The Best Shelterbelt Trees

Authored by Sheldon Falk - Owner
Jan 24th, 2022
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Shelter-belts have been utilized for a long time on the prairies. After the dust bowl of the 1930s people realize how important it was to protect their real estate from blowing away. There are several good reasons to have shelter-belts / windbreaks. The most common these days is simply to block the wind chill factor throughout the year.

It’s amazing how much warmer a yard is when there’s no northwest wind howling through. A comfortable 22°C day can become chilly with a 30 km wind. The winter wind chill can be bone-chilling without trees.

A second reason for shelter-belts is to block snow. Nobody likes more snow than necessary on their driveways. While we’re talking winter, a fun fact is that a good thick shelter-belt can save 15 to 20% of your heating bill. That’s all from blocking wind and trapping heat. Privacy is another reason. It’s nice to have neighbours, but it’s also nice to have some privacy. Lastly, it’s just nice to look at trees. Nature is aesthetically pleasing. These are the trees that make the most resilient shelter-belt, in my opinion.

Manitoba Maple, Siberian Elm, Japanese Elm, Hackberry, Green Ash, Poplars and Willows. The reasons? Manitoba Maple is an all-around resilient native tree. They are moderately fast growing, and their tight branching help drop wind significantly. There are no devastating diseases or insects to them. The downside though would be that they produce a fair bit of seed and they do not tolerate soggy spots. But… you can make maple syrup from them.

Siberian Elm is one that will raise hackles for most people. The upside of this tree is that it is very fast-growing, drought and soil tolerant, and it also holds its leaves well into mid late October producing more privacy and wind resistance. It does not put up with soggy soil and worst of all they produce an overabundance of seed. This tree I would only recommend for farm shelter-belts or possibly large grassy parks. Farmers work their fields so that the seed is never more than an annual problem. If the seed germinates in the grass it doesn’t last long either.

Japanese Elm is a little smaller then the Siberian Elm. It also produces significantly less seed. This one works well for a shorter shelter-belt. The easiest one to find on the market would be the Discovery Elm. It’s a bit of an ugly duckling when it’s young but has a beautiful form as it matures. Another option is the Night Rider Elm which is a cross between Siberian and Discovery. It has good burgundy fall colour, is a fast grower but may have more seed.

Hackberry, or sometimes called Sugarberry, is also native but only to a small pocket south of Lake Winnipeg. It is very common in Minnesota and North Dakota. We need to take a serious look at using it more. I have it in a shelter-belt already and it is resilient. Selection for form is important because it does have the potential to go haywire. I have been selecting seed off of upright, uniform-looking trees. They are cold tolerant and can handle some wet and dry. They will grow quickly once established similar to an American Elm.

Why did I mention that Ash word?! Everybody knows about Emerald Ash Bore’s massive destruction east and south of here. We are very fortunate not to have the impact due to our cold climate. The jury is still out on how much damage the bug will do here. It has been in the province 8 years and only a very few number of trees have been cut in Winnipeg specifically because of infestation. The bug dies at – 34°, even inside the tree, if the temperature remains there for 36 hours. We are recommending planting mix shelter-belts where possible. That way if another insect or disease moves in we have diversified our portfolio of trees. Ash, Maple, Hackberry and Elm make a good mix for growth rates.

This leaves Poplars and Willows. Poplars are the fastest-growing at 3-5′ when young. Their strength is their speed and height. They are more open and airy without leaves though. They are however also more susceptible to struggle in high pH soil. The new hybrid varieties all lived 60 to 80 years. Willows are fast growing at 2 to 3 ft. per year. They also struggle with high pH soil. Other than the Weeping Willow, they do have some seed fluff and spring.

There are no perfect shelterbelt trees but there are some good choices based on what your needs are.

(I forgot to mention that all the new hybrid poppers are also seedless / fluff-less.)

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