"My Windbreak needs a Windbreak" - lessons from my 2022 tree struggles

March 31, 2023 9:05 AM

I had seven years of pent-up tree planting desire and it all erupted in spring of 2022. After years of apartment living (as an adult graduate student) and then derecho cleanup, I was finally able to get some trees in the ground at our new place in central Iowa. We wanted a windbreak that favored songbirds, fruit trees, native shade trees, and a range of native shrubs for edibles and pollinators. The year 2022 had other things in mind, however, and the dream soon turned into six months of extreme frustration. “The greatest teacher, failure is” – as Yoda states in The Last Jedi, so in retrospect I am thankful for 2022 as it provided tremendous learning opportunities. Thus, as spring 2023 planting season approaches, I want to share my top tree struggles and lessons learned from 2022, in hopes that you do not repeat them. However, I’ll also highlight some of the things I did correctly – actions that saved me from total disaster.


First, let’s review the situation. Spring 2022 was not ideal for getting trees in the ground – prolonged cold weather and wet soils pushed my plantings way late. Following planting, one month of extreme sustained wind speeds led to foliage “burn”, exasperated transplant shock, and complete removal of newly-emerged leaves on my fruit trees. Later, the winds brought herbicide drift issues. The wind was killing my new windbreak (literally), hence the title of this article! Spring conditions were also optimal for Japanese beetle larvae, setting up one of the worst summer defoliation episodes I’d ever witnessed. Lastly, of course, we had essentially no precipitation between July and August. The cherry on top was increased work and family commitments during that time – not much left for my seedlings.


OK, below are my “top 5 goofs” from 2022, along with a quick review of the resulting lessons learned (see Table 1 as well). Please feel free to take any/all into consideration during your 2023 planting endeavors.


Bit off way more that I could chew


Proper stock selection, site prep, planting, protection, weed control, irrigation, etc., are absolutely critical, and all take significant time – more time than you think. You can’t simply plant and walk away. Be aware of this when planning the number of acres or seedlings to tackle. Be realistic about your available time – I didn’t, and thus suffered from “tree burnout” as the year progressed. Professional forestry consultants and contractors ARE available to assist with efforts that you can’t accomplish solo. You may connect with these professionals using the ISU Extension Forestry Contacts webtool.


Didn’t order stock soon enough


As fall 2021 had me focused on continued cleanup following the 2020 derecho, I waited until mid-spring 2022 to order my stock. I was WAY late – nurseries around the region were sold out of most of my desired species and sizes. I did get seedlings and sizes to get the job done, but they were not ideal. Not ideal means added labor down the road. Wait a year and make sure you get exactly what you need – you won’t miss that 1 year of growth 15 years down the road. If you’re planning a spring planning, secure your stock in fall!


Last-minute site prep


See 2.) above, in that I did not take the time to properly prepare the site months in advance. I was planting into cool-season, sod-forming grass, which is highly competitive with young seedlings for moisture. Ideally, you need to control competitive vegetation well in advance of planting, because this often takes multiple rounds and/or a combination of mechanical and chemical treatments – these take time. See this publication for tips on site preparation. After reading this, you’ll see that expecting to show up at planting time and immediately release the site from competitive vegetation is not realistic. In my rush, I ended up using a garden spade to remove a 2’x2’ section of sod prior to planting each seedling. It got the job done, but at the expense of my future joint health.


No plan for irrigation


Not much description needed here, I simply did not have a “drought plan” in place! This meant hours of lugging 5-gallon buckets to individual seedlings by hand. I don’t recommend this technique. Irrigation method depends on your available resources. However, just make sure you CAN irrigate the seedlings you plant. This is absolutely critical for the first 2-3 years as root systems establish. As a general rule in the growing season, if you’re not receiving an inch of rain per week, it’s time to irrigate. Helpful tips on when (and how much) to water may be seen at this link. After reading this, think about the time it will take to water 1 seedling appropriately, and then multiply by the number of acres or seedlings in your plan. After that math, re-read 1.) above!


Didn’t drop cash for seedling protection


Deer, rabbits, rodents, lawnmowers, intoxicated neighbors – protecting seedlings from physical injury and herbivory is critical. In most cases, the cost and time commitment of properly establishing a seedling warrants a protective structure. Tactics depend on the scale of planting, and may include tree shelters, cages, fencing, and even fear-based liquid deterrents. Don’t skimp here – drop the cash to get the proper gear, and have it ready to go prior to planting. Being cheap (I have boots from 2012 and a 22-year-old motorcycle), I ended up caging my trees after-the-fact, which led to not-insignificant herbivory between planting and caging. Also, I dumpster-dived for cage material, which included wire mesh, t-posts, old rebar from construction projects, and even 70s-era fencing pulled from my neighbor’s ravines. All of the above took hours, and I still did not achieve the cage height and dimensions I wanted to protect from deer. Drop the cash, get the good stuff – it’s worth your time! To learn more on protecting seedlings from deer, check out this resource.


OK, even with all that, I do consider my 2022 tree plantings to be successes. I actually did a number of things right, and these really saved me and my seedlings – here’s a quick recap (see Table 1 as well). First, I selected species that matched my site conditions. I went beyond online soil maps and actually took physical soil samples to ensure future seedling vigor. Second, I called nurseries to see where their stock seed source came from, so even though I had to go out of state to order, I was able to obtain stock suitable for Iowa’s climate. Third, I used mulch – which absolutely saved me in droughty July and August. Mulching around seedlings acted to retain what moisture was available, and gave me a buffer to mitigate my lack of irrigation planning. Fourth, I was diligent as far as monitoring and maintenance (e.g., weed control). I’ll bet I walked my trees at least 4 times a week (excessive perhaps, but often a stress reliever). Simply planting and walking away would not have allowed me to be an adaptive manager. Fifth, I developed patience. This was the most difficult of all, and is exemplified by the significant transplant shock I noticed in my eastern redcedars early on (spoiler alert, the cedars did rebound). Learn more about transplant shock at this link.


The biggest lesson I learned from 2022, however, is to have realistic expectations regarding tree plantings. No matter what you do, you will lose trees – period. You will have damage – period. “Harm reduction” is the way to go, and may be achieved through selecting native species (preferably) that match site conditions, practicing diligent maintenance and monitoring, and above all being patient. A summary pub on tree planting may be viewed at this link.


Trees are worth it – good luck in 2023!


Table 1: My 2022 in a nutshell



Goofed up


Didn’t consider my time

Fewer well-established seedlings > more high-risk seedlings

No site prep

Site prep is key. Start early, it may take several treatments

Ordered stock (way) late

It’s OK to delay a season – best to get correct stock

No irrigation plan

Speaks for itself

Shelters from the dumpster

Save time – drop cash, get protective gear in advance


Nailed it


Local seed source

Helps ensure vigorous seedlings right off the bat

Matched species to site

Select species based on site first, then choose traits you want


Moisture retention from mulch saved me in summer

Diligent monitoring

Allows for adaptive management, observation = learning!


Realistic expectations!

 Photo 1: Trees are resilient – with proper selection, planting, maintenance, and monitoring. Above all, be patient!