woman choosing tree at nursery

Nearly half of all home energy use is for heating and cooling. Nationally, this adds up to a lot of energy! Many of us already do things to save energy, like keeping the thermostat down and sealing gaps and cracks in the home envelope, but what else can be done? One helpful tactic is to look to the yard for landscaping techniques that save energy.

This approach to landscaping involves creating shade when you don’t want the heat of the sun and preventing heat loss in cold weather. Strategically placed vines, trees, and bushes can serve as a windbreak in cold weather or provide shade during the cooling season. Landscaping for energy efficiency is a great long-term investment that also beautifies your property.

Consider Your Climate Zone

It is important to start by considering your climate. There are four climate zones in the United States: temperate, hot-arid, hot-humid, and cool. Begin by identifying your climate zone on the Department of Energy website as this will set the foundation for your landscaping strategy.

If you live in a warm climate and crank the air conditioning more than the heat, dedicate your efforts to keeping your home cool. If you live in a colder climate and run the heat for much of the year, focus your attention on keeping your home warm.

house with shade and sun exposure
Deciduous trees provide more shade in the summer when you need it, but less in the winter when you want the sun’s heat. Image by Patrick Turban from Pixabay

Cold or Temperate Climates

Maximize Sunlight in Cold Weather

In cooler areas, it is important to allow the sun to help heat the home in the winter. Don’t block the winter sun from hitting your exterior walls and windows.

One strategy is to use deciduous trees (not coniferous trees) because they will lose their leaves in the winter. This allows the trees to provide shade in the summer when you want it but not in the winter. If you live in a very cold climate, it might be best to avoid trees on the south side of the home; branch shade can prevent the natural warming effects of the sun.

Maximizing the winter sun will also help to make the home brighter in the cold weather, reducing the need for artificial light.

Block the Winter Wind

Plant trees to provide a windbreak to cut your winter energy use.

Determine where the prevailing wind originates, and plant rows of trees perpendicular to the wind. Typically, the best place for a windbreak is on the west or northwest side of the home. If you live in a windy location and have space, plant two to three rows of trees.

Allow space between the trees so they can properly grow. Choose a species of tree effective at blocking the wind that is suitable for your climate and the amount of sun it will receive. Make sure you pick trees that will do well in your plant hardiness zone.

Hot Climates

The tactics vary a bit between hot-arid and hot-humid climates, but some generalities apply.

Plant vegetation to shade the roof, walls, and windows during the warmer months. If you do not use air conditioning, channel breezes towards the home to promote natural ventilation. This is done by encouraging the prevailing winds towards living spaces with a funnel of plants and other features, as explained in Energy-Wise Landscape Design, by Sue Reed.

Try strategically planting a row of trees or construct outbuildings and fences parallel to winds but angled slightly inward towards the home. In hot-arid climates, deflect winds away from the house if it is air-conditioned.

Other Green Considerations

Most trees and bushes need to be irrigated while they are still being established. To cut down on water use, select plant species that are drought tolerant and don’t need much supplemental water after a year or so.

Many native species fit the bill and will have more wildlife value than their ornamental counterparts. Conversely, planting fruit or nut trees is a great way to produce more of your own food if a deciduous tree is suitable. If you plan on installing solar panels or already have them, avoid shading the south side of the roof. Even branch shade from deciduous trees can have a noticeable impact on solar energy output.

Fall is a good time to plant new trees and shrubs. You don’t need to wait for next year. Having a green thumb can help you go green.

Originally published on September 26, 2019, this article was updated in August 2021.

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.