Benefits of Windbreaks

by Donald Craig, 2019 Celestial Planting Calendar

Shortly after humans started clearing forests for agriculture, they found it necessary to plant windbreaks to compensate for the benefits lost by the removal of the forests.

Some of those benefits include:

•  Protection of buildings due to slowing down of winter winds;
•  Reduction of both soil and water erosion;
•  Control of snow accumulation around buildings 
    and along roadways; 
•  Provision of habitats for birds and predator insects who 
    control infestations of crop-eating insects;
•  Increase of crop yields;
•  Production of food and other harvestable products. 

In Ontario, most of us have seen windbreaks of spruce or cedar, which were planted around houses and sometimes entire farmsteads in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Those windbreaks were planted to reduce heating costs and to make houses more comfortable in the winter.  We all know from listening to weather reports that the wind chill factor significantly increases the heat loss from our bodies and our homes.  Wind- breaks were planted around the west and north sides and less frequently along the east sides of buildings to reduce that wind chill factor. 

As these windbreaks matured, it was discovered that they collected snow.  In the prairies,  this was convenient because any snow that stayed on a farmer’s land provided water for his crops the following summer.  In Ontario, this is not considered as much of a benefit because we generally receive sufficient precipitation in the growing season.  However, one useful benefit is the fact that accumulation of snow along a windbreak takes longer to melt; they stretch out spring water flows over a longer period of time, and this process lowers the flood peak. 

Wherever windbreaks accumulate snow in temperate climates, they can be either  convenient or inconvenient depending on the design, the species of trees used, the location of nearby buildings, and laneways, as well as their stage of development.  The old slat-and-wire “Canadian” snow fence was designed and installed by road maintenance crews to slow the wind and deposit snow before it reached the road surface.  Then, they discovered that as the wind picked up speed approaching the road, it had a tendency to pick up snow rather than deposit it.  This artificial snow fence wind-break has a 50 percent porosity. 

When living windbreaks of cedar or spruce are planted too close to the road and provide close to 50 percent porosity, they also accumulate snow downwind and can dump snow on lanes or roadways.  As time goes on and the limbs touch each other, the porosity drops to 40 or 30 percent or less, and the snow starts to accumulate on the upwind side of the windbreak. Later as some of the bottom limbs die off, snow starts to accumulate on the roadway again and it becomes necessary to prune all the bottom branches two to three meters above the ground to allow the wind to carry the snow off the road.

I think most people are aware that windbreaks help reduce soil erosion. However, few people know that we once had deserts of blowing sand in Ontario from the late 19th to mid-20th century.  This was caused by clear cutting the native forest.  Under agreements between local municipalities and the Province of Ontario, larger as well as smaller tracts of land, including what is now the Larose forest, the Ganaraska forest, the Northumberland forest, the Norfolk County forest and the Simcoe County forest, were replanted by the provincial forestry department. Other sand dunes were controlled by planting windbreaks and remained as working farms.

Windbreaks planted on the contours or across slopes reduce water-related soil erosion and subsequent siltation of nearby streams, ponds, lakes and rivers.

At the beginning of the industrial revolution, the agricultural industry was in trouble in Great Britain.  Yields were so low that it was not worthwhile to plant crops.  Many properties were purchased by nouveau-rich industrialists and turned into vast show gardens.  One of the discoveries made was that the hedgerows that were planted for flowers and beautiful foliage increased crop yields in adjacent fields.  This was primarily because the birds and predator insects living in the hedgerows controlled the previously uncontrolled insect pests.

Research has been done all over the world—in temperate as well as tropical climates—to determine the effects of windbreaks on crop yields.  Whether it is fruit crops, such as apples or strawberries, or underground crops, such as potatoes and peanuts, or field crops, such as wheat, corn or beans, the results are the same—windbreaks increase crop yields. 

Dr. Charles Baldwin from Ridgetown College of Agricultural Technology (now called the University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus) showed crop increases on both sides of windbreaks, which more than compensated for the land they occupied and the few adjacent rows of crops where the yield was reduced.  The yield loss extended out one half of the height of the windbreak. From there out to 10 times the height of the windbreak, the yields were above the field average.  He subtracted the yield loss where the trees were and the loss out to half the windbreak height and found an average net gain of 7 percent yield on one side and a 15 percent increase in yield on the other side.  More recently, people with yield monitors on their combines have noticed an increase of between 0.5 and 10 times the height of a windbreak or woodlot.  Unfortunately some people see the low crop yield in the first few rows beside the windbreak and assume that the increase in crop yield further out is in spite of the windbreak not because of it.  

There is no perfect species for windbreaks.  Nor is there a perfect spacing or porosity.  On the prairies, where water is restricted and growth rates as well as ultimate size are limited, several rows are often planted.  In Ontario, we often plant a single row of spruce or cedar around a house where we want to slow down the wind as much as possible.  A second row planted 20 to 30 feet from the first  may be advisable, but for crop-yield increases and reduced soil erosion, even a single row of cedar, spruce or deciduous species may be too dense.  It turns out that the more we reduce the wind speed on the downwind side of a windbreak, the sooner it gets back up to full speed again.  For both wind erosion and crop yield increases, a porosity of 40 to 60 percent is adequate. 

Most people seem to think we need coniferous species because they are dense all year round.  In the case of crop yields, most crops are only growing during the period when the leaves are on deciduous trees, so these trees are just as effective for field windbreaks as the coniferous species. Moreover, deciduous trees located on the southern exposures of homes provide shade and coolness in the summer but enable the sun to heat the homes to some degree in the winter.  

Donald Craig is a registered Professional Forester who has spent over 30 years designing and planting windbreaks, and advising land owners on how to manage them.  He remembers planting his first tree in 1969 near London, Ontario. Several years ago, he took his grandchildren back to that same area, which is now called the Shetland Conservation Area. 

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Meshing Permaculture with Biodynamics

by Linda Harvey, 2019 Celestial Planting Calendar

Permaculture and biodynamics are both forms of “conscious farming,” that is, farming that takes into account not only commodity production, but also consideration of the effects of production on the land, on renewable and non-renewable resources, on neighbourhoods and on social and cultural values. In other words, this is farming that puts all the variables into the equation, not just the ones that serve the bottom line.
Permaculture is more than a set of guidelines for this or that aspect of farming. It is a way of thinking that dovetails nicely with organic farming practices, including biodynamics. However, it can be adapted for pretty much anything: urban properties, business practices, even relationships. 

The ethical underpinnings of permaculture systems are: 

•  Care of the earth; 
•  Care of people; 
•  Sharing of the harvest. 

Superimposed on these values are 12 basic design principles to guide a person’s activity and thinking. The following is a brief explanation of each of these design principles. 

Observe and interact: Understand your ecosystem fully before you make changes to it and carefully observe how these changes affect the system. 

Catch and store energy: Energy is all around us in the form of sun, wind, and water. Harvest gently and use. 
Obtain a yield: Act with clear intentions and goals. Yield includes not only tangible commodities but also intangible ones, such as a sense of satisfaction and a quality of life.  

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: Not only from your neighbors and friends but also from the ecosystem.    

Use and value renewable resources and services: These are the core of your farm, garden or other activity.   
Produce no waste: This principle seems difficult to implement. Some waste is probably inevitable, but a well-planned ecosystem will minimize this. Waste isn’t waste if a use can be found for it—for example, animal manure added to a compost pile is transformed into organic soil nutrients. 

Design from patterns to details: The larger picture needs to be laid out before attending to details.
Integrate rather than segregate: Design your system so that the parts can interact in productive ways. Examples include keyline water management, use of animals in pasture management and companion planting. 

Use small and slow solutions: Rather than launch into a  huge project, make smaller interventions and note the results. 

Use and value diversity: Diversity here means not only diversity of species on your land, but also diversity of projects and systems. For example, if there are several different means for generating electricity, then there is a better chance of coping successfully if there is a loss of any one of them. 

Use edges and value the marginal: An example is the space where two types of habitat merge and support an incredibly diverse collection of organisms that live in either or both habitats. This principle can be applied in designing gardens and orchards. 

Creatively use and respond to change: Change happens, even forests change. Herb and berry patches come and go. This change is normal. Then there are changes in the larger sense—new subdivisions, new regulations about wetlands, even climate change. It is important to observe, accept feedback and react. 

These permaculture design principles are applied to all aspects of land use management, including the construction of buildings, land use planning, water management, soil maintenance, and livestock and crop management. A seasoned permaculture practitioner is expected to have at least some expertise in each of these areas. Some techniques for implementing these 12 principles include the following.

Social permaculture. Permaculture includes consideration of the local community structure, personal interactions and the interface with the larger world. Social permaculture is considered a particularly important component because, if humans are not working in harmony with each other, or are not happy, they tend to leave and the project is likely to fall apart. Many promising enterprises have failed for this reason. 

Observation. The emphasis on observation, taking it slow, and being sensitive to the systems and creatures the farmer is working with, are closely compatible with the biodynamic approach. In my biodynamics course, we were taught about “Goethean observation,” a very stripped down, phenomenological approach in which observations are made without attempting to interpret or judge. While not identical to the permaculture observational style, both procedures lead to practical, reality-based information and insight.

Efficient design / Zone Concept.  In permaculture design, one of the more efficient ways of arranging things on a farm is to place the things done most often or looked after most diligently within the immediate vicinity of the house. This area might contain a kitchen garden, maybe one or more relaxation areas, a heat-lamp facility for baby chicks, a sprout-germinating spot—things that take a lot of fussing.

Keyhole gardening. The keyhole bed is an important element of intensively gardened spaces, especially those close to the house. A short central path surrounded by several beds (a keyhole) forms a unit. Several such units radiating from a center or along a path allow for maximum access with minimum trampling. They also provide lots of edges for diversity and can be oriented towards the Sun to trap heat and light, or downhill to drain cold air and avoid frost traps.

Polyculture. Polycultures are communities of plants which support each other and are encouraged to grow in a configuration where each thrives and where all ecological niches are filled. In this way, they are relatively maintenance free and can be highly productive. Polycultures around fruit trees are common. There might be an understory of berry bushes, a taller and a shorter herb layer, ground cover and a root community, such as bulbs. 

In summary, permaculture is more than a set of guidelines for efficiently conducting agricultural activities. It also recognizes the importance of human and social factors. These techniques can certainly enrich a biodynamic farming or gardening experience. Both approaches have much to offer each other. 

Linda Harvey, is a retired medical doctor, moved to a small farm in eastern Ontario with her husband John. For the past five years, they have used biodynamic and permaculture practices on their farm, gardens and woodlot.

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What is Permaculture?


Posted under  by Nan Fischer on 

Permaculture is a philosophy for a sustainable, holistic lifestyle. Ecological researcher and writer, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coined the term in 1978. They combined the words permanent and agriculture to create permaculture as a system of ecological farming. They later changed it to permanent and culture to include the social needs of people and their housing as well.

To put it simply, permaculture works with nature instead of against it. In the wild, ecosystems regenerate on their own and are self-maintaining. Permaculture practitioners observe these natural processes and recreate them on their farms or in their backyards.

Permaculture draws from concepts of agroforestry, applied ecology, organic farming, and sustainable development. Ways to build regenerative systems with that knowledge include:

Ecological principles influence the design of sustainable and permanent growing areas. Once you establish the gardens, it needs little to no interference to be productive, which means you won’t have to work as hard.

Structures are sustainably designed and built of natural materials produced on the property. Forests provide trees, and dirt can be transformed into cob or adobe bricks, for example.


Healthy forest ecosystems have layers of plant life. The canopy consists of tall trees that provide shade. Below that is the under story—trees that do well in light shade. The shrub layer is made up of woody perennials. The lowest layers are herbaceous, and die back every winter. Then it’s the soil and its ground covers, and finally the rhizosphere, or root layer. There is also a vertical layer of vines and climbing plants.

You can easily incorporate layers into your landscape. Canopy trees provide building materials and firewood. The under story and shrub layer are good places for fruit trees and berries. Perennial crops and culinary and medicinal herbs could comprise the herbaceous layer. Annual and perennial cover crops could be used as the soil layer. Foods like beets, turnips, and carrots could comprise the root layer. While poles beans could be your vertical layer.

Water distribution determines where growing areas are placed. Harvested rainwater is gravity fed into built swales and ditches that follow the contours of the land. Irrigation water naturally flows to crops and livestock, and storm water and snow melt follow this route. Collected rainwater is used in the house for cooking and cleaning, too.

Permaculture zones are determined from its proximity to the house. This is based on how often they are worked. Vegetable and herb gardens are closest to the house, because they are tended daily. While the farthest zone is wild and untouched. In between are areas for an orchard and a greenhouse, fields for livestock, and a woodlot. Each zone has a purpose for supporting the entire landscape. There are food and shelter for people, animals, and wildlife.

Two contrasting environments coming together is called a transition area. Think of a pasture that is adjacent to a forest, or an ocean that laps against a cliff. Biodiversity is rich at the edge, which you can recreate in your garden. You can create that edge effect by putting a border around a raised bed or building a water feature.

Guilds are mutually beneficial organisms that work together to support each other. This is a natural occurrence in a wild ecosystem. In the home garden, this is akin to companion planting, grouping plants that support other plants, the soil, and wildlife. A Three Sisters planting of beans, corn, and squash is a good example of a guild.


Permaculture is a vast topic with many facets, but you don’t have to apply it in its entirety. Create a complete plan for a homestead and build it a little at a time. Or choose one or two aspects aimed at self-sufficiency and a smaller carbon footprint.

There is no one way to practice permaculture, but your goal should be to build a sustainable environment that fulfills your personal needs. Simplicity and low-impact are at the core of a permaculture lifestyle.

Some resources include:

As always, start small. If you get overwhelmed, you’ll lose interest and abandon the project. Educate yourself and get support to stay excited about building a permaculture environment.

Nan Fischer

Nan FischerNan Fischer is the founder of the Taos NM Seed Exchange, a free community service for home gardeners to trade seed. She has been working with plants for 40 years as farmer, landscaper, home gardener, and nursery owner. She holds a degree in Plant Science from the University of New Hampshire, and shares her knowledge by teaching others how to grow their own food. She is a home and garden writer who takes time out for reading, hiking, gardening, and experimenting in the kitchen.

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