A personal storm. So here I am deeply immersed in city bylaws and misinterpretation, misuse, bureaucratic bungling…déjà vu from almost three years ago when I wrote about it for the newsletter only for it to come up again as an attack on gardening… natural gardens… and having to defend while trying to complete a post. The whole thing is coming round on the eve of the first anniversary of losing my father.
I lost him a year ago today even though physically he did not leave us for another ten days. Intensive care drains not only the patient but the family. A stroke, a fall downstairs and a life support system that kept him alive until his body failed and that was it. Gone and what a huge hole to fill. So, of course it made sense to write about a few things from nature that were close to him: cedars and birds.
A couple of days ago when I took a day off from work to catch up on writing, I was distracted by a flurry of activity taking place in the backyard. A half-dozen Cardinals and several Northern Juncos were darting across the narrow divide between the north side and south side cedars. The Juncos were landing on stalks of ironweed and feeding while the Cardinals were taking turns in the bird bath.
All that activity just helped validate my stance that the wild type of cedars are better than cultivars for wildlife gardens. Cultivars provide more for humans intent on privacy fences and certain aesthetics. Natural cedars provide better shelter, perching posts and sources of food for wildlife.
Eastern White Cedars (Arborvitae) – wild vs. cultivar
I tend to the side of being a purist. I like my cedars “wild”, i.e., wild stock. I am not a fan of the cultivars. They look artificial and belong in a manicured garden, i.e., a more formal garden. They would look out of place in my yard and for my purpose, which is gardening for wildlife; they would take up way too much real estate. The cedars that I inherited from the previous owners are all tall and conical: 25-30’ ones that reside on the east side and 13-15’ ones on the south side.
When we moved in, we immediately planted cedars on the north side along the driveway. Some of them came in clumps of two or three cedars with one stem being dominant. This also made them look more natural, even though they were planted in an unnatural row. On a small property, you don’t have much choice.
With sun and sufficient moisture the new cedars quickly grew to just under the roof line. I’ve kept them trimmed to maintain the height. When I used to look after my Dad’s cedars, he wanted the flat-topped look. Now that I have my own cedars, I prefer to keep the wild look, so I trim them in a conical shape to try to imitate the natural growth pattern and to fit in with the rest of the garden.
And the same sense of expectation by traditional gardeners that plants should stay static for the duration of the growing season extends to trees like cedars. Cedars that stayed green all year were selected and cultivated when typically, cedars obtain a bronze cast to their leaves in autumn through winter which looks more natural.
Cultivars tend to look a little worse for wear under stress especially when large areas of foliage are affected. Wild cedars with their loose shaggy are not as noticeable. There is more room for airflow, yet they still act as an effective windbreak. Nursery trees, typically cultivars, are more susceptible to infestations which have to do with horticultural practices: high volume of trees, little air flow, monocultures.
Cedars for wildlife habitat
Cedars are a good windbreak and provide shelter for wildlife – particularly in winter since they keep their foliage.
From observation, I’ve noted the way birds fly in and use perches on wild type cedars. The cultivars are very “tight”. They don’t allow for the same kinds of perches as wild cedars, if at all. And those tiny little globe cedars…I can’t help but feel they are pocket pets for the garden. They may look cute and cuddly, but then again, almost any vegetation does and why waste the space?
Do cedar cultivars produce cones like the wild type? I haven’t really noticed. But my wild cedars produce copious crops of cones and squirrels, particularly red squirrels are taking them. I don’t have deer or rabbits but they apparently like to browse on foliage.
Some Considerations in Maintaining Cedars
Cedars are a hardy tree and remain healthy as long as they are not stressed by drought and salt damage which can cause leaves to turn brown. Heavy cone production will also cause stress and imitate drought affects.
My father used to fret every autumn when some of the cedar leaves would turn orange and die. Cedars are evergreen after all. They are supposed to have green leaves throughout the year. Then, I would have to remind him that all leaves have a life expectancy.
Natural leaf drop occurs in older shoots which are closer to the main stem. Insect infestation or environmental stress would normally affect the new shoots, i.e., the tips. The Eastern White Cedar doesn’t appear to be affected by needle cast, a fungal infection that affects the older shoots of pines, spruces, junipers/eastern red cedars.
Cedars have few problems compared with other tree species. Leaf miners and carpenter ants can cause problems but natural controls such as birds and parasites keep them in check. It’s one of the reasons to attract wildlife – they will keep your trees healthy.
Partial shade is tolerated but plants become thin, open and have less value for sheltering wildlife. Cedars really need full sun to retain leaves and have thick foliage.
As with all evergreens, ensure that cedars are watered well before the ground freezes as they retain their leaves and may dehydrate through winter. It helps to have a winter with snow which acts as insulation for the roots and provides moisture in the spring when the growing season resumes. However, snow, particularly the heavy wet kind can damage cedars. The naturally wide conical shape of cedars will help shed snow.
I will be revisiting cedars in subsequent posts as they are a dominant theme in my garden. We’ll investigate which plants can co-habit with them.
I will think fondly of my father as I watch my cedars change through the seasons.
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