green arborvitae

Emerald Green arborvitae  Courtesy Photo 

Halloween is Wednesday, and I'm already thinking about Christmas decorations.

I have a pair of large planters on either side of the porch steps that always beg for something, anything to fill them after annual ornamental grasses, cannas, geraniums and other plants are done for the growing season.

In recent years, I've placed a wreath over each opening, then filled the empty space with long, willowy sticks and decorative holiday accents. I've also purchased various "kits" of pruned evergreen boughs that you can assemble to resemble small Christmas trees. Those generally last until spring before drying up.

This year I wanted something a little more permanent. I've opted for Emerald Green American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis 'Emerald') that grows nicely in large containers. I found a great end-of-season bargain on these shrubs and couldn't resist. It actually cost more to purchase the potting soil than the plants.

The look is perfect for a holiday display --- narrow, upright evergreen branches that can be dressed up or down with decorations (the arborvitae equivalent of a simple black dress?).

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In the ground, this evergreen shrub can top out at 15 feet or so, and 4 feet wide. It thrives in zones 2 through 4. Planted in a container, it won't grow nearly as large and can be lightly pruned to keep its shape. Containers don't have much insulation except soil, and experts say it's important that the plant is hardy to two zones colder than our USDA Hardizness Zone. It can handle winter temperatures to 40 degrees below zero in the ground.

Care is basic in pots: Water frequently to keep the soil moist. If the shrub dries out, it could die, although it is somewhat drought-tolerant in the landscape. Prune off branch tips; the plant doesn't grow on old wood and if you prune too vigorously, it will die. Fertilize during the growing season once every month.

After the holidays (if the pots aren't frozen in place), I may need to provide better winter protection for their survival by dragging the pots into the unheated garage or wrapping plants in burlap for protection against dessicating winter winds.

If I plan to leave the shrubs in containers, I'll need to replant every two or three years, increasing the pot size to accommodate the growth. Experts recommend a 2/3 pot size-to-plant height ratio. Since these shrubs can live upwards of 20 years, you can start with really massive pots and leave them in place. Just remember to replace or freshen the soil every two or three years.

I'll probably plant the shrubs in my landscape next spring. Each pot swallowed its own large bag of potting soil, mixed with vermiculite for good drainage.

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