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Edible Shade

Edible Shade

By: Greg Peterson

The electric bill at my home the Urban Farm, was $350 a few years back…that was for the whole year in the middle of the Sonoran desert.  Credit for some 40 percent of the bill reduction can be given directly to the solar panels that live on the roof.  The rest relies on getting creative and continually finding a variety of additional ways to coax my electric bill ever closer to the “Holy Grail” of $0 per year.

The first comment people always make once they learn about my electric usage is, “You must not have air-conditioning!”  Ah, but I do… however, my evaporative cooler is the first line of defense against our intense desert heat until the humidity wins out - usually sometime in July - then my air conditioner comes to the rescue.  You see, I stick to a very important personal rule -- living a green life is not about suffering or doing without, it is about making wise economic and environmental choices. 

The yard at the Urban Farm is chock-full of all kinds of edibles, as I have spent much of the last 23 years landscaping the entire yard with only things we can eat.  So, as you might imagine, my brain couldn’t resist attempting to figure out how I could overlap growing food and reducing my electric bill at the same time. I came up with a strategy of creating edible shade that surrounds my home.  This course of action began with paying attention to the processes that naturally occur around my home.  And nature is a wonderful, almost magical thing that provides us with much to observe.

West-facing walls that take the brunt of the summer afternoon heat, and there are a multitude of edible solutions that help us tackle the dreaded monster electric bill. My outdoor kitchen faces west and a few years ago the 70+ year-old grapefruit tree decided its lifespan was complete. Just about that same time a nonchalant Thompsons seedless grape vine decided to hoist itself into the 20 foot tall canopy provided by the barren tree trunk and limbs.  My job was easy -- pay attention to nature. Before long, a “grape tree” developed in the heart of the former grapefruit tree branches.  These days my morphed tree provides more than enough shade for my outdoor kitchen and a couple hundred pounds of grapes to boot. 

The west wall of my office also was ripe for an edible shade solution.  So I attached wire fencing to hang from the rafters and today the far-reaching tendrils of the grapevine, as well as loofa gourds, happily grow there. In the heat of the summer both plants grow in harmony creating a dense blanket of foliage between the wall and the sun and significantly reduce the temperature of the wall.

In my east-facing front yard I have taken a little bit different tact.  The area on the northeast corner of the house is the lucky recipient of the greywater that flows from one of the bathrooms. Greywater is the water that normally flows down the sink and shower drains to the sewer.  In Arizona, we have regulations in place that allow us to legally use it to water our landscape, and I have done just that.  The center-piece for the front shade and the greywater system is a Screwbean mesquite tree that is growing straight up, nearly 20 feet.  I anticipate that it will reach a final height of about 30 feet and provide a nice filtered shade that allows enough light through to grow other things under it. I took this opportunity to nuzzle two apricot and three cherry trees, all of which are bearing fruit this year, under the filtered shade and next to the house.  The fruit trees create the same kind of barrier to dissipate the extreme summer heat in the front as the grape vines provide in the back, adding more savings on my electric bill!

Although I did not plant the ash tree on the northwest corner of my home, this 50-foot gentle giant also provides summer shade and is responsible for at least a ten-degree temperature drop for half of my house " again significantly cutting electricity costs. While the Ash tree doesn’t provide an edible harvest, it supplies bushels of leaves each year that I use to make great organic garden mulch.

There is a great deal of thought that goes into every corner of my yard.  Developing strategies to shade the house and grow healthy food are two of my favorite budget-saving efforts. To discover your own electricity savers, just sit back and think about how you might most effectively add some edible shade around your home. The financial and edible “fruits” of your efforts will be well worth it.
Greg Peterson IS the Urban Farm, an international educational showcase for urban farming, solar applications and alternative building materials.Visit UrbanFarm.Org

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