Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Book Review: Energy-Wise Landscape Design

This is a woefully late review, but since I have nothing blooming and can't participate in Garden Blogger's Bloom Day, I figured this is a perfect time for a better late than never post.

I won Energy-Wise Landscape Design: A New Approach for your Home and Garden, by Sue Reed, in a contest on Garden Rant way back in August (FTC Disclaimer: yes, this book was free). I immediately liked the organizations that is based around how to arrange your landscape, how to design it, how to construct it, and how to generate energy. A couple of years ago I attended a natural landscaping symposium and I saw a presentation by Pat Armstrong of Prairie Sun Consultants (who for some reason doesn't have a website!!) about how she and her husband designed their home using passive solar approaches, natural evergreen windbreaks, and one of the most outstanding prairie restorations in northern Illinois. I was already growing many native plants in my garden, but I was inspired by the holistic energy conservation embodied in this house design. I was hoping to learn some specific ways to incorporate these types of ideas into my own existing home landscape by reading Reed's book.

Unfortunately for me, most of the methods in this book are best applied to new construction. Let me emphasize that Reed's ideas and tips are sensible, easy to understand and would certainly accomplish energy efficiency in every sense of the term. From shading your home in summer to capturing the sun's heat in winter, from using water efficiently to building environmentally friendly structures, Reed covers every conceivable aspect of landscape design (plants, hardscape, buildings, energy generators, I mean everything). But the vast majority of these actions are not applicable on a small, established suburban lot like mine.

For example, I can't significantly change the way that mature trees shade my house at inopportune times because many of them are on my neighbors' properties. Removing and redesigning my driveway is also not spatially feasible on a 1/4-acre lot. Of course none of this is Reed's fault nor does it make her book less valid in its knowledge; it just means it's less useful for those of us on typical suburban lots.

In general, Reed's discussions of native and regionally appropriate plants are cogent and informative for people unaccustomed to gardening with natives. She explains the ecological value of native plants, how to match plants to soil conditions and ways to reduce or eliminate your lawn. Significantly, she addresses how to do this without estranging neighbors or running afoul of community regulations (an ever-present worry here in the Suburban Wasteland).

However, I was disappointed in her discussion of rain gardens. It was too vague to be directly helpful to someone trying to plant one, yet at the same time the diagrams she included showed numerous layers of materials that are not at all necessary for a functioning rain garden. She had crushed stone, rain garden soil mix (whatever that is), and geotextile fabric included in two diagrams, and I can tell you from personal experience that a rain garden will work just fine without any of those. Had I been new to the concept of rain gardens, seeing these complex diagrams and the generalized discussions warning of it becoming "a big mushy puddle in the landscape" I would have been turned off right away. And that is exactly the opposite of what this book should be doing. Now, I fully agree that rain gardens need to be designed and planted intelligently and safely, but the idea here should be to encourage, especially for something like installing water-absorbing plants, which is way easier and cheaper than ripping out and replacing your driveway.

In short, if you're buying property and building a new home and you care about energy conservation and environmentally friendly construction, this book will be an invaluable guide to developing your home landscape. If you live on a relatively small lot and/or have an established homesite, there is less that will be directly useful to you.


garden girl said...

Thank you for the review Rose! Sounds like an interesting book. Although I have issues with many of the plants here (silver maples, arborvitaes, honeysuckles, spruces,) someone did put thought into energy savings with the placement of deciduous shade trees at the south and west exposures and evergreen windbreaks at the north, east, and west exposures, and thought about storm water runoff with the (albiet previously unplanted) swale.

It's certainly a missed opportunity that the book didn't address existing construction, and too bad they made rain construction more complicated than necessary.

Excellent review!

garden girl said...

um, rain GARDEN construction, that is.

Rose said...

Another great review, Rose! I'm glad you were honest in your evaluation; not every gardening book suits the needs of every gardener. This one sounds like a good resource for new builders or landscape designers, not for the rest of us, though. I don't know much about rain gardens, but I'm interested in learning more. Our newspaper featured a story some time ago about a local project creating some small rain gardens in a neighborhood where the street frequently flooded. I don't remember reading anything about their using the materials Reed mentions, just choosing the right plants. But thanks for reminding me that this is something I want to do a little research on this winter.

Hope you didn't get too much snow last night--we've got a fresh coat of white!

rambleonrose said...

GG--That's great that you have trees that can help with energy conservation! I think all the trees around here are doing the opposite of what would be helpful!

Rose--If you're interested in learning more about rain gardens, I have a couple posts from May '10 and May '09 where I talk about how I built and planted mine. Or just feel free to email me anytime (I've become quite a fan of rain gardens). Also, check out Prairie Rivers network ( ); I saw a presentation by one of their scientists a while back and it was very informative and easy-to-use advice...nothing that a home gardener couldn't handle. Hope this helps!

Mr. McGregor's Daughter said...

Well, that's disappointing. I was hoping there'd be something for us in older, established subdivisions.

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