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Designing landscapes with energy savings in mind

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Landscape architect and recent author, Sue Reed, will talk about the role of landscaping in conserving energy.

Amherst Bulletin | March 8, 2011

As homeowners and architects become ever more conscious of energy consumption when building new homes or renovating old ones, it's important to consider the role of landscaping in conserving energy, says Sue Reed, a Shelburne landscape architect.

Reed, whose 2010 book "Energy-Wise Landscape Design" is already being used as a textbook in university sustainability programs, will share information on the topic as the keynote speaker for the March 19 spring gardening symposium in South Deerfield, sponsored by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association.

"It's both a gardening book and an energy-saving book," Reed said in a recent interview. "It targets two large and growing markets: gardeners and people concerned about saving energy."

Saving money on utility bills is becoming more vital to homeowners as the costs of oil, gas and electricity from fossil fuels continue to climb. Reed says you can install a new boiler or new windows to save money but there are also creative actions you can take with landscaping to reduce cooling costs in summer, heating costs in winter and the cost of maintaining that landscape.

Generations ago, home builders understood the concept of natural air-conditioning. They instinctively sited shade trees on the southeast and southwest sides of houses to cool the house in the middle of the day. What happened to this sensible concept?

"The cost of energy became so low that people just let the heat build up and got air-conditioning to deal with it," Reed said. Also, many new developments were built on former farmland or in areas where it was easier to chop down trees than save them in the building process. It takes a long time for trees to grow tall enough to shade a house.

A lot has changed since the post-World War II building boom, especially since the oil crisis of the 1970s. More architects now embrace the concept of passive solar houses – siting the house so the living spaces face due south and are constructed to take advantage of the sun by day, storing the heat to release in the evening. As a landscape architect, Reed is involved with siting a house on the property.

Native plants
Reed, who got her landscape degree from the Conway School of Landscape Design in 1987, is a great believer in using native plants when possible. When she started her practice and mentioned native plants, some clients scoffed about "weeds," she recalled. "Now people are coming to me for designs that are based on native plants. There has been a sharp change of course over 20 years."

Just planting natives like ferns and snakeroot as a ground cover under a shade tree will intensify the cooling effect of that tree, she said.

Using native plants usually reduces maintenance costs since they are already acclimated to the soils and weather. There is no need for winter protection or use of pesticides to deter most insects and diseases.

A special way to use native plants is to create a wildflower meadow in place of a manicured lawn. "If you stop mowing your lawn, it costs you nothing," Reed said. In fact it saves money on fuel and maintenance for the mower as well as valuable time. However, some neighbors may be upset. In that case, she suggests putting a "tidy frame" around the meadow.

"I think people are gradually shifting their views," she said. "Many want a no-mow lawn or a low-maintenance lawn. There are certain fescue grasses and a number of native sedges that grow short. You just mow them a couple of times a year. But it is a different look from a manicured lawn," she said. "The greensward has a different character."

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