How To Use Trees For A Windbreak On The Farm

Using trees to create a windbreak has numerous advantages on the farm, but it's important to follow some guidelines when you start planting.

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: J. Keeler Johnson

On my farm in northern Wisconsin, multiple rows of windbreak trees guard the farm buildings from the cold, harsh winds that blow in each winter. Red pines, Scotch pines and Norway spruce weave together in tightly knit lines along the western and northern sides of the barnyard.

Counting growth rings on occasional fallen specimens indicates the oldest trees were planted in the 1940s. I can testify to the effective job they perform.

On snowy winter days, bitter winds sweep across the fields, buffeting anything out in the open. Try to cross open land in these conditions, and you may want to turn back.

Yet in the lee of the windbreaks, the conditions are tolerable—almost calm, in fact. And creating more comfortable conditions in the barnyard is just one advantage offered by a well-designed planting of windbreak trees.

If your farm is located in lowland regions already protected from the wind, or near large bodies of water that moderate seasonal temperature swings, then dense windbreak plantings might not be necessary. You may only need thin, open windbreaks to protect cultivated plants and control erosion and snow deposits in fields.

However, if you live in a windy upland region—where annual snowfall is heavy and strong gusts of wind regularly pummel your farm—a series of well-planned windbreaks can cut down on expenses, add some aesthetic beauty to your land and protect everything from soil to buildings.

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Break Benefits

When properly designed, windbreaks can dramatically alter the climate of your farmland and provide a bevy of benefits as a result. With the right design, windbreaks can do the following.

Reduce Heating and Cooling Costs

If you can protect your buildings from cold winter winds, your heating system won’t have to work as hard to maintain an optimum temperature.

Likewise, in regions where summer winds blow hot and dry across your farm, windbreaks can minimize cooling expenses.

Protect Gardens and Orchards

Steady winds speed up water evaporation from the soil and increase leaf transpiration. So windbreaks can help save water and reduce stress on vegetation.

Plants ranging from tomatoes to apple trees will grow faster and straighter when they’re not struggling to hold their own against ever-present winds. Plus, blossoms gain protection and pollinators are more active when the wind is diminished. This increases crop yields.

Read more: Ready to plant some fruit and/or nut orchards? Here’s how to get started.

Improve Snow and Erosion Control

In the winter, heavy winds can quickly eliminate paths cleared through the snow. In the summer, the wind can blow topsoil off your fields, or spread sand in sandy locations.

Windbreaks can help control these issues.

Distribute Snow Across Fields

Field windbreaks, which aren’t as dense as those designed to protect buildings and livestock, can help distribute snow evenly across fields for uniform melting in the spring.

trees windbreak
J. Keeler Johnson

Block Sounds and Odors

Wind isn’t the only thing windbreaks stop. They also block sounds and can cut down on noise from traffic or neighboring properties.

Odors are similarly diminished. So with luck you can block the smell of the manure pile on the back 40 from drifting up to your house.

Shelter Livestock

If you’re unhappy with biting winter winds, you can bet your animals aren’t thrilled either.

Livestock will appreciate the shelter provided by a thick, effective windbreak. They may even require less feed to stay warm.

Provide Privacy

Windbreaks planted along roads or property borders create a visual barrier, enhancing privacy.

Attract Wildlife

Birds often nest in windbreaks and are attracted to fruiting shrubs. In addition to being fun for birdwatching, they consume insects and can help control pest populations.

Birds of prey, including hawks and eagles, will perch in tall trees and keep rodent populations in check.

trees windbreak
Daniel Johnson

Add Beauty to Your Farm

A carefully-planned windbreak is stately in appearance, with uniform trees planted in straight rows.

Smaller shrubs growing on the windward side of the windbreak, such as lilacs or dogwoods, further enhance the appearance with their blossoms and foliage.

Planting Pointers

In the U.S., prevailing winds generally blow from the west and northwest. So it’s advisable to plant windbreaks along the western and northern sides of the area you aim to protect.

Provide breathing room between the windbreaks and the protected area, in part because snow tends to accumulate in the immediate shelter of the windbreaks. A gap of 50 feet is the minimum you should consider. If you have sufficient space, 100 feet is often preferable.

Another reason to plant windbreaks away from important farm features is the fact that trees occasionally fall in the line of duty, ironically broken by the wind they’re supposed to break. You don’t want windbreak trees to become hazards in their own right, threatening your buildings or livestock on stormy days.

trees windbreak
Daniel Johnson

Windbreak rows should also extend a minimum of 50 feet beyond the area you aim to protect. In other words, if you’re protecting an orchard that’s 200 feet long on the western side, don’t plant a 200-foot windbreak and expect it to suffice.

Instead, plant a windbreak at least 300 feet long, extending 50 feet farther north and 50 feet farther south to provide thorough protection.

Tree Tips

As a general rule, coniferous trees—spruce, cedars, pines, etc.—are preferred for windbreaks more than deciduous trees such as sugar maples or oaks.

Most coniferous trees retain their needles all year long. They block wind better than deciduous trees that spend winters bare of leaves.

Coniferous trees also tend to grow rapidly. They will create a formidable wind-breaking barrier sooner than some of the slow-growing deciduous trees such as sugar maples or white oaks.

Exceptions arise when planting dense windbreaks featuring six to eight rows of trees, suitable for blocking snow and sheltering buildings and livestock. In these instances, you can plant long-lived deciduous hardwoods in the middle rows to extend the longevity and effectiveness of the windbreak.

Deciduous trees can also be suitable for single- or double-rowed field windbreaks aimed at dispensing snow evenly across fields.

Read more: You need these 10 tools when planting trees.

Best Windbreak Trees

The best windbreak trees are ones that grow in narrow, conical fashion. The small footprint occupied by each individual tree will allow you to plant them close together without shading (and sacrificing) the lower branches.

Narrow trees growing conically with short branches are also better at shedding snow. They are also less likely to suffer damage from winter storms or extremely windy weather.

Local conditions will have an impact on the trees you choose. Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone to determine the average minimum temperature in your area, and ensure that any trees you purchase are rated to survive your typical winter climate.

Choosing trees rated to survive one zone colder than yours will give you a cushion. And sourcing from local nurseries will help you find trees adapted to your locality.

Also factor in soil conditions. Sandy soils will support different trees than clay soils. And the soil pH level (whether acid or alkaline) can favor certain species over others.

Soil tests can tell you what conditions you have. Nurseries can tell you which trees you need.

For guidelines to some of the most widespread and popular choices of suitable windbreak trees, see “Choosing Conifers” and “Deciduous Decisions” below.

Space Suggestions

It often seems as though you need algebraic formulas to determine the spacing between individual windbreak trees. Your goals for the windbreak and the species of trees you’re planting will affect the ideal spacing.

Still, a couple of key touchstones will help you start. For all except very open field windbreaks, consider a single row of trees insufficient. Otherwise, two to three rows is considered the minimum. You can plant six to eight rows to provide a formidable and long-lived barrier against cold winds and snow.

Rows should be staggered so the trees are planted in a checkerboard pattern, with trees in odd-numbered rows planted halfway between trees in even-numbered rows. This maximizes the available space while weaving a tighter windbreak.

Plant a variety of species, as this will also encourage a tighter windbreak and lessen the impact should disease or pests strike one particular species.

If planting three or more rows, plant the windward row with smaller trees or shrubs such as dogwoods and lilacs (which grow thick with multiple stems) or plums and cherries (which produce fruit).

This shorter windward row can be set back as much as 50 feet from the inner rows to create a “snow trap.” This will reduce the amount of snow that reaches the rest of the windbreak.

Plant the inner rows with taller trees, emphasizing dense conifers if the goal is to control cold wind and snow. You can, however, utilize a mixture of conifers and tall deciduous trees when planting three or more rows.

Read more: Check out these 5 tips for dealing with tree debris.

Tight Plantings

As a general guideline for tight plantings, members of the Thuja family (green giant, northern white cedar, etc.) require the least space and can grow 8 to 12 feet apart.

Plant larger conifers (white pine, Norway spruce, etc.) 15 to 25 feet apart. Because the lower branches of many conifers (white pines and red pines, for example) will die off if shaded too much, providing sufficient room for each tree to grow will help prolong the lives of the lowest branches. This increases the effectiveness of the windbreak.

The space between rows should be just as wide or wider than the spacing between the trees in each row. Aim for 15 to 20 feet
between rows of medium-sized trees. Expand to 25 feet for particularly large specimens and diminish to about 10 feet separating windward shrubs from interior rows (unless incorporating a snow trap).

To gain quicker results from your windbreak, plant trees closer together when young and thin as they grow older and start to crowd each other.

Planting windbreaks requires careful planning. And you won’t see immediate rewards since windbreaks need time to mature.

But your initial investment of time and effort will be eventually be repaid multifold, sheltering your farm from harsh winds for decades to come.

Sidebar: Deciduous Decisions

Deciduous plantings should mimic a small forest.

Black walnut (Juglans nigra)

Prized for the quality of its lumber, this tall hardwood also produces edible nuts.

Cottonwood (Populus sect. aigeiros)

Trees in the cottonwood family include the eastern cottonwood (Populous deltoides) and Fremont cottonwood (Populous fremontii). These tall and very fast-growing trees are widespread throughout the U.S.

Red maple (Acer rubrum)

Popular soft maple handles a wide variety of conditions, grows to lofty heights and pleases eyes with its bright-red autumn foliage.

Oak (Quercus)

The extensive oak family contains hundreds of varieties, including the white oak (Quercus alba) and the northern red oak (Quercus rubra). As a general rule, members of the red oak family grow faster than those belonging to the white oak group. Some oaks in both categories are evergreens that retain their leaves year round.

Silver maple (Acer saccharinum)

Another fast-growing soft maple, the silver maple performs well in wet locations but has delicate branches prone to damage from wind, snow and ice.

Sidebar: Choosing Conifers

Conifer plantings don’t need to be as dense as deciduous tree plantings for the same effectiveness. Here are some acceptable conifers, depending on the situation and region you live in.

Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens)

This western tree is widely planted for its ornamental beauty. It grows in a conical shape and is very cold-hardy. However, it’s also susceptible to pests and diseases.

Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

This very tall tree can exceed 300 feet growing wild on the Pacific Coast. Both Douglas fir and its smaller and hardier relative, the Rocky Mountain Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii, var. glauca), make good Christmas trees in addition to serving as suitable windbreak specimens.

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

This tree is tolerant of poor soils and a very narrow-growing conical tree, but it’s also an alternate host of cedar-apple rust, so it shouldn’t be planted near orchards.

Green Giant (Thuja standishii/Thuja plicata hybrid)

A fast-growing tree, it increases its height by 3 feet per year and is popular for hedges and windbreaks. It isn’t hardy beyond Zone 5, but is a good choice for warmer climates.

Red pine (Pinus resinosa)

Also known as the Norway pine, red pines can exceed 100 feet at maturity and develop a high, open crown without many lower branches.

Northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis)

This narrow and conical tree goes by a variety of names, including arborvitae. It generally grows small and dense.

Norway spruce (Picea abies)

A quick-growing European import, this spruce grows as much as 3 feet per year and can top 100 feet at maturity. With a shape that sheds snow and ice, the Norway spruce can often endure winter storms without damage.

White pine (Pinus strobus)

This pine grows similar to the red pine, reaching lofty heights with an open crown, though younger specimens are more conical in shape. Delicate branches are prone to breaking when weighed down by snow or ice.

White spruce (Picea glauca)

A hardy tree growing about 60 feet tall while maintaining a very narrow form at maturity, this spruce prefers cooler temperatures than many conifers. It’s excellent for windbreaks within its preferred range.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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