The best plants to use for windbreaks
Whenever I think of a windbreak I think about a line of poplars stretching out across a flat European landscape. Lombardy poplars in elegant lines across the fields of France. Windswept trees around the bulb fields of Holland. When I worked in Germany I loved the silver maples, Acer saccharinum, which were planted as windbreaks around fields of conifers and trees.
Their silver packed leaves fluttered and flashed in the wind, never still and never silent. In these situations the flat landscape offers no resistant to the prevailing wind which can do damage to commercial crops. Lines of trees filter the wind and reduce its force, transforming a gale into a harmless breeze.
That’s the function of any tree or shrub planted as a windbreak. It’s there to give shelter from both the physical effect of the wind and also its chill factor which reduces the temperature. Plant a windbreak and you create a microclimate behind it, enabling you to grow plants which cannot cope with such exposure. A windbreak can prevent wind rock, in other words the disturbance of trees and shrubs in the ground.
It reduces the drying effect of wind. It can prevent damage to large leaves, especially evergreen foliage in winter. It has the additional advantage of providing shelter for wildlife, especially pollinating insects and all the benefits they bring to a garden. Of course it also reduces the chill factor for buildings, especially greenhouses, and those using the garden.
Here are ten of the best plants to grow as windbreaks:
Elaeagnus x ebbingei Evergreens are not necessarily the best choice to use. Some provide a barrier that is too solid which can cause wind turbulence and they may suffer from the full force of a strong prevailing wind. Elaeagnus x ebbingei works well grown as a large sprawling shrub if space permits, or as a trimmed hedge as low as 1.5 metres (5ft). Dark green leaves with silvery backs on flexible stems and the benefit of small, fragrant flowers in autumn. Great for exposed coastal situations.
Crateagus monogyna The Hawthorn is one of the toughest and most tolerant shrubs which will also make a small tree. Dense, twiggy, a bit thorny with bright green new leaves and dense summer foliage that will colour in autumn if the leaves don’t get blown off. Can be grown naturally or trimmed as a hedge as low as 1.2 metres (4ft). Grow on its own or as part of a mix. Clusters of white flowers in spring and red fruits in autumn: great for wildlife. Ideal for country settings and tolerant of salty coastal winds.
Alnus cordata The Italian alder is an altogether bigger windbreak subject, growing into a large, conical tree with bright green, shiny leaves. It grows fairly quickly on just about any soil including shallow chalk soils, so it is very tolerant of dry, inhospitable conditions. Ideal to add height to a windbreak; underplant with hawthorn or elaeagnus if you need an evergreen option.
Hippophae rhamnoides The sea buckthorn is a thorny, bony subject with straight dark twigs and wonderful silver willow-like leaves growing up to 3 metres (10ft) as a windbreak. Female plants produce orange-yellow berries in winter which the birds leave alone. It is supposed to grow on any soil but is particularly good in coastal situations. I have found it sensitive to herbicides so beware if you are using them. An attractive contrast to darker subjects; good with pines.
Tilia cordata The small leaved lime will grow to form a large, rounded conical tree well-known for its ivory coloured sweetly scented flowers in summer. However it is increasingly grown as a dense bushy screen which makes a very effective windbreak in urban landscapes. A good alternative to hornbeam or beech and very tough and tolerant. Lovely when the new leaves unfurl in spring.
Rosa rugosa a native of seashores of Japan, this rose is good in windy and coastal situations. Upright spiny stems carry apple-green pleated leaves, single or semi-double scented flowers which are followed by large tomato-like hips. Best allowed to grow naturally although I have seen it trimmed successfully, albeit at the expense of the flowers. A great wildlife subject, the flowers are a wonderful nectar source and birds peck at the fruits. Good low windbreak up to 1.5 metres (5ft)
Tamarix ramosissima A familiar sight on the coast in Mediterranean regions tamarisk can be one of the most unruly shrubs with flexible arching stems and feathery soft green foliage. Flowering in early summer it can be a cloud of fluffy pink blossom. It works well as a light windbreak if allowed to grow naturally. However it is also extremely successful if trimmed with a hedge trimmer after flowering to create a cloud hedge effect up to 1.5 metres (5ft) or a little more. At its best on well-drained soil. A natural choice for mild, costal gardens.
Populus alba The white polar is one of the untidiest trees, suffering from dieback and rarely making a tidy specimen. However it is a great windbreak where a tree is needed in an exposed situation. Great in coastal gardens and a great lightener with its silver-white backed leaves. Particularly effective when planted with pines or dark green Thuja plicata. Thuja on its own creates a wall; add white poplar and the windbreak breathes more easily.
Ulex europaeus Some will shudder at the thought of planting gorse which seeds so readily and can become invasive. However it is a survivor; hence its success on motorway embankments and its ability to regenerate after fire. Spiny, dense, bushy and rarely without its bright yellow fragrant flowers it is a great wildlife shelter and will thrive on any soil, however poor. Good for rural situations and excellent by the sea.
Pinus nigra Usually when taller trees are used windbreaks are referred to as shelter belts; same thing, different height. With their leaves reduced to needles pines cope with the desiccating effect of the strongest winds. Many are extremely hardy and can be grown in the coldest areas. Pinus nigra, the Austrian pine is one of the most widely grown and planted. It is effective as a windbreak from an early age when the branches grow right down to ground level. Good by the coast and more tolerant of chalk than most pines; the majority are better on neutral to acid soils.