Tree-mendous Savings - Windbreaks, shade zones ease seasonal extremes

Published on Fri, 04/28/2017 - 1:45pm

We’re in the easy days this time of year, weatherwise. For northerners, the furnace hasn’t come on in weeks. In the south, the AC isn’t asked to do much except in the late afternoon. Fresh air is the tune of the day.

But that also means that we should be outside, planning and planting for the future—as in windbreaks, shelter belts, and shade trees. But don’t do it because trees are lovely and add value to your property—which they do. Rather, you plant trees because you can save money.

And whether you live in the North, South, East or West, now is the best time for planting.

Why do I want a windbreak?

You and I pull on a windbreaker when it’s breezy outside to reduce the chill on our arms snd shoulders. Said another way, windbreakers reduce the “feels like” temperature. The same holds true for your home, equipment shed, or livestock barn. A strong 35 mph blast can be reduced to an under-10 mph breeze with a thick, effective windbreak.

Won’t it block my views?

The best deflection comes when the windbreak is 100 feet away from the building(s) being sheltered, the University of Illinois has determined. Others use a formula like “the optimum distance is two- to five-times the height of the mature trees” being planted, so a 30-foot high tree can be planted anywhere from 60 to 150 feet away and a row of 75-foot trees could be 150 to nearly 400 feet distant.

Will just a row of trees get the job done?

Probably not. Experts say you have to consider both tall windbreaks as well as intermediate and low-growing plantings. Tall trees—especially coniferous species—can block upper level winds, but intermediate bushes and shrubs will keep snow from accumulating near your buildings.  Plantings placed around your house, at least one foot away when mature, will also help heat from being carried away on breezes.

What are the specifics?

Generally, three rows of alternately-spaced evergreen trees are recommended. The rows should be at least 16 feet apart and the trees should be spaced about 16 feet apart on center within each row. This changes somewhat according to the species being planted—check with your local extension service for details particular to your area.

What tree species should I be looking at?

In the northern states, evergreen trees like white pine, balsam fir, Norway spruce, balsam fir and eastern hemlock work best, according to Trees Forever (, a conservation organization. Not all species may be appropriate for where you live. Again, check with your local extension service, and perhaps ask if they have someone who can come to your place to help with species selection.

Do I only plant evergreens?

The University of Minnesota extension recommends a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees, and low and intermediate bushes or shrubs. For instance, the largest and biggest trees on the outer edge might include Eastern white pine, white cedar, or white spruce. These can grow up to 100 feet tall. The second row might be a mixture of oaks, walnuts, lindens, or maples that will be somewhat shorter, perhaps 50 to 75 feet high. The inner row could have 15- to 25-five foot high plum trees, crab apples, or chokecherry trees with lilacs and American cranberry bushes on the inner row—the row closest to the buildings you are protecting should be the lowest.

So I need all three levels of plantings. Do I just plant on the north side?

You need to pay attention to the wintertime prevailing winds. For most of the northern states, that’s from the northwest. But as they say on TV, your mileage may vary. Hills, valleys, lakes, and other natural formations can alter this rule. Still unsure? Look at where the winter winds deposited the most leaves against your buildings—that’s where the wind came from.

What shape works best?

Experts say you should consider planting an L-shaped windbreak on the north and west sides of your property.

Do windbreaks provide any other benefits?

You bet! You can plant a windbreak to be a barrier from sounds, sights, and smells, the Department of Energy says. Windbreaks also can provide protection for livestock as well as a wildlife habitat. Best of all, you get an aesthetically-pleasing landscape outside your window.           

This sounds expensive. Is there any financial help available?

Maybe. If you actively farm, the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service has a cost-share program for qualifying operations in certain regions as part of the Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA) program. Your local Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever organizations, as well as state soil and water conservation programs, offer cost-share programs for windbreaks and shelter belts.  So ask around.

I life in the South where heat is the problem, not cold.

What you need, then, is a shade zone. Trees are your best friend in this case, too.

What’s different about a shade zone?

First, trees are planted closer to your house and they should be on the south and east sides, not the north and west. Second, experts recommend planting tall deciduous species (like oaks, maples, and so forth) that will yield fairly dense summertime shade, but allow light to come through in the winter months when you need the heat and light. You can still trim lower branches to give you a view.

Intriguing. What else?

It is important to plant so that trees create shade on driveways, walkways, and air conditioning units, as well as windows.

Why shade these areas?

In the course of a day, these dense items on the ground will absorb heat, making it feel hotter longer. A scorching-hot air conditioning unit just wastes energy to overcome its own heat before it can work on cooling your house, so it pays to keep the AC cool.

Do I have to plant trees?

They work the best to create shade, but some dense vines can help shade small areas from summer heat. Best of all, vines tend to grow really fast. Annuals like morning glory can be up and growing in no time, and by training them to grow on twine you can shade a walkway or AC unit easily. By erecting a pergola or other stout structure, woody perennials like climbing hydrangea, wisteria, or honeysuckle vine can be a multi-year solution until nearby trees take over shading duties.

Got it. Anything else?

The National Arbor Day Foundation ( also recommends creating some shade on the west side of your house and roof, as the sun usually strikes this side of your house during the hottest portion of the day.

I live in the woods—don’t I have all the trees I need?

Possibly, but in this case, some thinning will likely do some good, especially for the summer months. Unlike wintertime, you do want some airflow around your structures this time of year. Not only will a light breeze help carry heat away from your home, but opening up the woods surrounding it will likely carry away mosquitoes and other insects that make it difficult to enjoy outside life.