From the Ground Up: Plant a windbreak the right way

planting wind break

Iowa is well known for its wind. Electric utilities are even building wind farms to capture it for electricity.

But what if you want to block the wind from your yard, garden or field?

Linn County Master Gardener Lori Klopfenstein gives you some tips to make it last.

Q :How do I plant a windbreak?
A : Are you interested in establishing, fortifying or repairing a wind break on your property? To ensure its greatest potential for long term hardiness, here are some facts.

First, the size of your property and the primary purpose of the wind break are critical variables. Many of us, especially in cities, refer to row-form tree and shrub plantings as wind breaks when what we really mean is privacy screen.

This is fine because even a single, dense row of arborvitae provides some degree of protection from wind and snow drift in town. Protecting buildings and tender landscapes in rural areas, however, is a more significant undertaking.

ISU guidelines for farmstead windbreaks are now being revised, but according to Jesse Randall, ISU Extension forester, best practice is to plant at least five consecutive rows of single species trees or shrubs (rather than mixing varieties within a single row). Your innermost row should be 50 feet from any building, and he recommends a moderately sized conifer such as white cedar.

The next row should be a larger conifer, such as spruce, pine, fir or larch.

When selecting conifers, keep in mind a few simple facts: the bluer the needles on a spruce, the more susceptible it is to disease; larch is also deciduous and will lose needles in the fall; Scotch pine is particularly susceptible to pine wilt; and five-needled pines seem to have the fewest diseases.

Row three should be a hardwood (deciduous) tree. There are innumerable options here, but the best are maple, oak, linden, elm, honey locust or Kentucky coffee tree. If you have the rare Eastern Iowa property not deer-ridden, consider shagbark hickory. It's a beautiful, straight, fast grower that also provides food for humans and wildlife. No more susceptible to deer damage than other hardwoods, it's just difficult to find nursery stock bigger than a 36inch twig because it puts down such a dramatic tap root. The outermost two rows should be shrubs.

Shrubs provide the most immediate gratification because they tend to grow faster and exhibit mature behaviors (such as fruiting and flowering) in a few years. Lilacs are a dependable and popular choice. You may also want to consider a fruiting shrub, like highbush cranberry, wild plum, or aronia bush, which produces a berry considered the newest super fruit (also called acai).

Tree rows should be 25 feet apart, shrub rows 15 feet. If planting a row of shrubs next to one of co­nifers, also leave 25 feet.

These guidelines may be adjusted according to the size of your property by using a formula outlined in ISU publication Pm-1716 (available at

Are you one of the aforementioned urban dwellers who lost mature arborvitae in the middle of a like row due to the drought? Your best option for repair is to contact a professional landscaping service who may be able to remove and replace it without jeopardizing the surrounding trees. Get more than one opinion, however, because even with professional assistance, this may not be possible. 


The Linn County Master Gardener Garden Walk will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 22.
Explore five diverse Linn County Master Gardener gardens that will inspire you with ideas you can apply to your own garden or landscape or simply provide you the opportunity to tour beautiful private gardens.
Gardens will include ornamental grasses, conifers, vegetables, perennials, containers, raised beds, prairie, water features and more.
Admission is $5 per adult or $10 per family.
Start at any of the gardens on the walk: 

• McWherter Garden, 
1610 Timberland Dr. NW, Cedar Rapids.
The McWherter shade/ woodland garden is an artistic presentation of plants that include more than 1,000 varieties of hostas along with peren­nials and tropicals. 

• Granger House Museum Garden, 970 10th St., Marion. The Granger House Museum gardens consist of three beds featuring a mixture of vegetables, perennials and annuals commonly planted by 19th century households. 

• Stewart Farm Gar­den, 298 Martelle Rd., Martelle. The Stewart's farm garden began as an English cottage garden, reflecting the six years they lived in Britain. The surrounding acres now include a shade garden for bird watching, a floral cutting garden, a 3/4-acre restored Iowa prairie, a vegetable garden that includes four raised beds, and areas for production of fruits and vegetables preserved for year-round family use. 

• Dvorak Garden, 206 Candlestick Dr., Mount Vernon. The Dvorak gardens include an eclectic mix of old and new, perennials and annuals, sun and shade, many of which have been selected to attract birds and butterflies. There also are a traditional vegetable garden, herbs, grapes and berries. 

• McKinstry Garden, 
408 B Ave. NE, Mount Vernon. A lovingly tended garden will welcome you at the McKinstry home. Peace and tranquillity prevail as you follow pathways through the garden rooms created in the perimeter of a city lot. The garden incorporates an interesting assortment of perennials, shrubs and trees. Color and texture balance the garden's beauty throughout the seasons. 

Questions on gardening, land use or local foods? Contact Michelle Kenyon Brown, community ag programs manager at Linn County Extension,

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