A well-designed landscape can save you money in three major ways. Properly designed, installed and maintained, a landscape can help you reduce energy use, reduce water use, and increase the usable space you are paying the mortgage on. This last benefit also increases the resale value of your home — but you may never want to move!
Most household energy use (electric and natural gas) is used to heat and cool the home. Careful landscaping can cut this 10 to 60 percent. In dollars, this can cut a $100 bill down to $40. The savings can be considerable, and add up quickly.
In the Southwest, we want to shade the home in summer. Locate trees to shade south, east and west facing windows, exterior walls and outdoor living spaces. But not just any trees. Select deciduous trees, the kind that drop their leaves in winter. Options include mesquite, desert willow, canyon hackberry, Chinese pistache and Mexican buckeye. Mexican buckeye is a personal favorite, with charming fragrant and colorful spring flowers, lush green foliage and glorious golden fall color. Chinese pistache is also a good choice, as it naturally forms a “tootsie-pop” tree shape, plus it has red fall color. With deciduous trees on the south and east sides of the home, you have shade in summer and sunlight in winter to help warm the home. (Shade the south roof only if solar access is not a concern.)
If you live in a home with a smaller yard, you can use trellises of vines along the walls of the house. Select vines that are deciduous to shade east and south walls. Tombstone rose is not actually a vine but can be trained up over an arbor; queen’s wreath vine is another lovely choice for arbors, providing pink, red or white flowers all summer. To shade north and west walls, select vines that are evergreen, such as cape honeysuckle or lilac vine.
In summer, you also want to reduce overall area heat gain. Shade those surfaces that soak up heat all day in summer and keep the area hot all night. In other words, baking hot walkways and areas of rock mulch should be shaded. Again, those deciduous trees, shrubs and groundcovers can help, shading in summer, but losing leaves in winter to let surfaces absorb the day’s warmth and re-radiate it at night.
Insulate the home with a layer of non-moving air close to the walls. Shrubs and perennials can be used to help hold air against walls and buffer temperature changes, but don’t plant too close to the house.
Statistics show that up to 75 percent of all household water is used in the landscape. While ripping out all the plants would save money on the water bill, an ocean of baking gravel will cause energy bills to skyrocket. Xeriscape is a “zee-rah-scape” not a “zero-scape.” A landscape of plants that use little water and yet offer summer shade are ideal. Many of these also offer lovely flowers when allowed to grow into their natural forms.
Selecting low water plants will save on water, but so will water harvesting — both passive and active. You can passively catch roof water with plants in your landscape. Use a series of earth berms to slow down run-off so it soaks into your soil. Active water harvesting includes tanks to hold rainwater for later use. You can also use gray water — legally harvest water from baths, showers and washing machines (check local regulations).
Finally, use your outdoor space. You are paying for your home and the land it sits on, so create outdoor rooms to expand living space. Outdoor living rooms could include a cooking area, eating area, area to relax and read the paper every morning, play area for children, food growing area — even if just a few pots for lettuce or tomatoes — a place to play with your pets, to watch wildlife and to entertain, perhaps with a fire pit for evening enjoyment. Think too of a hidden corner to curl up with a good book, or to simply sit in peace and quiet and get away from it all.
A good landscape design — which should include the appropriate plants, consideration for necessary space use, and consideration of what you want from your yard — can save you money and make your home larger by giving you outdoor living areas usable year-round. Priceless!