Consider these landscape projects that give back

While winter continues to dominate on the landscape front, enjoy the reduced demands out there and consider what projects or measures might reduce those demands during the growing season, or provide other benefits.

Recently I wrote about plants that give back, and today I’d like to feature a few projects that give back.

Do recall that you don’t need a yard of your own to consider some of these. You may have a business, a homeowner association, a church or a nonprofit that you care about. Projects that give back work at all scales, providing benefits that can save money, time, effort, pesticides, fuel, water or energy.

Shade hard surfaces

Story continues below gallery

We know that hard surfaces absorb the sun’s energy during the day, and radiate it back into the atmosphere at night. In cities and towns, this combined effect fosters temperatures that can average five degrees higher than that of the nearby countryside. The impact of this urban heat island effect, as it is called, can be reduced by shading paved and other hard surfaces such as buildings and vehicles.

A recent trip to the treeless desert southwest gave me a look at parking lots shaded with structures bearing solar cells. This seems like a win-win in a hot, sunny climate that doesn’t otherwise support trees. Traditions in hot climates have also included lower-tech means of shading, such as architectural materials and design methods, fabric shades and earth shelters. In our temperate climate, well-managed trees shading parking lots, streets and driveways can improve comfort as well as energy savings. For more on how to quantify those savings, see the National Tree Benefit Calculator at

Shading the south and southwest sides of a structure with deciduous trees is also well-understood as an approach to improving comfort and saving energy. Deciduous trees, which drop their leaves in winter, are called for because we want the sun’s energy to reach our structures in the winter.

Cycle nutrients, water

Cycling nutrients on site or in the community enables us to use nutrients that are already on hand – in the form or leaves, grass clippings, garden or kitchen waste – rather than buying them.

As I write, our kitchen compost bucket sits two feet away. My son just returned from emptying it onto the compost bin outside, adding eggshells, banana peels, grapefruit rinds, vegetable peelings and coffee grounds to the mix. After these items decompose, the compost is added to our vegetable garden or to potting mixes. Soil tests show our garden soil to be outstanding, and I have never added fertilizer. Research at Cornell University also shows that plants grown with compost are typically more resistant to pests.

Cycling water in the landscape can take the shape of rain barrels, raingardens or structures directing stormwater to where it is needed. Rain barrels, as in our case at home, might provide water at a more convenient spot than can existing spigots. For more on harvesting rain, go online at

Reduce lawn

Turfgrass is known as a traffic-resistant groundcover, meaning one can walk on it. If you don’t need to walk in certain areas of a landscape – especially if they are steep or shaded — another groundcover may offer a favorable change. Groundcovers such as barrenwort (for shade) or Aaronsbeard St. Johnswort (for sun) work well in the Columbus area and need only to be cut back once a year in the fall (think lawnmower or weed eater).

New construction or changing conditions can provide an opportunity to evaluate whether turfgrass — with its ongoing maintenance demands – is the right groundcover for a situation.

Plant something edible

Maybe a garden isn’t for you, but edibles planted in the landscape can provide food, beauty and enjoyment without the extra work. Plants such as asparagus, rhubarb and Juneberry are known to work well in the landscape. Out in full sun, pawpaw trees take on a beautiful shape, giving up the typical shrubbiness and providing their fruit. For a patio or deck, varieties of tomato, cucumber and eggplant are now available for pots. It’s rewarding to grow something for your table.

If you would like more on these ideas, feel free to contact our office, and also watch for the Landscape 101 series offered in March and April at Bartholomew County Public Library.

Kris Medic is Purdue Extension Bartholomew County’s educator for agriculture, natural resources and community development. She can be reached at 812-379-1665 or