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Energy-efficient landscaping made easy


Usually April showers correlate with May flowers, but hopefully all this rainfall slows down soon so those May flowers are actually in the ground before June. If you haven't started much of your outdoor landscaping because of this season's cooler temps, consider incorporating some of these tried and true tips into your landscaping plans before breaking ground:

South Dakotans know extremes. Our weather goes from scorching hot in the summer to bitter cold in the winter. Anything we can do to lower our heating and cooling bills is worth it. It may seem hard to believe, but carefully placed trees and shrubbery can actually lower a typical household's energy use by 25 percent. Not only will a well-groomed, landscaped lawn add beauty to your home, it will improve your home's comfort and lower your energy bill year round.

South Dakotans are no strangers to shelterbelts. To counteract soil erosion and drought during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated a project to plant windbreaks along farm land stretching from North Dakota all the way down to Texas.

While newer farming practices lower the risk of soil erosion, windbreaks still serve a purpose by insulating homes in the winter and the summer. Shelterbelts work by deflecting wind over the home and lowering the wind speed, which lowers the wind-chill near the house.

These windbreaks can reduce the wind speed for a distance of 30 times the windbreak's height, blocking your home from the coldest winds in the winter and creating what's known as dead air space to insulate your home in the summer. 

Plant dense evergreen trees to the north and northwest of your house for maximum protection. If snow drifts up against your house in the winter, plant shrubs on the windward side of your windbreak to catch the snow before it blows next to your home. The most effective windbreaks are located a distance of two to five times the mature height of the trees away from the house.

Then turn around and plant a deciduous tree on the south side of your home. Its foliage will shade your house from solar heat in the summer while still allowing sunlight to hit and warm your home in the winter.

A tree-shaded neighborhood can be upwards of 6 degrees cooler in the summer than a treeless area; and a new, well-planned landscape can reduce a former unshaded home's air conditioning costs by 15-50 percent.

It doesn't take long to see the effects. A 6-8 foot deciduous tree will start shading your house and windows in the first year and, depending on the species, it will be shading your roof for 5-10 years. Once mature, they can screen 70-90 percent of the sun's rays from baking your roof.

You can also plant trees with lower crowns to the west of your house. This will provide shade that compensates for the lower afternoon sun.

Enhance the insulating effects of the dead air space you created with the windbreak by planting shrubs, bushes, vines and ground cover plants near and around your home to reduce heat radiation and cool the air before it reaches the outskirts of your house. In order to reap the full benefits, place the plants so there is at least one foot of space between full grown plants and the walls of your home. 

For best results, try xeriscaping which simply means using plant species that are native to your local climate. That way your energy-saving landscaping is sure to last and require little maintenance.

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According to the United States Department of Agriculture's Plant Hardiness Zone Map, plants that easily adapt to zones 3b-5b are most suitable for South Dakota's climate. Most purchased plants provide tags that list specific care instructions and the ideal climate zones for each particular plant so it makes shopping a breeze. See the entire United States map here.

If you have more questions you can also call, email or stop by one of the South Dakota's Master Gardener hotline locations with any of your gardening questions. They are available now until October 1. Or, you can submit questions year-round to Ask an Expert.

It should be noted that the most important step to take before sinking your shovel into the ground is to contact South Dakota One Call to locate all underground utilities. The free call to 811 is quick, easy and the law.

For more information on native South Dakota plants and various tips for planting season, check out "Living Landscapes in South Dakota: A Guide to Native Plantscaping," produced by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.