Landscaping

When thinking energy, don't overlook the value of landscaping.

Landscaping can beautify your home. But by planting carefully and thoughtfully, you can improve your privacy, raise the value of your property, add to your home's comfort and - this may surprise you - cut your energy bills.

Planting the correct trees, shrubs, vines and groundcover can make your home both warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. In fact, according to figures from the California Energy Commission, the right type of tree can reduce your summer cooling costs by 20 to 40 percent!

Anyone who has ever stood in the sun on a hot day will appreciate the value of shade. But in the heat of summer, plants can keep your home cool in other ways besides offering shade: they create a cool microclimate that can dramatically reduce the temperature in the surrounding area by as much as nine degrees. That's because during photosynthesis, large amounts of water vapor escape through their leaves, cooling the passing air. The generally dark, coarse leaves also absorb solar radiation.

Trees - Year Around Energy Savers

Deciduous trees - trees that drop their leaves each winter - offer one of the best ways to cut home cooling costs. If you plant them on the northeast-to-southeast and northwest-to-southwest sides of your house, they can provide excellent protection from the summer sun by shading roof, walls and windows.

They also help to warm the house in cold weather. Because they lose their leaves in autumn, deciduous trees permit winter sunlight to reach the house, helping to heat it with solar energy.

This benefit is why experts suggest that, if you live in a moderate or cool climate, you don't plant deciduous trees directly to the south of your house. In the winter, even the bare branches of mature deciduous trees can reduce the amount of sun reaching your home.

When you're picking out a shade tree to plant, consider its height, growth rate, branch spread and shape. Those factors will influence the cooling benefits the tree offers. For western exposures, wide-spreading trees are best. And don't forget to consider the height of the tree - ones that never grow tall won't provide much shade.

In general, try to shade as much of the roof and walls of your home as possible. If you need to choose between covering a small portion with dense shade, or a larger area with less dense shade, go for the larger area. That strategy will produce the best cooling results in summer.

It's also a good idea to plant trees so they shade the windows that allow summertime heat to enter your house. If you're concerned about preserving your view, keep the sun's path in mind and plant one or two smaller trees slightly to the side of the window.

Consider the prevailing wind and air currents, as well, when you're planting, Evergreen trees that don't drop their leaves can offer valuable protection from the winter winds that chill your home. If you plant them where they can block a cold wind before it hits the outside of your house, they will help to cut your heating bills.

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Other Shade Plants That Save Energy

In addition to trees, vines and climbing plants also act as effective sunscreens. They are particularly good against south-facing walls where you probably don't want shade trees. Planting a deciduous vine such as grape lets you enjoy the benefits of both summer shade and winter sun.

Keep air circulation in mind when you're planting vines. By setting trellises away from the wall, you allow air to circulate. Placing vegetation too close to your house can trap summer heat and make the air around your house even warmer. Leaving space behind trellises also helps to prevent vines from attaching themselves to your home's exterior and damaging it.

Just as evergreens can stop winter winds, carefully placed trees and shrubs will direct cooling summer breezes to your home. Bushes planted a few feet away from the house will provide extra shade without obstructing cool air currents. Shrubbery will also reduce soil and wall temperatures and help to protect your home's foundation from root damage.

Don't overlook the benefits of planting low ground cover such as grass, small plants and bushes. A lawn is usually 10 degrees cooler than bare ground in the summer. Large paved areas and gravel beds will store heat, especially if they're dark in color. In addition to causing substantial temperature increases, they reflect glare. You can reduce this problem by surrounding areas like your patio or driveway with shrubs and grass.

Better yet, consider drought-resistant ground covers that use less water.

Native Plants Use Less Water

Most turfgrasses used in normal lawns require significant amounts of water, maintenance, and chemicals. By planting perennials, shrubs and native plants in the majority of your lawn, you can eliminate the expenses associated with high water usage while still enjoying the cooling benefits that plants can bring.

Plants that historically grow in your area are an excellent choice for landscaping. They are easy to maintain and also have minimal water needs. Native plants are especially well suited for areas with low rainfall or seasonal droughts.

Your local nursery can tell you which plants are native to your region. If you choose your plants carefully, you can minimize water use even as you maximize your yard's beauty.

When deciding on flowers, pick perennials over annuals, because perennials tend to have significantly lower water requirements. By picking a variety of perennials you can stagger bloom cycles, ensuring that you always have a variety of colors. Although perennials do require some maintenance such as pruning, this is minimal when compared to the labor involved with annuals.


Xeriscaping

Xeriscaping comes from the Greek word xeros, meaning dry. This type of landscaping is perfectly suited to dry climates where minimal water use is required. Contrary to popular opinion, xeriscaping does not mean cacti and sand. Trees, shrubs, ground cover, as well as outdoor pools and fountains, are all elements of xeriscaping.

Xeriscaping is an excellent option for those with too little time in the day. Because it's very low maintenance, it reduces pruning and other maintenance responsibilities, freeing your schedule up for other activities.

Just like any of the landscaping we've discussed, in California, xeriscaping can reduce a home's energy costs by shading your home. Bushes and shrubs planted ten feet or more from your house can reduce heat and glare, while trellises along your home's walls can prevent the sun from entering your home. Palm trees, live oaks and other trees will block the sun while allowing breezes to circulate.

At the same time, by installing a fountain or pond, you can help to reduce the dryness in the air. The optimal placement for fountains or ponds is upwind from your house, which allows cool breezes to enter your home.


Consider the Seasons

As you figure out the best places to plant this autumn, keep these final suggestions in mind. Throughout the year, the sun's position changes. In the summer, it appears high in the sky. It is more intense and shines for more of the day than it does in the winter, when the sun is closer to the horizon. Be aware of seasonal sunshine patterns as you select planting sites.


Consider Your Site

Be sure your sites are safe, both above and below the ground. Check for underground and overhead utilities or other obstructions. Avoid planting trees directly under utility lines. If you need to dig, particularly at a streetside location, contact your local utility company. They can help to identify potential underground obstructions.


Ask the Experts

For best results, talk to knowledgeable salespeople at your local nursery or garden center. They can direct you to native plants that survive in your area with minimal care and that require little water. They'll be able to point out aspects of a tree or shrub that may not be immediately apparent, such as how tall and far-reaching it will grow. Whatever plants you choose, make sure they can withstand local weather extremes.

Landscaping isn't an alternative to weatherizing your home, but it is an effective, additional way to help lower your heating and cooling costs. That's why many utility companies offer landscaping rebates or support local tree-planting programs. Check with yours - maybe you qualify for such a program.


Planting for the Planet

Planting trees, gardens, shrubs, and flowers is great for the planet. Foliage discourages erosion, releases oxygen into the atmosphere, provides shelter for birds and wildlife, and helps to restore green space that's been lost to housing.


Composting

While we're talking about benefits to the environment, remember this: a large portion of material currently occupying landfills could instead be turned into rich soil through composting. Composting is nature's way of recycling. Anything from yard trimmings to rotting tomatoes to coffee grounds can be mixed together in a compost pile and converted into rich soil.

Composting works by decomposing food and lawn scraps into soil through the use of organic material and biodegraders - tiny microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, molds, earthworms and other organisms that eat organic material. In order to survive, these organisms need a damp and airy environment. By occasionally turning over the compost pile and adding moisture when necessary, you can provide the ideal conditions for them.

There are many different types of composting systems. You can buy plastic bins, make them out of wire and wood, use plastic or metal garbage cans, or make heaps or piles. The type of compost system you choose depends on the size of your yard.

If you don't have yard space, you can try worm composting. It's an ideal recycling system for people living in apartments or those that don't have enough time for outdoor composting. In worm composting, red worms eat food scraps and convert it into rich soil. This type of composting can be done in a small bin under your kitchen sink. Fill the bin with moistened shredded newspaper, a little bit of soil, and one pound of red worms for each pound of food scraps you want to compost per week.

Composting and recycling may not directly cut your home's energy bills, but they can cut down on the amount of material trucked to landfills. In the long run, that reduces energy use and makes for a better planet.

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