The North Dakota wind howled from the southeast. The driving snow hit me like a sandblaster as I trudged outside to check on the chickens in their coop. I was at the mercy of Mother Nature’s wrath, barely able to see past the tip of my nose.
It took two days for the storm to pass. When I opened the door to face the morning sun, I knew I was in big trouble. My driveway sparkled in the sunlight, packed with nearly 4 feet of snow.
I would have been stuck until spring if it hadn’t been for a neighbor who brought over a small dozer to clear the snow.
The need for windbreaks
I’ve been living on our small homestead with my significant other and our children for a few years. A sprawling riparian forest protects us from northern and western winds, located out of the flood plain near the banks of a small prairie river.
Unfortunately, the worst winter storms frequently arise from southeastern winds. On the east and south sides, there are many crabapples, spruce, boxelder, green ash, and bur oak trees, but they are all mature and do little to stop the snow from blowing.
A nearly 2-acre field of alfalfa serves as the southern boundary. There were no trees of any kind around the alfalfa when we bought the property. We needed a windbreak to capture snow as well as provide wind protection for the rest of the year.
We decided to plant an edible permaculture windbreak, which would include shrubs that would not only grow well in our soils and provide wildlife habitat and wind protection but would also produce food for our table.
Making a plan
On the computer, I began the process of designing a windbreak. The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Web Soil Survey is a fantastic tool. This powerful, free, web-based program gives you access to a wealth of information. I could have spent hours sorting through the data, but the most important information I needed was about soil types.
Armed with this knowledge, I was able to determine which shrub species would thrive on my property by consulting the North Dakota Conservation Tree and Shrub Suitability Groups. Of course, just because a shrub is rated for a particular type of soil doesn’t mean it will grow in that soil—and vice versa. However, it provides a starting point.
A weed-management strategy should also be considered before selecting and planting trees and shrubs.
My day job is with a soil conservation district, and we use woven weed-barrier fabric on almost all of the conservation plantings we do each year. Weed-barrier fabric has numerous advantages, the most important of which is that it reduces weeding time.
Furthermore, hot, windy summer weather quickly dries out the topsoil, stressing newly planted seedlings. Weed barrier fabric protects the soil while also assisting with water retention. Unfortunately, the fabric does not come cheap. It is costly to buy or have installed, and the fabric also keeps shrubs from suckering.
Planting trees and shrubs without fabric allows certain species’ natural suckering tendencies to establish a solid wall of vegetation. It also appears more natural and appealing to many people, including myself.
Weeding, however, takes time.
Rototilling the ground before planting not only prepares the soil but also allows previously dormant weed seeds to germinate. Tilling to control weeds dries out the soil and can disrupt a plant’s root system.
We chose both techniques for our windbreaks. I didn’t want to till the soil or fight weeds in the yard. I simply planted each tree in the existing sod after digging a hole for it.
A depression was created by filling each hole with soil just below the sod height. This allows rainwater and the water I bucket to each tree to soak into the lowest point above the tree. I simply mow around each shrub, and the plants will sucker out and form a solid wall of snow and wind-stopping vegetation in subsequent years.
Because the alfalfa field is farther away from the house, rather than spending hours each week weeding and watering, I decided to install a weed-barrier fabric after first rototilling strips 6 feet wide. The fabric, while costly, has more than paid for itself by reducing our need to weed and water.
Don’t plant only one type of windbreak
The selection of species is critical for a productive permaculture windbreak. At this point, you must decide which fruits will provide the best edibles for your table.
The chokecherry, for example, is the state fruit of North Dakota. It is a hardy native shrub that produces astringent berries with a pit. Some people enjoy the tartness, especially in jams, jellies, and wine. Others find the sensation of mouth-puckering repulsive. If you fall into the latter category, it makes sense not to plant the species in a permaculture windbreak.
Diversity is the key to a successful edible windbreak. A pest or disease can affect nearly every species of shrub and tree. Years with above-average rainfall and cool temperatures will encourage the spread of fungal diseases. Insect damage increases during dry years.
Rather than losing an entire crop year, diversity ensures that at least some of the species will bear well every year.
When purchasing plants for a windbreak, the conservation-grade bare-root stock is the most cost-effective option. Plants in an edible windbreak, unlike those in an orchard, are not grafted onto rootstock.
Grafted trees are much more expensive than bare-root conservation stock. The primary purpose of an orchard is to produce fruit, whereas a permaculture windbreak serves as a windbreak first and then produces fruit.
Your local Soil and Water Conservation District should stock a wide range of suitable species. Don’t be surprised when you see the conservation-grade plants. While they may appear to be nothing more than sticks with roots, they will eventually grow into beautiful plants.
Unlike potted stock, which is frequently root-bound and shocked when planted, the bare-root stock is dormant. The shrub emerges from dormancy in the ground and takes off quickly.
Edible choices for your windbreaks
CHERRY NANKING (Prunus tomentosa):
The Nanking cherry is a bush cherry native to Central Asia that grows in a dense form up to 10 feet tall, tolerates most soil types, and is drought tolerant once established. Because the ripe fruit is soft, it is difficult to ship or grow commercially. It produces the sweetest cherry that can be grown in a cold state like North Dakota.
AMERICAN PLUM (Prunus americana):
This hardy native shrub can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions. Plants will grow close together to form a thicket if they sucker profusely. The white flowers of the American plum in the spring produce 1-inch stone fruit that is delicious both on its own and in preserves. The shrub, which grows 10 to 20 feet tall and wide, also provides excellent wildlife habitat.
GOLDEN CURRANT (Ribes aureum):
The golden currant is a smallish, leggy native shrub that grows to be 6 feet tall. The plant is adaptable to a wide range of soil conditions and produces beautiful yellow flowers in the spring, which turn into half-inch-diameter dark fruit. Golden currants, which lack the sourness of gooseberries, are delicious on the branch as well as in savory chutneys and sauces.
HIGHBUSH CRANBERRY (Viburnum trilobum):
Although not a true cranberry, this native viburnum family member produces fruit that closely resembles true cranberries in both appearance and flavor. The highbush cranberry prefers moist, loamy soils and can grow up to 12 feet tall and wide.
The nannyberry is a native shrub that thrives in moist soils and partial shade. While it can be trained as a single-trunked tree, it’s best to leave the species’ natural tendency to sucker alone in a windbreak, as it will grow into a dense hedge. The fruit has a single flat seed and a distinct, jammy flavor.
COMMON CHOKECHERRY (Prunus virginiana):
This native shrub can grow up to 15 feet tall and thrives in a variety of conditions. It produces dark, astringent berries with a single seed.
AMERICAN ELDERBERRY (Sambucus canadensis):
Each year, the elderberry grows quickly to 9 feet tall, with multiple stems and beautiful flowers. It prefers moist soils and is ideal for riparian areas or soils with good water retention. The large flower clusters produce an abundance of small, dark elderberries, which are highly prized for use in jams, jellies, wines, and syrups.
ARONIA (Aronia melanocarpa):
This shrub, also known as black chokecherry, grows in a wide range of soil types. It is mound-shaped with a plethora of stems and grows to a maximum height of around 6 feet. The taste of the fruit is astringent and similar to that of the common chokecherry when picked fresh from the bush. Aronia is a healthy food star due to its high antioxidant content.
The seaberry is a silver-leaved shrub native to Asia and Europe that can grow to be about 10 feet tall. It is extremely hardy and tolerates soils ranging from wet to sandy, but it is shade intolerant. Plants produce beautiful orange fruits that are high in Vitamin C and extremely tart. The juice is frequently combined with other fruit juices. Plant at least ten seaberry shrubs to ensure that some are males, allowing for pollination.
What I’ve learned while planting edible windbreaks
On three sides of the alfalfa field, we planted a tree row and a shrub row totaling over 800 linear feet. The species we selected grew well during the first summer. However, the second growing season presented a number of challenges. There was a spring and a fall flood.
I planted Nanking cherry in what turned out to be the lowest point without considering the topography of the low ground. Every single plant was destroyed by the spring flood. The fall flood was an unusual occurrence. The temperature plummeted before the water receded, covering a portion of the field in water 2 feet deep.
Ice formed around the plants in the windbreak, and as the week progressed, warmer temperatures caused the ice to cleave and shear off some of the shrubs.
We were fortunate to have planted extremely hardy species. The plum and nannyberry, in particular, were broken off to stumps less than an inch tall. I decided not to replace them and instead wait and see what happened. The plants exploded from the stumps the following year, growing multiple feet tall.
The soil map and topography do not lie, as I discovered the hard way. Planting species where they are not suited wastes money and time.
An edible permaculture windbreak will provide a variety of benefits to a homestead regardless of where you live. Planting hardy, fruit-bearing shrubs in a long-lasting, beautiful windbreak can result in energy savings, less time spent on snow removal, abundant wildlife habitat, and delicious fruit for the table and pantry.
This article was submitted by Robert Andrew Brown.
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