RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—As the hot days of summer approach and energy prices continue to climb, it's time to start thinking of low-cost ways to reduce your cooling bill while staying comfortably cool.
There are lots of electricity-free home-cooling tricks, including reflective roof paint for your house and ice-cold gel packs for your neck. Add to that a selection of outdoor sources of shade, and you may just be able to avoid turning on your air conditioner (or at least, turn it on less often).
Any bit of shade you can cast on your south- or west-facing walls will help reduce your home's heat gain and thus lower your utility bills. Planting shade trees in strategic locations is a good long-term plan, but even the fastest-growing kinds, such as hybrid poplars, will take years to grow tall and wide enough to provide meaningful shade. Interior or exterior shades or awnings are another option, but they can cost real money.
The answer? Fast-growing "living shades" that you can plant this weekend, which will be cutting your energy bills as early as mid-July. Free-standing plants, placed in a garden bed or in large containers lined up along the south or west walls of your house, are quick-growing and inexpensive sources of shade, or you can opt to start shade vines that will crawl up the side of your house or porch. Even a row of hanging baskets with trailing plants in them, an upside-down tomato planter or two, for instance, or window boxes with hanging plants, can cast a meaningful patch of shade on the wall below the window. Every little bit will help, so do what you can and enjoy the home-cooling goodness of green plants!
Shady Free-Standing Plants
Plant or place pots containing the following varieties a few feet away from your walls to allow for air circulation. If planting in your garden, seed a double row if you have room, staggering the plants in a zigzag pattern for optimal shade.
• Sunflowers (Helianthus sp.): Tall, single-head seed varieties like ‘Mammoth’ and ‘Sunzilla’ can reach 16 feet in optimal conditions. Birds love the mature heads in fall and winter.
• Corn (Zea mays): Dry types of corns, such as ‘Hickory King’ or ‘Bloody Butcher’, tend to be taller than sweet corn and can reach 12 feet tall. Some types have reddish foliage. Harvest the ears for grinding or let your local wildlife enjoy it.
• Broom corn (Sorghum vulgare): This is actually a type of sorghum, with stiff seed heads used to make brooms. A large annual grass that grows 6 to 15 feet tall, broom corn is available with a range of red, brown, and yellow seed heads. Birds love the seeds.
• Cannas (Canna sp.): Although actually a perennial, in temperate climates cannas can be grown as an annual from roots. Tall varieties can reach 6 to 10 feet tall. The tropical foliage can be green, reddish, or variegated, and the showy flowers can be yellow, pink, red, or variegated.
Fast perennial options (they grow tall each summer, die and/or get trimmed to the ground each winter): Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), tall ornamental grasses, and tall perennial flowers such as joe-pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) and golden glow rudbeckia (Rudbeckia laciniata hortensia).