Working with the breeze to battle noise

One of my favourite signs that spring is on its way is the sound of bird song. After months of listening to the crunch of ice under tires and the crack of branches breaking under the weight of snow, that exuberant trill from a goldfinch or the unique melody of a sparrow is a genuine joy and relief. Well, for a little while at least.


An American goldfinch, in early spring of last year, just outside our cottage in Ontario.

I’ve heard even the luckiest of gardeners, blessed with a garden surrounded by countryside, complain about rising noise levels. Hands up all those with a country garden who are convinced every summer brings an increase in annoying noises from neighbours’ souped up lawn mowers and leaf blowers as well as crazy traffic, not just from cars but SUVs, ATVs, dirt bikes, and motorcycles. And how is it that these sounds can be heard even when your garden may be a long way from any major thoroughfare? The noise gets carried on the wind.

Birds are just as pissed off

Even the song birds are starting to react to this cacophony. Research has proven that birds are adjusting their calls to combat low frequency road noise, including passing cars. They’re actually doing the tiny songbird equivalent of belting out a Broadway tune. Louder may not be better but it’ll very definitely get your audience’s attention.

SIDENOTE: If you want to totally geek-out on the science of wildlife noises and actually see how a song or a ribbit works within nature’s soundscape, check out The Washington Post’s excellent article “What Does A Hoot Look Like? What About A Croak? Or A Howl?” It’s a report on the findings from a group of scientists recording the sounds of the natural landscape and how the resulting spectograms can be fine-tuned to visually represent animal sounds. Why would they want to do this (besides making super cool graphics)? These soundscape researchers can monitor biodiversity and species’ behaviours and help target areas under pressure that might need protection.

Walls of silence

Of course, there are ways to fight back against noise pollution. One of the newest newfangled ways involves acoustic fencing. I didn’t realize that fences could make that much of a difference in lessening street noise but evidently they can at least reduce the noise. Unfortunately, effective sound reduction only works when you have a pretty big lot. There are a lot of particulars to consider, including:

  1. the thickness of the fencing
  2. the height of the fencing
  3. how close you can get your fence to the offending noisemaker (such as a road)
  4. what the fence is made out of (evidently masonry walls are more effective that wooden fences)

But another important factor to consider is the direction the wind normally comes from in your area. Sounds carry on the wind. In our previous home in a bustling suburb, we were a couple of kilometres from the nearest highway but, if the wind shifted a certain way, it sounded almost like that highway was next door.

Hushing the garden

So if you’ve done everything you can to dampen noise like:

• building a huge fence

• planting a good, thick, tall hedge

• installing a burbling fountain for a DIY white-noise effect…

…is there anything else you can do?

I think so. And you don’t have to have a really big garden, either. It involves harnessing that wind.

Shaded garden with grasses

Even a smaller garden can harness the hush of a breeze with lots of large plants with plenty of free-moving leaves in a dense planting like the garden shown above.

A breeze can bring unwanted noise with it, for sure. But it can also make lovely sounds, too. The trick is to load up your garden with lots of loose texture that will produce lovely rustling sounds.

Taller plants with long, freely moving leaves in loose clumps work particularly well. Ornamental grasses are a classic choice, here, especially those with large loose seed heads, such as Northern Sea Oats (shown below) or grasses with long, slender leaf blades. But basically any plant that sends up loads of breeze-catching stems or leaves will work.

Grass with seed heads
Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium ‘River Mist’)

The trick is to create a dense planting for maximum hush-making. I know what you’re thinking: Wouldn’t an overload of big, loose plants, all smooshed in together start to look a bit like a large hot mess?

Here’s a garden (shown below) I discovered on a garden tour several years ago that illustrates the dense-large-loose idea beautifully. Granted, this garden is huge. But you can see how a dense planting of large, loose plants can look quite cohesive.

There’s no room for twee little plants here. Even the beds bordering lawn are crammed with tall, breeze-catching plants that march right up to the edge of the grass.

A dense planting of a wide variety of plants does more than give you an eyeful of colour and texture, though. Different leaves help combat different types of noise depending on each leaf’s size and shape as well as how high it sits from the ground and how well it can move. So, the more the merrier or at least, the slightly quieter.

Other ways to harness a breeze and reduce noise pollution

Use plants renowned for making their own sound. The leaves of Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) are famous for the pattering rain sound they make in a breeze. Bamboo (Phylostachys) is another great noise-maker (in a good way).

Make a fence prettier and even better at muffling noise by ‘insulating’ it, so to speak, with a stand alone trellis placed a foot or two in front of the fence. Plant sturdy climbers such as climbing roses or trumpet vine. The triple-layered combination of fence, trellis and plants will work together to muffle sound well and make the fence easier on the eye.

For noise reduction year-round, choose lots of evergreens. Deciduous trees work wonderfully at reducing noise when they have their leaves, of course, but not so much after they lose them. To get the most noise reduction in a limited space, look for evergreens that have foliage from top to bottom, such as hollies, yew, and some pines and spruces.

Nix the smooth and bring on the texture. Smooth surfaces such as concrete patios or brick walls tend to bounce noise around while surfaces that are alive with texture tend to absorb noise. So grow ivy up the walls of your home, cover your fences with vines and consider cladding your garden shed with corragated metal rather than plywood. Try gravel paths rather than paved ones. And as for that patio? Outdoor rugs might be just the thing to add a dash of style with a damper on noise.

Noise pollution seems to be a part of modern life, regardless of where you live. But a garden can be an incredible white noise generator as well as a sound absorber, deflector and masker. Just start with some breeze-catching plants.

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