Do You See What I See?

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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  1. says

    Thanks Sue for helping me to see differently. It’s so amazing how much energy we could save if we followed your principles for saving energy in our landscapes. I’ve learned so much from you and your book! I love how you’ve walked us through each of these photos so that we can learn to see as you do.
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Ecosystem Gardening Essentials

  2. says

    Thanks for this very informative piece, Sue. I live in a passive solar house in the relentlessly sunny climate of southern Colorado’s high-desert country, so I’m very conscious of sun angles in all the seasons. But most of us aren’t, and could be without much effort. Your work makes it easy to learn.
    Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Catching Up: Keynote & Comic

  3. says

    Yes, I have found that many folks are not very clear on just where the sun is throughout the year. I even remember my own self before I learned this stuff…. the sun’s path was a complete mystery, and one that I didn’t particularly concern myself with. Now I think it is so important to know. Thanks for the feedback.

  4. says

    You just saved me some work! I was going to transplant my fothergilla from my southern front exposure as they hid the stone wall, but now I’ve reconsidered. Thanks for the tips. I hope people always choose natives when they follow your guidelines.
    Christina Kobland recently posted..Backyard Life

  5. says

    Sue, I love your attention to the sun’s angle throughout the year – what a great perspective! House design can integrate this as well – our house is not only oriented to gain maximum winter sun, but it was designed so that the overhangs are the length and angle to shade the house from summer sun but during the shortest days of the year the sun reaches through the windows all the way to the back walls of our front rooms providing both light and warmth. Watching the sun’s angle and intensity change is constantly amazing. We know we are at the heart of winter when the sun sets in a notch between two mountains in our view from the house. The one thing we didn’t realize when planning the house was how quickly trees grow up and change the amount of sun our property receives. 35 years ago it was an open meadow; now it is a Ponderosa Pine forest. It’s hard to imagine how much will change in the future when creating a landscape around a house.
    Kathy Settevendemie recently posted..Ode to Red-Osier

    • says

      Wow, Kathy, your home sounds wonderful. I’m jealous! And thanks for the reminder about how trees will change a home’s micro-climate as time goes on.

  6. says

    Great thinking piece.

    I have the blasted heat problem down here in FL, but I was smart enough to position my house (double wide mobile moved from old location) with the short end facing south. My new neighbors immediately asked why I was putting my house in “sideways” and seemed upset that I was doing so. I told them I wanted it faced the same way that is was at the old place. Their house faces south with 60+feet and electric bill in the summer was $249, mine was $125 for a larger house since only 26ft faces south and the east side is shaded by the carport.

    I’m working on the landscape thing….property was clear cut when I bought it, but is slowly coming around. The biggest problem here is you can’t really position shade trees too close to the house because of the hurricane threats. I am positioning them as close as practical and they keep the ground out front shaded which really seems to help keep the house cooler.

    Now that you brought up windbreaks I’ll have to analyze that aspect. Thanks for enlightenment!
    Loret recently posted..Profile of Darkness

    • says

      Hi Loret, and thank you so much for the “southern” perspective. I really appreciate hearing about other people’s experiences with managing the sun and wind.

      If you’re interested, you might enjoy checking out my daily “Energy-Wise Tips” on my FB page. Here’s a recent one: Some of my tips generate interesting discussions. (I just had dinner last night with an old friend who said to me: “Sue, I have bad news for you. I am NOT going to cut down the huge pine trees that totally shade my house in winter.” Well. Okay then. :o)

  7. Ruth says

    As you know, we also have conifers in the worst possible place…pretty much dead south of the house and very close. They are also Norway spruce. But they are a century and a half old, with trunks bigger than 4 children can encircle, so we are deferential to them as elders. But they are also over a hundred feet tall, so they do a good job of shading our roof for about half the day in summer. So with these and the deciduous reforestation we have accomplished in the west yard, no need for air-conditioning. But you are reminding me that we might do a better job of buffering winter winds from the north side……

    Thanks – very informative, as usual.


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