Before you carry on with all the same old arrangements in the yard… or before you make a bunch of changes you’ve been dreaming about all winter long…this is a perfect time to slow down and consider how much energy you could conserve in your gardens and grounds. If you’re interested in shrinking your carbon footprint, or you just want to save some money, here are five simple suggestions to help you go “energy-wise” outside the house.

Reduce mowing.

IMG 0014Take a close look at your lawn. If portions it seem to be in poor, consider replacing that lawn with something that would require no mowing: wildflower meadow patch, berry bushes, moss garden, veggie garden, woodland grove, etc.

Just keep in mind that tidy lawn is a powerful social norm, and changing your landscape to be more energy-conserving can be frightening to some people. One solution to this problem is to make sure the new landscape looks cared-for and “intentional.” Another is to educate critics by talking with neighbors, and/or posting an informational sign in the yard.

Use fewer soil amendments.

Instead of buying all the flowers and shrubs that strike your fancy, think first about the kind of soil that already exists in the place where you want to plant them. Get the soil tested to see whether it is acidic or sweet. Feel its texture in your hand to determine if it’s sandy (gritty), or clayey (slippery), or loam (between gritty and slippery). Then, instead of buying products to change the soil, buy plants that can thrive in the soil you have.

The manufacture of garden chemicals and soil amendments consumes huge amounts of energy and natural resources. When these products get shipped to your garden center, this uses more energy, and then you drive to get them, using more. You can save all this energy use by adjusting your visions and desires to match the conditions of your land.

Plant a shade tree…in the right place.

Before planting a tree for its looks, consider the fact that a shade tree in the right place can cool your house a LOT (up to 30-40 degrees) throughout the warm seasons of the year. This can substantially reduce air conditioning costs. The trick is to plant a large tree about 15-30 feet to the southeast or southwest of your house. The exact location will depend on your unique situation: how much space there is, the height of the house, the ultimate height and width of the tree, etc.

If you plan to generate your own clean electricity with photo-voltaic solar panels (an excellent idea), ground-mounded solar can be just as effective as roof-mounted, plus it is easier to maintain and keep clear of snow. Plus this way, you can still shade the house!

Use native plants.

IMG 0014AThere are three reasons to do this. First, if you select species that are adapted to your site’s micro-climate and particular soil conditions, these plants (once established) will be more likely to tolerate extremes of hot, dry, cold and wet. So you will be less likely to need to baby them, and they will be less likely to succumb and need replacement, saving both the energy costs of your initial investment and the costs of the new plants.

Second, many native plants are not widely propagated in the nursery industry, but instead are more likely to be grown in small, regional nurseries. Buying locally-grown plants saves the energy used in processing and transporting them, and supports local business.

Finally, native plants are better than non-natives at supporting indigenous pollinators: butterflies, moths, beetles, bees and yes, wasps. As the local food movement grows, so too must the availability of wild creatures who will pollinate the flowers that become our food.

Plan to use less water.

Even if you live in a region that gets plenty of rainwater, you probably still need to water your gardens at various times in the summer. But did you realize that irrigating, even just with a hose, consumes electricity? It’s true. Unless you collect rainwater in a barrel or cistern and then use gravity to bring that water to the plants, all the water we spray, drip and shower on our gardens has to be lifted out of the ground using a pump or pumps, which are powered by electricity. This is as true for one little homeowner’s well as it is for a huge municipal water supply.

To save energy, design gardens to minimize their need for water. Add compost (ideally home-made) to soil to help it hold water. Use plenty of mulch (ideally home-made from fallen leaves) to reduce evaporation. Choose plants that can tolerate dry periods. And use drip irrigation instead of spray, because this makes the most of the water that does need to be used.

Shameless plug

This is a tiny sample of the many ways all of us can save energy in our gardens and grounds. The bigger story is detailed in my book, Energy-Wise Landscape Design.

“It’s time for us to imagine a new kind of landscape, one in which beauty is not just a social convention or a glossy magazine image, but also an expression of our social values. Now in the 21st century, we can design, build and care for our landscapes so that in addition to looking attractive they will also work for our own good and the good of the larger world.”