There’s been a lot more green in the Hamptons stretch of Long Island in recent years, and it’s not just the incoming wealth tide. Hybrid arborvitae trees of the Thuja standishii x plicata cultivar, or Green Giants, have become the default landscaping choice for lot perimeters as the area’s trophy homes get bigger and closer togther.
A senior manager at Marders, a high-end nursery and garden shop in Bridgehampton, dates the upsurge to 15 years back and says Green Giants now account for 90% of his screening-tree plantings. Prices for the bigger ones, say already 10 feet or so, have doubled in five years.
The reasons are mostly human, with a deer clause. The traditional Hamptons screen has been the privet hedge, and you still find some towering gems in the villages of Southampton and East Hampton. But these are tricky to grow and maintain; they thin out in the winter months especially. For today’s work-from-home East Enders, a 12-month block on the subculture next door has become more vital. Green Giants are sturdy, fast-growing and pest-resistant.
These trees also are unlikely feeding ground for the white-tailed deer that now overpopulate Long Island even more than the Richie Riches do. A Northeastern native species of arborvitae, the Thuja occidentalis or Emerald, used to be favored but now is more of an indoor choice (for big indoors!) where the Odocoileus virginianus can’t show up hungry.
(Indigenous landscaping matters legally in much of the Hamptons, where town regulations forbid overclearing of formerly wooded parcels. Green Giants do not qualify as revegetation—they are considered simply ornamental. The same is true for another popular fast-grower, the Leyland cypress, but they have proven not so hardy against the elements in any case.)
An incipient monoculture of decorative barriers may be cliché, but is it more ominous than that? I queried specialists at Cornell’s Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. They weren’t yet alarmed over prospects for a pest wipeout (the leaf miner is a low-grade concern) or invasive spread, as Green Giants don’t seed easily or do well in compacted soil.
That said, we tempt fate when we skew the landscape. Says Mina Vescera of the Cornell unit, “It’s unfortunate deer pressure greatly reduces selection for privacy screening in our area. More folks are starting to install fencing that exclude deer, but this effect is not beneficial for habitat.” Not so great for the neighbors and their shrubs, either.
The greatest risk may be to the growers who overplant for today and not tomorrow. Matthew H. Gettinger, president of the Long Island Natives division of Country Garden Nursery, writes, “I can tell you as with all farming initiatives, and as a farmer, there will be a glut of Green Giants at some point since most nurseries have increased proportions of these trees to the point where supply will soon exceed demand and prices will fall.”
For now, just like the McMansions that they frequently surround, the Green Giants have come to reflect a popular monoculture, of abundance and sameness. As of 2021, is as important to keep up with the Super-Joneses as it is not to see them.