Plant for Protection: Designing Natural Windbreaks

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Mother Nature provides us with so many benefits. She feeds us, she gives us water and fresh air, and she protects us too. Unfortunately, she can also be a powerful and destructive force as we have seen with recent hurricanes in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and the Southeastern United States. But this does not mean that we must suffer the full brunt of nature’s wrath.  If we follow her simple landscaping guidelines we can add additional protection to our home landscapes, lowering the risk of damage to our properties and destruction to our coastal cities.

I’m grateful for making it safely through Hurricane Irma. I give most of that credit to the biodiversity of the foliage and the windbreaks surrounding the area I live in.  It was in the aftermath of all the devastation that I realized that coastal communities may not be taking full advantage of nature’s landscaping guidelines and benefits.

Nature plants in biodiverse layers. This creates water and air filtration, helps control snow drifts, provides food and shelter for wildlife, reduces soil erosion, cools the environment and saves energy, and it creates wind protection.

Example of the layers in a natural windbreak at Savannas Preserve State Park.
Photo by Stephanie Montalvo

Our homes protect us from harsh weather conditions. The trend has been for developers to strip down the landscaping nature created and replace it with individual free-standing trees, minimal hedges, and sometimes if we are lucky, some low-lying ground covers. By doing this we leave ourselves open to severe damage from the sun, water, and winds.

A house standing alone with one large shade tree in the yard cannot withstand the powerful winds of a hurricane like a house surrounded with a biodiverse windbreak. 

A windbreak can help slow the winds down before they approach your home, they can capture flying debris. If planted lower than your home, they can also capture water and give the rains a place to drain.

The protective power of a windbreak all depends on the selection of the plant layers chosen, as well as the density. Plant selection is a vital step in determining the strength of your windbreak. You want to choose plants with deep taproot systems that are flexible and perform well in your area.

Impact of a multiple-row windbreak on the movement of wind. As wind moves from the shorter outer row to taller inner row, the wind is deflected upwards.

Photo by Bijay Tamang/University of Florida

Your first step is to determine the type of windbreak you would like and what your end goal or purpose for that windbreak would be. The more you plan the better your chance of creating an effective protective layer for your home.

Plant your windbreak 40 to 100 feet away from your house so the root systems do not interfere with your foundation or plumbing.

The second step is deciding how dense you would like your windbreak. Plant wind-resistant trees with solid central leaders as your tallest layer, or upper canopy. Then, smaller wind-resistant trees in your lower canopy layer. Your next layer is your shrub layer. Choose dense shrubs that don’t require a lot of maintenance or trimming.

Always research the maximum full height and width each plant species will naturally grow to, and allow them to grow to that size, making sure to plant them in the right layer. Taller trees in the back, shorter trees next, then shrubs, and if you are looking for that extra layer of protection, ground covers.

Planting for the maximum height and width of each species relives you of additional labor and allows your windbreak to grow as it would in nature. If possible choose younger plants and let their roots develop into strong, deep systems naturally. Transplanting larger trees does not create as strong a windbreak.

This doesn’t mean you need to have a wild forest surrounding your home. By following the natural size and growth patterns of the species chosen you can create a gorgeous protective wind barrier that your neighbors will envy.

Now the fun part! This is where your creativity comes into play. I suggest that you always start by choosing foliage native to your area. Take some time to research their shapes, leaf colors, brittleness, growth speed, abscission, full height, and width. Your local Master Gardeners are a fantastic resource for this information.

With a well-designed windbreak, you will have additional protection from inclement weather. The bonus is during good weather you can bask in the privacy and beauty Mother Nature will bring to your yard.

For inspiration take a walk in nature and see how Mama does it. You know what they say “Mama knows best.” Stay safe and I look forward to hearing about your windbreak creations.

Stephanie Montalvo is a Master Gardener and Master Naturalist in Broward County Florida. Learn more about Stephanie and her efforts to educate the public about humane, ethical animal and environmental care through Brighter Future Foundation.

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