Plant a Living Windbreak for Your Garden

Installing a living windbreak can lead to big improvements in garden yields and harvest quantities. Plus, research briefs on tree-killing mosses, praying mantises, ionized air and plant growth, increasing grapevine productivity by mulching with silver film, and millennium-old worn-out soil.

| May/June 1989

Shelter from the wind can lead to big improvements in garden yields and quality. And not just for row crops in the Great Plains—your own backyard plot can benefit from properly designed windbreaks. Some crops that produce better when out of the breeze include strawberries (earlier ripening and higher yields), raspberries (higher yields due to production of more canes), watermelons (improved fruit quality because of less wind whipping, sand abrasion and leaf drying), tomatoes (increased early yield due—apparently—to higher temperatures), potatoes (earlier maturing), snap beans and okra.

For a backyard garden, the most important effect of a good windbreak is an enhanced microclimate, with increased humidity and temperature. Here are some design guidelines from experts at the first International Symposium on Windbreak Technology:

1. Living windbreaks (trees, shrubs or both) are inexpensive to plant and maintain but don't give full protection for at least a few years. Constructed windbreaks offer "instant" protection—but at a higher price.

2. Orient windbreaks at right angles to the prevailing wind direction(s) or as close to that as possible. Plantings along west and north property lines are common (but beware of blocking cool summer breezes). Avoid plantings on the south side—you don't want to shade the garden. A windbreak should be at least as long as the garden it's protecting. And don't put a windbreak on the top of a ridge; it may increase leeward turbulence. Put it a little downhill on the windward slope.

3. Protection distance is proportional to windbreak height. Typically, crop yields and quality are most improved at distances between three and six times the barrier's height. However, crops close to a living windbreak (less than its height away) are likely to have reduced yields, due to competition for water, nutrients and light.

4. Moderately dense (50% to 80%) windbreaks work best. (Low-density ones don't slow the wind enough; high-density ones create excess leeward turbulence.) Single-row living windbreaks are adequate but are susceptible to gapping when individual plants die. Consult your local Soil Conservation Service for specific species suggestions (columnar-form trees generally work well). Recommended spacings range from five to eight feet for shrubs and small trees and from six to 21 feet for larger trees, with the narrower spacings more appropriate for single-row plantings and the wider spacings for multi-row barriers.

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