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Living snow fences

Quick facts

  • Living snow fences can increase driver visibility, reduce road maintenance costs and create wildlife habitat.
  • Plants in a living snow fence need to be winter hardy and should be suitable for the climate, site and soils.
  • Financial assistance programs are available for interested landowners.
  • Shrub willows are efficient and cost effective plants for living snow fences.

Living snow fences (LSF) are plants such as trees, shrubs and native grasses, planted to manage blowing and drifting snow and protect roadways, farmsteads, livestock facilities and communities. These fences form a wind barrier that slows the wind, causing the snow to drop in and downwind of the planting, protecting the road or property downwind. 

Living snow fences offer multiple benefits:

  • Travel time savings and driver visibility.
  • Reduced accidents.
  • Reduced annual maintenance.
  • Snow and dust containment.
  • Wildlife and pollinator food and habitat. 
  • Managing soil moisture in crop fields.

Road safety

Blowing and drifting snow on roadways is a major transportation safety and mobility concern. It can cause accidents and require expensive winter roadway maintenance. These issues can be especially problematic near farmlands, where snow can drift onto roadways from harvested fields. 

To address these problems, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) operates a program that pays landowners in identified problem areas to plant living snow fences of trees and shrubs to reduce the volume of snow blowing or drifting onto roadways. Standing corn rows can also act as a windbreak. 

MnDOT traffic safety data suggest that using LSFs can reduce snow and ice-related accidents. A MnDOT traffic safety study found LSFs that protect curves in roadways can reduce crash severity by 40 percent.

Design

  • Select plants that can grow to a mature height of 6 to 12 feet tall. 
  • Plant multiple rows (typically 2 rows is sufficient) to achieve 25 to 50% vegetation porosity.
  • Extend planting length of the LSF 30 degrees further out from both ends of the planting beyond the area to be protected.
    • This helps reduce snow drifting problems at the ends of the LSF.
  • Use a proper setback distance based on the Snow Control Design Tool.
    • A setback range of 75 to 250 feet from the highway right of way is common.

Planting and maintenance

  • Proper soil preparation is important if planting by hand or with a tree planter.
    • Control competing vegetation in the fall before planting.
  • Control weeds the first 3–5 years after planting.
    • Consider a fabric weed barrier or mulch for weed control and water conservation.
  • Water plants regularly the first 3 years (2–5 gallons per plant every 2–3 weeks if dry).
  • Protect plants from deer and rabbit damage by using plant tubes, guards or fencing if needed.
  • Monitor the site every other month in the summer for weeds, plant health, insects or disease.
  • Check LSF sites after storms for broken limbs and severely damaged trees.
  • Prune trees or shrubs for long-term growth, form and health.
  • Replace dead plants.

Tree and shrub selection

Proper plant selection for a living snow fence is extremely important to ensure an effective, long-lasting planting. Plants need to be winter hardy and should be suitable for the climate, site and soils. If multiple rows are planted, each row should be a different species.

Many plants can offer potential income or food benefits such as energy biomass, edible berries and nuts, decorative florals and materials, craft and medicinal products, and specialty woods. Consider using native plants when possible. 

See Selecting trees and shrubs for windbreaks for more information on suitable trees for your living snow fence.

Planting shrub willows for living snow fences

Shrub willows can provide multiple benefits for humans and the environment. They can be cut and used for bioenergy, decorative florals (pussy willow, etc.) or multiple products. 

A UMN research project planted willows in 2013 on the MnDOT right of way bordering the north side of U.S. Hwy. 14 south of Waseca. Read about how the willows were harvested and used to create art at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

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Financial help

Cost sharing and annual land rental payments for planting and maintaining living snow fences are available. 

The USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) offers cost-share, annual and incentive payments. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) may also offer LSF funds. Contact your county Farm Service Agency (FSA) office for more details. 

If the living snow fence will be protecting a designated MnDOT snow problem highway, state MnDOT funds may be available in addition to CRP and EQIP payments. There are also MnDOT funds available for leaving standing corn rows next to designated highways. View the MnDOT website or contact your district office for more information. 

Cities and counties may also have LSF programs. Contact your County Highway engineer for details.

Gary Wyatt, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2019

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