Creating Your Own Shelterbelt

For relatively little upfront costs, you can reduce your heating and cooling bills and protect your home from seasonal winds.

By Karen Keb | Illustration by Ray E. Watkins, Jr.

Click for a closer look at a shelterbelt.

Click for a closer look at a shelterbelt.

According to government experts, the most effective windbreaks for landowners wanting to protect building sites and provide good wildlife habitat require at least 10 rows of trees and shrubs, but as few as three rows will have some positive effect. In general, windbreaks should be planted with the leeward rows at least 50 feet from any structures you want to protect and rows should be placed between the area to be protected and the prevailing winds—winter winds especially.

The classic shelterbelt uses a combination of width and height (in the form of evergreens, deciduous trees and shrubs) to foil the wind, trap snow, provide wildlife shelter and trim up to 30% off your winter heating bill and/or firewood needs. Shelterbelts can also help keep your place cooler in the summer by shading mid- to late afternoon sun. While you might be tempted to plant a shelterbelt all the way around your home, bear in mind that a mild breeze can make life much more bearable in the heat of summer. Although there are about as many models for shelterbelt layout as there are home styles, the general concept is as follows:

What and Where to Plant

Beginning at least 50 feet away from buildings (and toward the source of prevailing winds), plant up to four rows of evergreen trees—you can mix and match species you have available locally but you might plant the shorter species such as Eastern Red Cedar in the first row, with taller pines and spruces filling rows 2-4. (Note the Eastern Red Cedar, if used, will need to be effectively managed so it doesn’t spread to areas where it’s unwanted.)

These evergreens are located on the inside rows of the shelterbelt (closest to the house or outbuildings) to provide a final barrier from the wind, to trap any remaining snow and to provide snug winter shelter for wildlife. Leave enough space between the rows (12-18 feet is reasonable) so that you can easily cultivate the soil between them for at least three years.

Use tall, deciduous trees for the next four rows of the shelterbelt. Plant the tallest deciduous trees in row 5 with rows 6-8 containing successively shorter species. The deciduous trees provide the lift that directs the wind up and over the buildings on the other side—and the vortexes created when some of the wind passes through the branches allows most of the remaining snow to drop out of the wind.

Finish out the shelterbelt on the windward side (rows 9 and 10) with a couple rows of woody shrubs that are spaced hedge-like in the rows at 6 feet apart or less. (Spacing for the other plants in the shelterbelt may be species specific, so check with your state nursery for more information.)

The two rows of hedges provide most of the snow trapping and prevent large heavy drifts from accumulating within and damaging your tall deciduous and evergreen rows. When you do the math, you’ll discover that the ideal shelterbelt will wind up being 120 to150 feet wide. If that space consideration doesn’t work for your homestead, always feel free to adapt this plan.

How it Works, Where to Find Help

In a nutshell, when done right the shelterbelt works like this: The outermost rows of shrub works as a snow trap—as the wind hits the shrubs and slows down, blowing snow will drop out. The wind will further slow and then be deflected upwards to as much as 20 times the height of the tallest (deciduous) trees, which creates a wind vacuum on the inside. The evergreens will then muffle sound, provide wildlife shelter and help keep your place snug during the wickedest of blizzards.

If you live in a windy, relatively tree-free area you might be able to get help with shelterbelt design and installation, or a monetary cost-share toward those ends, from your local agricultural services office. You might also check to see whether you have a state or provincial nursery that can supply you with inexpensive seedlings if you can’t supply enough of your own. Be aware, however that signing up for any government program comes with strings.

Twenty-five years ago may have been the best time to have planted your shelterbelt for use today, but today is the next best thing. Even if you start with small saplings and seedlings, you will reap significant benefit from your planting within about three years and that benefit will grow for decades to come.