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Gary Wyatt, University of Minnesota Extension, Published January 12 2012

Windbreaks, living snow fences offer winter protection

ST. PAUL — Windbreaks and living snow fences benefit open and rural landscapes by protecting homes, farmsteads, communities and roadways from blowing and drifting snow. Winter is a great time to monitor drifting snow to identify locations for living snow fences, develop a planting design and prepare to order plants for spring.

Landowners need to determine the purpose of the windbreak, how many rows to plant, and what diverse species mix of trees and shrubs to plant. The number of rows can vary from one shrub row for a living snow fence to 10 or more rows for a wildlife or farmstead shelterbelt.

Generally, a mix of deciduous and coniferous plants is recommended and the selections depend on the purpose of the planting. Many plants can offer potential income or uses, such as edible foods, decoration, craft materials, medicines and specialty woods.

Multiple species of trees and shrubs need to be planted in windbreaks to prevent insect or disease infestations from affecting a large part of the planting. In the past, American elm trees were planted in large numbers and the Dutch elm disease nearly eliminated this tree in North America. Green ash trees were planted in high numbers and we now have the invasive species, emerald ash borer, which has killed millions of ash trees in the upper Midwest.

Windbreaks, when placed in proper locations, are one of five practices of agroforestry. Agroforestry is defined as intentionally combining trees and/or shrubs with crops and/or livestock to create sustainable land-use systems. Windbreaks serve multiple purposes and enhance rural ecosystems.

University of Minnesota Extension offers educational programs and materials for people interested in urban forestry, forestry and agroforestry. County Soil and Water Conservation District and local Natural Resource Conservation Service staff are partners with Extension in these efforts and can help landowners with plant selection, design and cost-share programs.

Windbreaks and living snow fences reduce blowing snow and drifting problems, decrease snow removal costs, reduce winter driving fatalities and accidents, benefit wildlife, enhance rural aesthetics, and protect soil and water resources.

Planting designs should be developed from January to March so plants can be ordered for spring. An Extension fact sheet, "Selecting Trees and Shrubs in Windbreaks" reviews many plants to consider and is available at www.extension.umn.edu/go/1088 (PDF). For more Extension Agroforestry resources, visit www.extension.umn.edu/agroforestry.

Gary Wyatt is an agroforestry educator with University of Minnesota Extension.