Creating a water- and energy-saving landscape is a fantastic way to improve your property and the environment. It can also be an enjoyable endeavor and perhaps your favorite hobby. You also have a number of options that include both plantings and hardscaping (the manmade portions of a landscape) choices.
Planting trees on your property is one of the best moves you can make, and the sooner, the better. Sure, it can take many years for large trees to grow and actually shade your home and patio spaces from the hot midday sun. Smaller trees, though, can provide glorious late-afternoon and early-evening shade within just a couple of years. In the hotter regions of the U.S., getting some relief from the low-hanging sun from 4-8 p.m. can make a big difference in your energy bills. It can also make your deck or patio usable in those after-work hours.
Some smaller trees like crabapples, are available in dozens of cultivars (short for cultivated varieties, or plants that humans bred with specific outcomes in mind). You can choose from white, pink, and fuschia bloom colors, wide-spreading to vase-shaped forms, and even nonfruiting varieties. Some crabapples will stay small, but you can choose from several like the Spring Snow that can top 20’ tall and 20’ wide. Plus, it doesn’t produce fruit, making this a good pick if you hate to clean up fallen fruit and don’t intend to use it for food.
According to the Arbor Day Foundation, the saucer magnolia is one of the most popular ornamental trees in the country. As it grows in most hardiness zones in the U.S. and produces all those stunning blooms, it’s easy to see why (check which hardiness zone your home is in here). Plus, it will grow to be a midsize tree that can block the blazing afternoon sun and provide some privacy.
In the same vein, you can use shade structures like pergolas, shade sails, and awnings to shade your windows, doors, and outdoor living spaces. Not only do they save you money, but they can make your outdoor spaces usable when they simply wouldn’t be without shade. After the hottest summer on record, we know how important shade can be.
When you choose plants that are appropriate for your locale and climate, you’re making life easier for the plants and yourself. Native plants that haven’t been bred for a particular characteristic are often hardier, if sometimes a bit less showy. That is sometimes the tradeoff you have to make. Some other plants aren’t natives but are hardy and low maintenance (called adapted plants), and those are great choices as well.
Removing thirsty lawns and replacing them with low-maintenance ground cover is another excellent choice. This is being mandated in the most arid areas of the southwestern U.S. that are still amid a historic drought. But creating a drought-tolerant landscape wherever you live is good practice to conserve water. Some good choices for sun include flower carpet roses and creeping phlox. For part-shade areas, sweet woodruff is always a favorite, and for full shade both bugleweed and wild ginger do well.
Even if your home is not in an area suffering from drought you can save energy and time by minimizing the lawn area that needs mowing and by letting the clippings stay on the lawn. They decompose quickly and return nutrients to the soil. Some people call this practice grasscycling. The technique is simple: keep the mower height a bit higher during the summer and don’t cut too much with each mowing, which can stress the grass.
Using a bark or wood chip mulch offers so many benefits. Mulch retains moisture, so your plants’ roots don’t dry out so quickly. It also stymies weed growth compared to bare soil, though nothing can completely prevent weed growth. Mulch also helps to regulate soil temperature, saving your plants from extreme swings. As it breaks down year after year, mulch decomposes to feel soil microorganisms, which in turn feed your plants.
Whether you make your own compost or buy it, you’ll be doing your plants a favor if you treat them to some compost every year. Compost improves the soil structure by adding nutrients, microorganisms, and organic matter. By composting, you’re also recycling some waste that would otherwise probably go to the landfill.
We may not want to eliminate the use of pesticides and herbicides altogether, but we can cut down on their use with a few tricks. Mulch, as noted, makes it tougher for weeds to thrive in your landscape, so you can ensure that all your plants are in well-mulched planting beds so weeds have a tougher time getting started. Any weeds that come up, you can just pull by hand. No, not a lot of fun, but after a short while, you’ll get ahead of the curve, and you shouldn’t have to worry about too many of them.
For insect pests and fungal diseases, you can choose a product like neem oil, a natural insecticide, miticide, and fungicide that’s safe for food crops. It’s possible to control all pests in your landscape with organic methods, not Roundup and other synthetic products that can make their way into our ecosystem and harm humans and critters alike.
Water is a crucial resource for your landscape and presents different challenges in different places. One of the best ways to conserve water is to make good use of rainwater. You can contour parts of your landscape to collect the rainwater that drains off your roof. This practice slows the flow of water and encourages it to soak into the ground wherever you choose.
You can also create areas for retention of rainwater that can prevent flooding and protect other areas of your property. You might dig out some swales and use the dug-up soil to create berms (a narrow shelf, path, or ledge typically at the top or bottom of a slope), which then make excellent planting areas. Both of these are attractive landscape features that help to confine the moving water and can also direct excess rainwater into any ponds you have or into troughs or large pots you’ve buried in the ground to hold water.
Another wise practice is minimizing the area of impervious surfaces like concrete and asphalt driveways and sidewalks. Instead, using individual concrete pavers and unmortared stone will allow rainwater to seep through the gaps between individual units and recharge the groundwater.
It’s often tempting to shop based only on price, but often, the cheapest option has traveled quite a long way to get to the big-box store. Do you have any local options to consider? Instead of the major nationwide retailers who buy from national distributors, you can look at local nurseries. They may have higher prices, but they may also grow much of their stock in-house. You might also check the farmers markets to find growers who specialize in market selling and don’t really have a traditional retail presence.
Finally, a greener landscape is one marked by genetic diversity. Have you made space for birds, toads, and frogs? Their presence in your gardens will help to keep control of insect pests that will stress your plants.
You can’t do all of this at once, but you can tackle a few projects each year and have a fine time doing it!