What do you see in this picture? A cozy home with two shade trees in front, some tidy foundation shrubs and a patch of lawn? A place that offers only limited wildlife habitat, a bit of a wasted opportunity? Perhaps you see this just as a property that’s easy to mow and maintain, or simply as good curb appeal?
Here’s what I see: a small grove of spruce trees curving around the northwest corner of this little house, trees that are taller than the building and just the right distance away so that they deflect winter winds up and over and around the house, reducing the amount of heat pulled by passing wind from every little crack or crevice.
Not too long ago, when I looked at any (okay, every) landscape, I checked to see how well it satisfied three goals: ecological richness; basic usability and soundness of design; and comfort/appeal to the people who live there.
Now I see every landscape first, and almost only, through a prism of energy-efficiency. I wonder what is happening in a landscape that costs more energy than necessary. What is helping the owners save energy and shrink their carbon footprint? And what else could be done to help them shrink it more?
What do you see in this picture? I see a young windbreak: a grove of mixed evergreen and deciduous trees, planted north of the house. In this stand, a few hemlocks will eventually get tall enough to help divert winds up and over the house, although right now the wind that passes over these trees may drop down and swirl in the open lawn. Plus that gap at the end is a bit unfortunate. (I still do also notice that the homeowner planted some deciduous shrubs, a nice benefit for wildlife.)
Author’s Note: If you’re wondering how I know these trees are on the north, it’s because all my winter photos are shot around noon, when tree shadows reveal the sun’s position.
In this one, I bet you see what I see: a sad mistake. This row of fir trees, planted just outside a south wall, bathes the house in shadow all winter long. And wow, look at the nice warm spot just in front of the trees! Wind protection can’t have been the goal, because winter winds blow from the north. If privacy was the goal, might a simple 6’-tall fence have been a better choice?
How about in this picture? Here, a pretty maple tree planted due south of the building is casting an apparently harmless naked-branch shadow on the wall. Except, did you know that deciduous trees can decrease solar gain by up to 30-50%? Remember that the winter sun at noon is still fairly low in the sky, so tree shadows even at mid-day fall sideways for quite a distance.
On the flip side of the year, in summer, the noon sun is so high in the sky that shadows are very short. So a tree due south of a house would have to be very close to the building to actually shade the roof and walls. A better solution is to plant/keep large deciduous trees to the southeast and southwest of your house.
Here’s a nice example of how that works, a landscape in which the placement of trees leads to energy savings all year long. Do you see what I see?
The house opens to the south. A wooded hillside to the north blocks cold winter wind. Large trees on the southeast and southwest provide summer shade throughout much of the day, but block no precious warmth in winter. Tall shrubs just outside the south windows deflect summer’s high-angle mid-day sun, casting dappled shadows on the floor. (Plus, as a bonus, in winter these shrubs are constantly full of birds waiting their turn at the nearby feeder or just soaking up the sun’s warmth reflected from the house wall.)
Reducing our homes’ heating and cooling costs is just one way all of us can shrink our energy footprint. Some of you already know that my book, Energy-Wise Landscape Design, presents many more.
As we all settle down for our long winter naps, and dream our way forward to next year’s gardening pleasure, this is a good time to plan our landscapes so that even in winter they will help us use less energy and save money.
And, ahem, speaking of saving money, Energy-Wise Landscape Design is on sale right now for HALF-PRICE, here.
Sue Reed is an ecological landscape planner, native plant lover, wildlife watcher, blogger, teacher and registered Landscape Architect.
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