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Selecting trees and shrubs for windbreaks

Quick facts

Windbreaks are plantings of single or multiple rows of trees or shrubs that are planted for: 

  • Wind protection.
  • Controlling blowing and drifting snow.
  • Wildlife habitat.
  • Energy saving.
  • Living screens.
  • Reducing livestock odor.

The effectiveness of a windbreak depends on choosing the right trees and shrubs and planting them at the right density and spacing. 

Choosing the best trees and shrubs for your situation is extremely important to ensure an effective, long lasting windbreak.

  • Plants need to be winter hardy and should have a good history of being suitable for the site and soils.
  • Select multiple species of trees and shrubs so, if there is a failure in a row, the windbreak is still effective.
  • A mix of deciduous and coniferous plants is best and should be selected based on the purpose of the planting.
  • Use native plants whenever possible.

Density

How dense the planting and the number of rows depends on the purpose of the windbreak.

For protecting crops and soil and distributing snow: 

  • Plant at 25 to 50 percent density.
  • Plant one row deciduous shrubs and two rows deciduous trees and shrubs.

For protecting against blowing and drifting snow:

  • Plant at 50 to 65 percent density.
  • Plant twin rows of deciduous shrubs then:
    • 1st row, evergreen trees.
    • 2nd row, evergreen trees and deciduous trees.
    • 3rd row, a combination of deciduous trees and shrubs.

To reduce energy costs, livestock odors and noise, or provide wildlife habitat:

  • Plant at 65 percent or more density.
  • Plant twin rows of evergreen trees then three or more rows in a combination of evergreen trees and deciduous trees and shrubs.

See Recommended trees for Minnesota for information about trees that do well throughout the state.

Plant spacing

Tree and shrub plant spacing affects active growth. Trees planted too close together may be stunted due to crowding, while too far apart from each other may cause gaps that reduce the effectiveness of the windbreak.

Check spacing recommendations for the specific species you want to plant.

Financial help

Cost sharing and annual land payments for land planted to trees as windbreaks, wildlife plantings, shelterbelts and living snow fences may be available.

The USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) continuous sign-up offers cost-share, annual payments and incentive payments. Contact your county Farm Service Agency (FSA) office for more details.

Local sources of funding include Soil and Water Conservation Districts, watershed and conservation organizations.

Check with area or county Soil and Water Conservation Districts, National Resources Conservation Service, Department of Natural Resources and Extension staff to get a recommended list of plants suitable for your area.

Gary Wyatt, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2019

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