Energy-Wise Landscape Design – This Book Will Save You Money

Homeowners can keep cool in the summer with plantings that shade the house and the ground. Photo: © jnatkin_iStockPhoto

In the depths of winter, it’s always good to remember that spring is just around the corner. After the holiday rush ends, it will be a great time to start planning and dreaming about your yard. And if you’re planning to build or renovate this coming year, you’ll want to be sure you incorporate landscaping ideas that not only look pretty, but that are also energy efficient.

Careful landscaping can be much more effective at saving energy than many of the other efforts we make each day, like turning off lights and turning down the heat. Having the right plantings outside your home will not only save you money, it will also help you live more comfortably in an esthetically pleasing environment.
That’s the essence of the message embedded in every page of Energy-Wise Landscape Design: A New Approach for your Home and Garden by Sue Reed.

Conserving Two Kinds of Energy

Author Sue Reed provides a wealth of information that will help any homeowner, landscaper, or gardener take full advantage of nature to save energy and money.

From the very beginning, readers can see that this is a serious book about finding all possible ways to conserve with landscaping:

This book presents ideas for conserving two kinds of energy. First it shows how to reduce operating energy — the energy used in our regular day-to-day functioning — that includes fuel for mowers and machinery, electricity for outdoor lights and watering systems and even the gasoline for our cars. Second, implementing the advice in this book will also reduce embedded energy — the energy used to manufacture and transport equipment and materials — that we consume in our landscapes without even realizing it.

The author doesn’t use a prescriptive approach, but instead offers readers “a guide to achieve any landscape design goal in a way that saves energy.”

What’s more, Reed does it in easy-to-understand language, simplifying complex ideas and technical information. She offers easy-to-implement tips and instructions that make this a practical, as well as a theoretical, guide.

Based on Science

Scientific principles form the foundation for Reed’s landscape designs. Did you know, for example, about the “Venturi Effect”?

Reed explains it this way:

When a river narrows to pass between canyon walls, its speed picks up; so too with air… [W]hen air or any fluid flows through a constricted space, its velocity must increase.

We can intensify the power of wind in summer by designing the landscape to make the most of this effect, by arranging things so they create funnels or leave small spaces for wind to squeeze through. In winter we can arrange windbreaks and other barriers to prevent this effect, so they don’t accidentally increase wind speed.

The book is chock full of photos, diagrams, and explanations of other scientific principles that are helpful for even the lay gardener to understand. While you can certainly figure some things out by observation (where an existing tree’s shadow falls in the summer, for example), formulas and diagrams are indispensable for determining how a tree or a windbreak might affect your home 20 years from now. For example, below a diagram of a SW windbreak of evergreens, the author writes:

Evergreens southwest or southeast of the house, or a house northeast or northwest of tall evergreens, should be spaced apart a distance at least three and a half times the trees’ mature height.

The explanation alone is helpful, but the diagram makes it even more clear. And providing the formula ensures that the homeowner won’t plant the windbreak too close to the house or too far away to be beneficial — a costly mistake in either case.

Practical Advice

The book is divided into seven sections, each of which deals with a general topic about ways to save energy. I am impressed by the breadth of topics as well as the depth of discussion and abundance of practical tips. Here’s a list of the section titles, with just a single sample quoted from the abundance of tips you can find in each:

Section I: Arranging the Landscape to Help Cool a House in Summer

[C]elebrate and accentuate any slopes on your landscape instead of leveling or removing them. If possible, position outdoor gathering places midway on a slope, so you’ll feel rising breezes in the morning and sinking breezes in the evening.

Section II: Arranging the Landscape to Help Heat a House in Winter

The power of wind increases with the cube (or third power) of its speed. this means that when wind speeds double, their force is eight times stronger…. Solid fences should be built with extra cross pieces and, ideally, with the nailed side of boards facing the prevailing wind direction, so that in strong wind those boards are pushed in toward their supporting structure and are hence less likely to be ripped off.

Section III: Designing the Realm of Plants

No matter what kind of landscape you have,… consider a drastic new approach to gardening: don’t add anything…. It’s not a recommendation for laissez-faire gardening. Rather, it’s simply a suggestion to let everything new be added by nature itself … and then to remove anything you don’t want.

Section IV: Designing the Whole Property

Driveways must be designed to allow for a turning radius of at least 15 feet. Tighter curves will simply be driven over. And note: the point where a driveway’s curve begins must be well outside the garage (or parking space), by at least half a car length, so a tuning car doesn’t bump into walls (or other parked cars).

Section V: Construction and Care

One of the best ways to repair soil — actually, it’s the same method that nature uses — is to just let fallen leaves, twigs and dead wood remain on the ground and break down gradually in place. You can rake all this material up and chop or grind it into smaller bits, or you can compost and spread it later in a different place, but the most energy-efficient choice is just to leave this precious resource on the ground, right where it falls.

Section VI: Generating Energy in Your Landscape

The fluid inside a geothermal loop can be ordinary water in warm climates where the ground doesn’t freeze. Otherwise, it should be either an antifreeze solution or a mixture of water and antifreeze, with a freeze point at least 10″ below the lowest projected temperature in that area.

Section VII: Lights in the Landscape

[A]s a rule of thumb, when selecting bulbs, choose the size that will give:

  • for low light: 10 to 20 lumens per square foot of area being lit
  • for ordinary tasks: 30 to 50 lumns per square foot of area being lit
  • for reading or fine work: 50 to 100 lumens per square foot of area being lit

Helpful Appendices

If you rarely give much thought to the appendices of a reference book, you might want to rethink that for Energy-Wise Landscape Design. If you’re just enough of a nerd to enjoy reading a simple explanation of such things as how to find a shadow’s direction, but not enough of a nerd to know the calculations by heart, you’ll find Appendix A an interesting read.

Subtitled “Details and Calculations,” Appendix A provides explanations of the following:

  • Finding true north
  • Knowing your latitude
  • Figuring out the height of a tree
  • Calculating shadow lengths
  • Finding the direction a shadow will fall
  • Reading a solar path diagram
  • Determining slope

I have to admit that I don’t remember enough geometry to have figured these things out on my own. I’m grateful for any resource that does the math for me.

Appendix B provides help of another kind. While describing landscaping techniques, the author frequently refers to various trees and shrubs by name as well as mentioning “smaller deciduous trees” and “tall shrubs,” etc. In the back of the book, she provides helpful tables that include the common name and botanical name, growing conditions, and appearance/comments about several common trees and shrubs:

  • Deciduous Trees Taller than 50 Feet
  • Deciduous Trees 35-50 Feet Tall
  • Deciduous Trees 20-35 Feet Tall
  • Evergreen Trees Taller than 40 Feet
  • Deciduous Shrubs 60 to 20 Feet Tall
  • Deciduous Shrubs 3 to 6 Feet Tall
  • Broadleaf Evergreen Shrubs


A registered landscape architect, Sue Reed “has helped hundreds of homeowners create comfortable, livable and beautiful landscapes that save energy. She is also an experienced writer and teacher whose work focuses specifically on environmentally sound, energy efficient and sustainable landscape design.”

Energy-Wise Landscape Design is published by New Society Publishers. Suggested retail price is $29.95, though you can find it for a bit less on

This is an outstanding reference for anyone who is serious about natural landscaping. The ideas, tips, and resources included will save you money while helping you create a peaceful, pleasant environment you will enjoy all year ’round. I recommend it.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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