A garden is a mental break for many of us – a place where we can relax and be sheltered from the stresses of daily life. The garden itself needs shelter too – from strong winds, driving snow, salt, storms, dust, highway noise and other hazards. A sheltered garden allows plants to grow so much better and lets fruit trees and vegetable gardens thrive where they would otherwise have done badly.
In smaller gardens hedges and screens made of fast-growing trees may be sufficient to give the shelter needed, but on larger properties and in very exposed areas, a full-scale windbreak may be needed to really do the job properly. Whether you are interested in the beauty of your property, or making it more efficient for producing food for your family, planting a windbreak can be a great step forward in creating the ideal home.
What is a Windbreak?
A true windbreak is a planting of trees and often shrubs that provides a barrier to weather conditions and creates a sheltered zone behind it. A single row of trees may be effective, but in very exposed and storm-prone locations that may not be sufficient, while a true windbreak, which has graduated rows to slow the wind gradually, will be much more durable and effective. The plants used will be a mixture of evergreen and deciduous trees and hardy shrubs, arranged in rows with the tallest in the centre, so that wind in particular is slowed, causing snow to drop and be trapped rather than drifting. A windbreak will also trap dust, atmospheric pollutants and reduce noise, say from a nearby highway. Just as importantly, it forms a visual barrier to unsightly views and is itself an attractive visual feature. A developed windbreak adds to the value of a property because it makes a more attractive and worthwhile growing environment of your whole garden.
What are the Benefits of a Windbreak?
The main effect of a properly planted windbreak is to reduce wind-speed. This is turn will reduce the wind-chill and research shows that alone can reduce energy consumption by up to 40%, since a sheltered house will lose less energy into the environment. Lower wind-speeds will be reduced by 70 to 90% and even stronger winds of 30 miles per hour will be slowed to just 15 miles per hour.
Windbreaks provide food and protection for animals and birds, especially if suitable food-trees are included in the selection. Nesting sites for birds are also provided and evergreens will provide winter cover.
Dramatic reductions in highway noise will also be heard, depending on how wide the break is – obviously a wider windbreak is more effective for noise reduction, especially with high-speed traffic on freeways.
Crops can show up to 44% increase in yields when protected by windbreaks, plus an increase in quality of fruit in particular, since wind-damage will be reduced. Warmer, more sheltered conditions will make it possible to grow a greater variety of crops. Animals too grow faster, gain more weight and eat less food to do it when they live in the shelter of a windbreak.
Windbreaks act as living snow-fences and make snow drop closer to them, protecting homes and driveways and reducing the costs and work of snow-clearing.
Not to be forgotten is the impact of a windbreak on the beauty of your property, providing an attractive and seasonally-changing feature that is basically self-maintaining, growing in beauty with the passing years.
Planning your Windbreak
A number of things should be taken into account when planning your windbreak:
- Range of effect – the height of the tallest trees determines how effective a windbreak will be. The general rule is that the distance affected is about thirty times the height of the tallest trees. So a 35 foot tall windbreak will protect an area 1000 feet from the trees, but of course there will be little protection in the last few hundred feet, so on a very large property, windbreaks should be planted about every 500 feet to get good overall protection.
- Placement – plant your windbreak at right-angles to the prevailing winds. If the wind comes from different directions in different seasons you may need to plant in more than one direction.
- Length – since the wind comes around the sides of a windbreak, so to be effective it should be at least ten times the height of the trees.
- Density – the most effective windbreak is not necessarily a solid one. It is better to let the wind pass through the trees to some degree, rather than pushing it over the top. A final density of about 50% is about right, and is achieved by using the correct spacing for your trees.
- Spacing – the usual spacing within the rows of your windbreak is 6 – 12 feet for smaller trees and 8-18 feet for larger trees. The rows themselves should be 15 to 20 feet apart.
Designing your Windbreak
Differences in design are usually about the number of rows, the types of plants used and the spacing within the rows.
If your space is limited a single-row windbreak can be effective. Usually this would be an evergreen tree, spaced at six to eight feet apart, but deciduous trees can be used too. A double-row is more effective, with the trees in the two rows staggered to make a denser screen. This is the best solution for limited space.
To increase the effectiveness of your windbreak, to make it more attractive to wildlife and to increase its beauty, plant three to five rows. One row should always be of dense types of evergreens. To add other rows the first would be of deciduous trees and then you can add a row of more open evergreens, finishing with a row of shrubs on one or both sides.
A full-size windbreak
Choosing the Trees
Choose trees suitable for your climate and soil conditions, as well as thinking of how attractive they are and if they have flowers, or fruits attractive to birds. The trees in the rows can be the same species, or you can mix species – the choice is yours.
Dense evergreens always form the core of a windbreak, and suitable fast-growing trees include Juniper trees, Arborvitae trees and Spruce trees. For colder areas consider White Spruce, Norway Spruce or Colorado Blue Spruce, all of which will grow over 30 feet tall and are hardy to zone 2. In warmer areas Thuja Green Giant Arborvitae is a fast-growing, dense evergreen that can reach 40 feet and grows well from zones 5 to 9. Consider too the Leyland Cypress, which will grow four feet a year and reach as much as 60 feet in height.
For medium-sized evergreens that will thrive in dry areas Junipers Trees are an ideal choice. Whether you choose the Spartan Juniper or the Wichita Blue Juniper, these trees are tough as nails, as is the Austrian Black Pine – a hardy, reliable choice dense enough for the main row and broad enough for a secondary row too.
Suitable Deciduous Trees:
In cold areas nothing beats Maple Trees, with their magnificent fall colors. Whether you choose Sugar Maple, American Red Maple, or the vigorous Autumn Blaze Maple, these trees are sure to be a success.
Oak trees are also a great choice, and not as slow-growing as is often thought. One to seriously consider is the Sawtooth Oak, a very adaptable, fast-growing oak that produces a big crop of acorns from an early age to feed wildlife.
Don’t forget the American Sycamore too, or for really fast results Hybrid Poplar is a great choice.
Flowering trees can also be wonderful parts of a windbreak and suitable trees include the Aristocrat Pear Tree or for something different in a warm area, include some of the larger Crape Myrtles, like the Natchez Crape Myrtle or the Muskogee Crape Myrtle, both of which can quickly reach 30 feet and are very drought-resistant.
Another way to use Crape Myrtles is as shrubs for the edge rows, using smaller types such as Dynamite Crape Myrtle or Pink Velour Crape Myrtle. Both will make dense shrubs about ten feet tall and across.
Other shrubby choices could include Burning Bush “Fireball”, or Red Twig Dogwood. Both will bring lots of color and interest, as well as fruits for birds.
A windbreak takes a little planning and organizing, but the benefits to your property add up to a very worthwhile package that will bring beauty and usefulness and make it so much easier for you to grow an orchard, berry gardens, vegetable gardens or a wide range of flowering plants in a wonderful protected environment.