Planting for windy sites
December 26, 2017
You may be one of the lucky ones in Northern Nevada with a yard or garden protected from the wind, but most gardeners battle regularly with gusts and gales. Winds challenge plants. Anyone who has hiked at higher elevations has seen how wind bends and prunes trees forcing branches to grow only on the leeward side. Three large blue spruces recently blew over in our neighborhood. Not only are plants at risk, so are greenhouses, hoop houses, low tunnels and fences set up to protect a garden or landscape.
Wind is hard on a plant in many ways. It dries out leaves, often shriveling young foliage. When there is a lack of soil moisture or the ground is frozen, leaves, needles and sometimes entire plants can be killed. Younger plants without established root systems may be prevented from developing strong roots because of 'wind rock'. Additionally, during bloom, strong winds not only blow flowers to kingdom come, they can also prevent pollinators from being able to pollinate fruit trees, vegetables and other plants.
What is a gardener to do? The ideal, although unlikely, solution would be to only buy a house in a protected location. Otherwise, provide shelter with trees and shrubs to create a windbreak. On a large scale, windbreaks are planned with tallest plants on the windward side to shorter ones on the leeward, all close together. For the average-sized home landscape, this is modified by planting a single row of large evergreen shrubs or small trees or strategically placing individual trees, particularly evergreens. A wall isn't always the answer, because walls and fences create turbulence on their leeward side. When wind meets a barrier, it sweeps around it. Planting a hedge against the wall on the windward side slows the wind down and reduces the turbulence.
When using plants to reduce a wind problem, start with hardy drought-tolerant plants, which often tend also to be wind-tolerant. On our extremely windy Washoe Valley site, I have found crabapple, apple, green ash, incense cedar, Arizona cypress, Austrian and Scotch pine to be excellent trees. Lilac, skunkbush sumac, golden currant and honeysuckle are hard-working shrubs. While junipers, including upright varieties, are exceptionally hardy in every way, I tend to avoid them, especially within 30 feet of a structure, because of their high flammability.
If you have a wind problem, get creative with your plant choice and placement. There's no such thing as a problem free garden!
JoAnne Skelly is Associate Professor & Extension Educator, Emerita, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.