Thursday, July 26, 2007

Using Illinois Native Plants for Low Maintenance Landscaping

Using Illinois Native Plants for Low Maintenance Landscaping

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Three years ago as I was mowing the bit of yard between the fence and the alley behind my house I found myself wondering what I could do with this little strip of land that might make it look better and free me from cutting it every week. A conventional flower bed was out of the question since the soil there contains a lot of sand and gravel, and drains very quickly.

Would prairie plants do well there? It seemed worth a try.

I stopped by the Grand Prairie Friends plant sale at Lincoln Square in Urbana where I got great advice and great plants at a rock bottom price. (Alas, plant sales have already ended this year, but they’ll be back next spring.)

Installing the plants was fairly simple. First I mowed the existing grass and weeds as short as I could. Then I covered the ground with layers of newspaper, and piled mulch on top of that to kill off the competition. Finally, I put in my new prairie plants right through holes in the paper and mulch.

Now, I did have to water those plants in that first year, and I still pull weeds from among them. But on the whole, my plan for a low maintenance border composed of prairie plants has worked out quite well.

The planting is anchored by two grasses native to central Illinois, prairie dropseed, which is characterized by slender, flowing leaves, and little bluestem, which turns an attractive straw color in fall and stands up through the winter. Interspersed with these grasses are a variety of native flowers, including some very familiar ones, like purple coneflowers and black-eyed Susans, as well as some that are a little less conventional, which are my favorites. These include rattlesnake master, Illinois’ tough-as-nails version of a yucca plant, and wild hairy petunia, a low-growing plant that puts out a new array of delicate, lavender flowers each morning, only to drop them in the afternoon.

My own use of native plants to create a low-maintenance border has made me attuned to use of them elsewhere.

The Master Plan for the U of I campus encourages the use of native plants, which are especially noticeable in the landscaping around newer buildings. For example, the plantings around the Siebel Center include prairie dropseed and purple coneflower, as well as a native ginger and spiderwort. Just this spring the strip of land between the sidewalk along Kirby Avenue and the big parking lot west of the Assembly Hall was planted entirely with little bluestem, as a way of beautifying the area and making it easier to maintain.

The City of Urbana, too, favors the use of native perennials in landscapes it maintains. You can see prairie dropseed and little bluestem in the median on Race street downtown. And there’s a more extensive mix of native plants included in the median planting on North Cunningham up near Interstate 74.

I’m reminded here of the quote from Ladybird Johnson that was repeated as people marked her passing last week. In commenting on the use of native flowers to beautify highways she once said, “I want Texas to look like Texas, and Vermont to look like Vermont.”

I suppose you could say that when we use native plants in our landscaping, we let Illinois look like Illinois.

[For an excellent resource check out the book Native Plants in the Home Landscape for the Upper Midwest, published by University of Illinois Extension.]

Thursday, July 19, 2007

U of I Teams Designs and Constructs Self-Sustaining House to Compete in Solar Decathlon

U of I Teams Designs and Constructs Self-Sustaining House to Compete in Solar Decathlon

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Imagine life in a house that takes care of itself. No, not a house that picks up after you. One that harnesses the power of the sun to generate electricity--all of the energy you need for heating and cooling, hot water, lighting, and appliances. Then go a step further, and imagine that your house collects enough extra solar energy to power a small electric car for commuting to work or running errands around town.

For a group of imaginative faculty and students at the University of Illinois, such a house is not a pipe dream, but rather a concrete, near-term goal. They are in the final stages of constructing a three-room, modular house that is entirely self-sustaining. [Left: James Young, a junior in Engineering, works on decks
and wheelchir ramps for the solar house. Photo by Vanda Bidwell for the Champaign

The house will serve as the U of I’s entry in the Solar Decathlon, a competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The competition brings together 20 college teams from around the world in a contest “to design, build, and operate the most livable, energy-efficient completely solar-powered house.” [Click here to link to the U of I Solar Decathlon team's website.]

Teams will transport their entries to the National Mall in Washington D.C. this October. There they will be judged on how well they meet demands for energy, as well as their architectural integrity and aesthetic appeal.

The U of I’s entry into the Solar Decathlon has benefited from the involvement of more than a dozen faculty members who have donated their time and expertise to project. In addition, more than 150 undergraduate students, in disciplines that include industrial design, engineering, architecture, and computer science, have played a role in the creation of the house.

Teams competing in the Solar Decathlon will earn points by performing the tasks of everyday life in their houses—cooking, washing dishes, and doing laundry, as well as running a computer and television. Beyond that they must also store enough of the power generated by the house to operate their electric car.

The most practical way to create a house that can meet all of its energy needs with solar power is to reduce the demand for energy through conservation. Thus the walls of the U of I team’s solar house boast four times the insulation value of the current standard for home construction. The windows far exceed current standards, too. They are specially designed to let in light and provide a view, but they are relatively small, and oriented to decrease undesirable warming in the summer.

The solar house generates electricity by means of commercially produced solar panels mounted above the roof. Over the lifetime of the panels, the cost for the electricity they provide will be about the same as if it were purchased from a utility. The energy cost of running the electric vehicle using solar power actually works out to be less than that of a gasoline powered vehicle.

In speaking about the U of I solar house, Ty Newell, a professor of mechanical engineering, and one of many faculty members who has helped to move the project forward, emphasizes that the Solar Decathlon is not about far out technology. Instead, he says “It’s meant to be a display to people that being comfortable and conserving energy aren’t two different things, that we can build a house that requires only 10 percent of the energy a typical house today requires, build it with today’s technologies and show that it saves money.”

I would add that such a display reminds us we have it within our grasp to meet the challenges of rising energy costs and global warming, if we are willing to adjust our priorities.