Issue: May 31, 2008

Some windbreak plants


What do you recommend to use for windbreak trees? A friend has used alpine spruce and they have mostly died. I would like something that would grow fast and be hardy.

Pat K.
Eastern New Mexico


This is a good year to consider windbreaks and to wish that we had planted one 5 years ago. A good windbreak takes some time, but is worth the wait.

The best trees or shrubs for windbreaks depend on the space available and location. Your location in Eastern New Mexico is where there is often space for a proper, multi-row windbreak consisting of trees and shrubs. It is also where the windbreak is most needed.

A rural windbreak for a ranch or farm location consists of deciduous and evergreen trees to provide height and protection from wind over a large distance. The effect of a windbreak on the wind is usually considered to be ten times the height of the planting. So a 30 foot tall row of trees is effective at reducing the wind for 300 feet down-wind from it. Good trees depend on the water and soil conditions, but some to consider include the Siberian elm, American elm, Cottonwood (if adequate water is available), Austrian and Scots Pines, and other trees that are adapted and liked by the homeowner.

Since trees have trunks and leave openings at their base, one or more rows of shrubs should be used as well. The appropriate shrub again depends on the desires of the homeowner, soil condition, and water available for irrigation. Lilacs, New Mexico olives, junipers, arborvitae (very good in Eastern New Mexico), Apache plume, and three-leaf sumac are some of the good choices.

For urban homes with limited space for a windbreak, but with other houses and trees nearby to help moderate wind, a single row of large shrubs is often useful. Junipers and arborvitae are good choices (with the warning that they can contribute to hay fever problems in the early spring), lilacs, New Mexico olive, and other shrubs are good candidates for the single row, urban windbreak/hedge.

In some instances a native grass, giant sacaton, can be considered for use alone or with the other windbreak plants. It grows tall and can serve well in a landscape. To look best, however, it should be cut to about a foot from the ground in late winter. This allows new, green growth to replace the brown and gray from the previous year. Unfortunately, this also removes the height of the plant when it is most needed for spring wind protection. If summer wind protection is needed, or if other plants are in place to help while the giant sacaton is growing back, it is a good candidate. Giant sacaton also produces airy flower heads and seed stalks that are very attractive from summer through winter.

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Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email:, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.


For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms and the NMSU Horticulture Publications page.

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