I planted arborvitae a year ago that died (five total). I replanted all of them (new trees) this year and three of them are now dying again.

Soil Conditions

The dirt up here is practically just sand and clay once you get 3-4 inches down. According to a geographical survey, soil in my geographic region is "clayey till, and sandy and loamy till, with areas of sand and gravel. Other deposits include lake clay, silt, and alluvium."

How I Planted Killed Them All The First Time

  1. I dug a trench for them that was 12-16 inches deep (so the entire base of each tree would be below the ground).
  2. I figured that since my soil was horrible I would need to give them fresh dirt in order to survive. So each tree was planted in and surrounded by fresh potting soil (with MiracleGro in it because I know nothing about trees!).
  3. I watered them almost daily (I even paid a neighbor's daughter to water them while I was away for a short period of time).

Reflections on Death (Round One)

I was very surprised that all of the trees died in round one. So I talked to a landscaper and she told me that I made two major mistakes:

  1. I drowned the trees in water (12-16 inches is too deep for these trees).
  2. I 'shell-shocked' them with good soil as this was not their natural habitat (I should have let them grow into the natural soil from the start).

Round Two

  1. Not having time to give my arborvitae swimming lessons, I created a berm and planted the trees on the berm so that only the bulb/tip of each trees' roots would be below ground level (at the recommendation of the previously mentioned landscaper).
  2. I used mostly natural soil (I had to use some fresh dirt for berming, but I bought the cheap stuff which smelled like manure).
  3. I have been watering every other day or so, but three of them (one on the end and one in the middle of two other trees) are starting to turn brown. I've exhausted my knowledge (which is zilch).
  4. The berm soil has been eroding unfortunately.


All the trees: Trees

A closeup of one of the browning ones:

A dying tree


  • Did the landscaper give me good advice? If not, what do you recommend?
  • Is there any hope for my browning trees in round two?


All the trees in round two have since died. I also found out that my neighbor had planted his four times and they died every time, so I'm wondering if our soil conditions are the culprit here. Anyways, both my neighbor and I have given up on arborvitae and he planted bushes (I just covered my holes with dirt and am actually now trying to sell the home—so I'll probably just put down grass seed). It's really unfortunate, because I have a warranty for five new trees—I just don't have time nor the patience to kill another batch. Unfortunately the advice I received here conflicted and no one fully answered my questions. If anyone knows how to make these grow in my soil conditions and can offer an authoritative and canonical response that fully answers my initial questions, I'll gladly accept the answer. But until then, I hope this post and its answers help someone else....

8 Answers 8


I don't have a complete answer to your question but I do see that you planted them with the burlap sack that they came with. I know that mature trees or large specimens are often planted this way (B & B = Ball and burlapped) but...... with smaller plants the burlap can prevent the roots from growing out and even act as a wick to move water up and around the root ball rather than into it.

Next time:

  • either purchase potted specimens, remove from pot and scarify or scratch open the outer surface of the root ball
  • or purchase B & B and remove the burlap ball and rough up the exterior
  • examine the root ball: good health is thick reddish roots and new growth has white roots. Plants that have been previously waterlogged at the retailer or nursery will have soft black roots
  • judge your watering by what happens when you add water to a freshly dug hole. If you pour in a gallon of water does it drain freely or sit there? If it sits for a while then less frequent but deep watering would be advisable.

Edit: on second thought the only time I have seen stock this small packed in burlap was when my supplier was sourcing from a grower who grew in a very sandy soil. The grower had to use burlap just to hold the root ball together. Arborvitae have a root system with a good mix of thick and thin roots and normally a healthy plant in soil with a good amount of organic matter does not need burlap to hold the root ball. I recommend you remove one or all of the dead cedar (and dead they are, they are not coming back) and have a look at the root ball. If the soil is sandy and the root ball is dry then that explains why they dried out.

  • In cases where they ball in very sandy soil, it is very difficult to move and plant them without disturbing the balls enough to do major root damage.
    – That Idiot
    Commented Oct 18, 2016 at 11:28

Based on your photo of the trees on the "berm", there almost is no berm. It looks like root balls are almost just sitting on the ground surface with a little bit of soil around otherwise completely exposed root balls. No, you don't want to plant your trees too deep, but you also don't want your root balls to be exposed to the atmosphere. If your berm has eroded, it means you need to take more care in constructing your berm: build up your berm such that soil completely covers the root balls, and compact the soil with a tamper. It MUST be compacted sufficiently otherwise it will disappear after a few rainstorms. After you have compacted the berm soil, making sure that all the root balls are fully embedded in your berm soil, mulch the berm soil with wood chips. This will help 1) keep the soil moist and 2) protect the berm soil from getting eroded by rainfall. I agree with what others above have said about peeling some of the burlap back. Good luck if you are planning a round 3.


Two axioms that have been drilled into my head are "plant it high - it won't die, plant it low - it won't grow" and "$1 plant, $10 hole". They seem to work.

I think the landscaper's advice was decent but you might not have implemented it correctly. If I was going to ask anyone, I would ask someone where I purchased the trees. There might have even been an issue with circling roots in the root ball.

Plant it high means plant it so that the top of the root ball is about 1-2" above the current grade. Berms don't count as you figured out. :)

Nothing you spread on new plantings should smell like manure. Only thing I would add would be some compost or composted manure. Composted manure should smell earthy, like dirt. If it still smells like manure it is too "hot" and can damage the trees.

Most experts think you should remove the burlap from the tree. At the very least trim it back. Do it after placing the tree in the hole and making sure the root ball won't crumble apart.

The bigger you dig the hole the better. Some people even like to dig long trenches that radiate out from the hole.

Read The Science of Planting Trees. It covers a variety of different conditions you may face.

Also check out Dying Arborvitae to see if it helps. It has some info on planting, watering and using an antitranspirant to help the tree retain water.

  • In some cases the burlap is needed to keep the ball intact and the tree standing up. In the case of sandy soil and a sandy ball, the soil may not have enough holding power to keep the trees from blowing over even in light winds.
    – That Idiot
    Commented Oct 18, 2016 at 11:29

I'm not sure you're using the right plant either - the conditions Thuja likes are well drained, but moist (yea, I know a contradiction there), fertile, acidic soil. Quite often, sandy soil is anything but acidic, so it might be worth checking the ph before replanting.

Second, if you're going to plant with the burlap in place, you should not be able to see much of the burlap, other than possibly some of the top, above where it's tied. The amount of burlap I can see in the photo makes it look as if half the roots weren't actually buried in the ground. It's actually a lot easier to plant pot grown specimens because its easier to tell if you're planting at exactly the same level, that is, the soil you've planted in is no higher or lower up the trunk than it was in the pot, whilst still ensuring all roots are not visible. If you plant a tree with all its trunk buried, it will die - if you leave some roots exposed on the surface after planting (even in a burlap wrap) they will die. The best way to plant them is to dig over the area, incorporate humus rich material (composted, organic materials), then plant into that, rather than surrounding with soil which is bought in and totally different from what is there already.

As for the 'drowning', provided your soil is well drained (and if it's sandy, it probably is) then it wouldn't really be possible to drown them - all trees, for their first two years, need regular and plentiful supplies of water, and coniferous varieties more so.

Otherwise, I agree entirely with Kevinsky's answer.


from your image it does not look like the root balls got buried. remove the burlap and loosen the clay by soaking in water and gently (w/fingers or blunt tool) free up the roots so as to redirect them out of the root ball (they could circle and constrict themselves- rootbound) depending on where you live, plants subjected to this treatment might be damaged the same day. (when the roots are dry the plant dies)


I always remove the burlap, once buried it takes a longgggg time for it to decompose. I removed trees that had been in the ground for 8 years at my old house and the burlap was still intact and was not allowing the roots to grow. Landscapers leave it on to save time, it simply does not make sense to leave it on. if the tree is large you should cut all the twine after it's in the hole and peel back the burlap and trim it off as best you can.


Regardless of all said of any "pros of burlap. I've landscaped for over 30 years and have never kept burlap on any root ball, ever. No-where in nature would the act of burlap wrap be mimicking its natural state. wrapping and retaining root ball of any plant is against its need to secure its base by reaching out to take hold quickly while also seeking moisture & nutrients. Specific issue; Those arborvites are not large enough to even consider burlap. The plants are too young ...Their roots are no where near strong enough to penetrate any "wrap. Burlap can end up (and very likely will) do 3 detrimental things depending on its actual fabric treatment; 1. It can repel water. 2. It can keep moisture in and disallow filtering, draining, and air. 3. Stunt, retard and disfigure any plants natural root extension & pattern. Burlap should only be used during transferring, it's job is to keep the root ball most and intact, then removed at replanting, period.
(It's my strong opinion that your after planting efforts didn't kill them, the "before planting did (meaning the retained burlap killed them) ...


Never remove the burlap or a wire cage from your new plant's root ball! You run a tremendous risk of killing the plant by destroying the root ball itself or worse hurting your back while trying to do so. Do cut any strings off the trunk and fold the burlap back off the top surface of the root ball. Another piece of advice: try a pH test from a reputable nursery.

  • 4
    Yes, for a mature tree where the root ball weighs 100 pounds or more you should not remove the wire cage. But the cedars in question are small enough that the knowledge of how healthy the plant is outweighs the risk
    – kevinskio
    Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 10:43
  • Extension service here always recommends removing the burlap. They have seen time and time again the burlap entangling the tree roots, having not broken down like people supposed it would do. I don't think they make a distinction about size, though with a huge tree you may just break the burlap apart instead of remove it. Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 16:38

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.