Cedar Sense Surround


Surrounded by Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis)

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.

New cedars ready to be planted.

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.

Perching posts for humans sheltered by overhanging cedars. Pass the browse.

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?

Juvenile American Robin (Turdus migratorius). Widely-spaced foliage of the wild type cedar allows easy access to perches for even large birds. Longer branches provide good perching posts.

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.

Heavy cone crop on east side cedars.

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.

Natural death and loss of cedar foliage. Photo by Bill Remphrey.

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.

Red Admiral butterfly(Vanessa atalanta) takes advantage of cedar foliage that provides protection from frost during the migration in April.

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.

Branches burdened by wet snow. Spent flower heads of Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) nod off.

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.

Winter Wonderland.

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.

© 2012, Janet Harrison. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    We don’t have room for trees in our yard, but there are a lot in the neighborhood. I’ll have to pay attention and see if there are any cedars. We do have a number of birds, though.

    I’m glad you have trees that give you good memories of your dad.

    What’s going on with your city and your garden?
    Corner Garden Sue recently posted..Maybe the Last Harvest

    • says

      Thanks, Sue.

      Re: City and gardens. It’s not my garden that has drawn attention, but it could happen at any time. Bylaw enforcement is usually driven on a complaint basis. One complaint and poorly written bylaws could put you at risk of the aesthetic “police”. Ignorance is a road block in wildlife gardening. I am fighting to amend bylaws that could cost a Toronto homeowner $200+ tax to keep shrubs, hedges and now, ground cover (over 20cm/8″ in height). I have single shrubs and cedar hedges that are defined as “fences” which have height restrictions. I also have tall vegetation – native wildflowers which could be defined as “weeds”, again with a height restriction. If a violation notice is issued, there are only two routes to take: cut or seek an exemption for the “fence” or “natural garden”. I won’t get into any more detail at the moment as it is a long, sordid journey. But I will be posting an update to my Big Bad Bylaws issue (http://thelocalscoop.org/clippings/2010_04.php) after I seek remedy through the city division, Municipal Licencing and Standards…or the Toronto Ombudsman, if necessary. It should make for an interesting spring.

      BTW – love your pic on the homepage (which would be in violation in Toronto…if someone complains).

    • says

      Great, Donna! If you have the room and a sunny area, they make great specimen trees with their conical shape. Alternatively, if you want a hedge, cedars can be planted close together 16-18″ and then thinned out later, if wanted (to give the remaining trees room to grow into a conical shape while intertwining amongst themselves).

  2. says

    Cedars make marvelous habitat for birds especially here in winter. There’s nothing quite like seeing a huge cedar filled with Cedar Waxwings gobbling up the berries! Janet I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your Dad. Just a few weeks ago was the first anniversary of my Mom’s passing, and this time of year is particularly hard for me. Sending you hugs and good wishes as you mark this anniversary.
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..The Ecosystem Gardening Story

    • says

      Carole, thanks so much for your condolences. It’s a difficult time of year as I also lost my father-in-law three years ago and now my mother-in-law is not doing well. I know you’ve been there too, unfortunately. But we as readers learned of the healing powers of your garden when you were caring for your mum. I’m glad it has been a source of comfort. Extra hugs going out to you and everyone missing their loved ones.

      Just to clear up any confusion due to the use of common names – conifers, such as cedars (Thuja spp.), junipers/red cedars (Juniperus spp.), yews (Taxus spp.) produce cones. Junipers and yews produce fleshy cones that appear to resemble berries and are gobbled up by birds. Thuja spp. produce hard cones with seeds which tend to attract squirrels and seed-eating birds.

  3. says

    I have a large cedar that has supports cedar apple rust and annual infects the nearby apple tree planted years ago. Is there a value to cedar apple rust in nature or among wildlife?

    • says

      Hi Do,
      I suspect you have a red cedar or Juniper. I’m more familiar with white cedar (arborvitae) which has a lot fewer diseases, fungi and insects with which to contend. I don’t know if there is a value per se in nature, but it could be that it has not been discovered. The fungus can do a lot of damage by causing defoliation and spots on fruit, so I think in this case, the fungus doesn’t have any redeeming qualities.

      Since the fungi, cedar apple rust, has a two year cycle alternating between the two hosts, juniper and apple, the best way to avoid it is to only keep one of the species of trees; “never the twain shall meet”. I’ve planted eastern white pine but avoided planting currants, Ribes spp., for the same reason (white pine blister rust, an introduced species).

      The alternative, besides spraying fungicide, is to plant resistant cultivars of apple. Cutting the galls appears to be easier on Junipers rather than apple trees. It should interrupt the cycle, as long as the galls are disposed properly. However, it might be too onerous a task on a large tree or if many trees are involved.

      Unfortunately, none of these solutions is very appealing if you want to keep both tree species.

      Good synopses can be found here, including a list of resistant apple cultivars: http://www.nysipm.cornell.edu/factsheets/treefruit/diseases/car/car.asp


  1. […] being surrounding by eastern white cedars (Thuja occidentalis) on the north, south and east sides. Cedar sense around?! Sure felt like it now! The fence-line cedars on the south side had doubled over, almost touching […]

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