Windbreaks

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Photo by Jan Hygnstrom, UNL Department of Agronomy & Horticulture

In the winter months you might begin to realize that your existing windbreak is not as efficient as it once was. This would be a good time to assess whether you need to replace some of these trees and start to think about planting new trees in the spring. Or maybe you just moved to a new home or are building a new home and this winter will help you assess the need for a windbreak at your new build.

A windbreak can be used for many different reasons. Obviously, the main purpose is to block wind, but it can provide many other benefits. Windbreaks can help protect a homestead from wind and snow, protect cattle from winter winds, reduce soil erosion on fields, provide food and habitat for wildlife and birds, reduce sound from busy highways to a home, and they can be planted for beautification of the landscape. The size and design of a windbreak depends on the purpose of the windbreak.

Most windbreaks should be at least two rows deep, but the number of rows depends on the purpose of the windbreak. For most acreages our windbreaks are only two rows, but they should be four to ten rows. According to the Nebraska Forest Service, a standard multiple-row windbreak should have windward rows of dense conifer trees or shrubs, interior rows of tall broadleaf trees and leeward rows of shrubs or conifers. The windward side is toward the wind, or on the outside of the windbreak and the leeward side would be on the inside of the windbreak.

Diversify the plant material in a windbreak. Many people are having to replace rows or entire windbreaks from where Pine Wilt came through and killed the scotch or Austrian pines in their windbreak. It is always best to use multiple species from multiple plant families within a windbreak so that you don’t lose the entire windbreak if something else comes in to kill a certain species of trees. Windbreaks don’t have to be made entirely out of conifers, shrubs and deciduous trees can be used in a windbreak to help increase diversity, help block wind, and increase food and habitat for wildlife. If using multiple types of plants and multiple rows, the typical windbreak should consist of a dense shrub in row one of the windward side, followed by two rows of dense conifers, two rows of tall broadleaves or conifers, and finally a dense shrub on the leeward side.

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Photo of a typical windbreak profile is from Windbreak Design NebGuide, Authors: Jon S. Wilson & Scott J. Josiah Extension Foresters with the Nebraska Forest Service.

Spacing is important to remember when planting your trees. The spacing requirements have changed quite a bit over time because many of the old windbreaks were planted too close together causing disease and shade issues to the plants. Plant your trees at least to the minimum requirements for within the row and between the rows.

  • Deciduous shrubs:4-6 feet between plants in a row and 15-20 feet between rows
  • Deciduous trees: 12-20 feet between trees in a row and 20-30 feet between rows
  • Conifer trees: 14-20 feet between trees in a row and 20-30 feet between rows

Now is a good time to begin thinking about your tree needs for your windbreak because the local NRD is selling trees from now until March 1. This is a good way to start a windbreak because you can get a large quantity of trees for a low cost. These trees will start small and are suited for Nebraska environmental conditions. They have a good selection of tree and shrub choices for your windbreak, but you do have to order in a quantity of 25. The local NRD’s vary in tree and shrub species available, but they have a good choice of many different species that will do well in Nebraska.

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