This article was originally published on Houzz on Nov. 28, 2013, as "How to Start Finding a Greener House," and is presented here with permission. Read the original article.

So you’re looking for a new home, and you want it to be as green and environmentally responsible as possible. Perhaps it’s because you heard that you can save on utility bills if you have an energy-efficient home. Maybe you dig the look. Or maybe you want to try to be an ethical consumer in the face of environmental concerns.

But there’s a lot to navigate if you’re not very familiar with green building and sustainable architecture. Here are just a few tips to help you get started with your search, whether it be for an apartment, a home or a building lot, and whether it be a rural, suburban or urban setting.

Photo credit: Image Design LLC; original photo on Houzz.

Ask questions, then ask more questions and then even more specific questions.

If there’s any one sweeping statement that can be made about the green building industry, it’s that the truth is in the details.

To the naked, untrained eye, it can be tricky to discern the green from the “greenwash,” which is disinformation presented to fake an environmentally responsible public image. The best way to avoid getting duped is to ask about every single detail you can think of, even if you don’t know much about green building.

Do as much research as you can about each site you seriously consider. Ask the occupants for previous utility bills; ask the realtor for official environmental certifications; ask the builder about the detailing; ask the architect about environmental goals in the design; and ask the neighbors about the setting and climate.

Once the information starts flooding in, you can assemble a sustainability portfolio for each site you are considering. By the end of your search, you’ll be able to make a more informed decision based on energy ratings, environmental certifications, scientific observations and first-hand experiences.

Photo credit: Picpics; original photo on Houzz.

Stand on the site and spot the sun.

One fundamental aspect of sustainable design is solar orientation. A building that takes advantage of the sun’s heat in winter and shades it from the sun’s rays in summer is one step closer to efficiency. This is why so many building energy simulations start by asking for the ratio of window to wall on the north, south, east and west sides of the building.

What you’re looking for will depend on your local climate. Do you want the house to heat up in the winter? Then make sure there is nothing blocking the winter sun from shining through the windows.

Do you want to keep your house cool in the summer? Then check out the external shading—not just over the windows, but over the walls as well.

We use an app called Sun Surveyor whenever we are evaluating a site. It helps you understand where the sun rises, sets and peaks in all seasons, relative to your site. You can even see where the sun will hide behind a neighboring building or looming mountain. 

Photo credit: Allen Construction; original photo on Houzz.

Does the site or building design make use of its setting?

A truly sustainable home will be integrated with its environment and region in ways that go beyond its orientation toward the sun. Even the architectural style can give you clues about how well the designer has responded to local building methods and materials.

Remember that green living extends beyond the property line. Does the house or building you’re looking at take advantage of existing infrastructure and services, without infringing on virgin land? Is it well connected with public transportation, giving you the option to green your commute as well? One fantastic resource for evaluating various neighborhoods in the U.S. is WalkScore, a site dedicated to grading communities on their pedestrian friendliness. 

Photo credit: Exteriorscapes LLC; original photo on Houzz.

Does the home or apartment building have any sort of energy efficiency documentation? 

Here’s where it may get tricky. There’s a lot going on behind walls and under slabs that you may not immediately see, such as these rainwater cisterns tied into an irrigation system for a Seattle home (above).

Certifications and other kinds of documentation about a house can be one way to get reliable information about what’s going on. 

Photo credit: Image Design LLC; original photo on Houzz.

These days, there are a lot of energy efficiency certifications floating around, some of them more reliable than others. They range from entire building energy simulations to kitchen appliance ratings.

As a place to start, I would ask about any local, regional or state energy certifications to see if the home you are looking at claims any specific advantage over average homes on the market.

Then, of course, you’ll need to vet that certification scheme to make sure it actually has some substance to it.

You can do this by asking a green building professional for a mini-consultation to evaluate the information you’ve been given. Or you can get your hands dirty and investigate yourself.

There are also many third-party voluntary certification schemes such as LEED and Passive House (the two that I work with most often), which require extensive documentation in order to receive a certification. Once you ask for copies of that paperwork, you can learn a lot more about the strengths and weaknesses of the building 

Photo credit: New Energy Works Timberframers; original photo on Houzz.

In the end, you are the most important factor in making a home green.

We need to start thinking about our houses the way we think about our electronics. We can’t just expect it to do everything for us; we have to know how to use our houses correctly to get the best results.

The more we understand why our home functions the way it does, the more we can start to optimize its performance. And that’s what green building is really all about: optimizing efficiency and sustainability.

Related articles

Kitchens are a place where you spend a lot of time at home, preparing food, making coffee, washing dishes—and those activities use a lot of water and electricity. Also, having a place for food prep that's clean and nontoxic makes choosing the right countertops important. Your kitchen can even contribute to your home's overall health by incorporating homegrown herbs or a composting station.

Here's how to have a kitchen so green that you're the envy of all your neighbors:

Appliances

One of the best ways to save energy in your kitchen is through Energy Star-certified appliances. Refrigerators, freezers and dishwashers that meet these standards can save you money as well as cut down on energy use. For instance, an Energy Star refrigerator is about 9 percent more efficient than a regular model, and can save you about $270 over five years. 

You can further save energy by using your appliances more strategically. Make sure you only run the dishwasher when it's full, and turn the dial to the "air-dry" rather than "heat-dry" setting. You can even cut down on smaller energy drains, such as coffee makers, by programming them to turn on and off at certain times. 

Countertops

Choosing countertops for your kitchen means making decisions about safe materials, life cycle and durability, and eco-friendly sourcing. Diverse materials, such as concrete, glass tile, recycled paper or plastic, wood, stone or stainless steel may be used, depending on your needs and aesthetic. Green Home Guide's buyer's guide to countertop materials breaks down the pros and cons of these substances, as well as their typical cost.

With some surfaces, you'll also need to consider sealants. For instance, if you're sealing a butcher block countertop, make sure that you use safe, low-VOC finishes to take care of your wood.

Water use

Saving water is a priority for everyone hoping to reduce both their environmental footprint and their bills. Several simple steps can be taken to reduce your water use in the kitchen. Fixing leaky faucets or installing aerators, washing produce in a bowl of water and running only a full dishwasher go a long way.

Also, avoid defrosting food or melting ice under running water. Instead, you can use the microwave, or just plan further ahead by defrosting items in the refrigerator.

Food and herbs

Another aspect of keeping a green kitchen is minimizing food waste, which you can do through smart shopping, cooking and food storage strategies, such as chopping up several days' worth of veggies at one time and having them ready to go throughout the week.

You can make your own home composting station with only a little effort. See our handy how-to article on setting up composting to reduce food waste. Remember to avoid composting meat and dairy scraps and to situate it in a cool location away from direct sunlight.

Looking to add more fresh herbs to your diet? Having your own small, countertop herb garden not only provides seasoning for your cooking, it also contributes to the air-quality benefits of having live plants in your home.

See more on creating a green kitchen

Here in the Northeast, we've been warming up into spring following the unexpected March storm, Stella. Summer will be here before we know it—and with the rising temperatures, we’ll see rising energy bills.

Solar panels are a great way to offset energy costs, reduce the environmental impact of your home and provide a host of other benefits, such as supporting local businesses and contributing to energy independence.

Looking to install panels on your home? I have solar panels, and wanted to share the top four benefits as I see them:

1. Reduce or eliminate energy bills.

This one is pretty amazing. We live in Washington, D.C., which has an average amount of sun, but it’s enough to power our house of three kids and two adults at net zero energy consumption. On warm spring days, we generate a lot more than we consume, and then we trade that with the utility. On hot summer days, when we run the air conditioning, or on cloudy days, we draw from the grid.

Even if you live somewhere cloudy, such locations typically receive more than two hours of sunlight per day, while sunny locations receive an average of 5.5 hours of sunlight per day.

Although sunny days will produce more solar energy, solar panels will continue to draw energy even when the weather is cloudy. Indirect, or diffused, sunlight will still help to power your home. Cloudy days usually produce around 10 to 20 percent of the power generated on sunny days.

2. Earn tax credits and rebates.

I didn’t realize how big of a benefit this one would be, but our solar panels are actually paying us. To start, you will get 30 percent of total system costs back from equipment and installation as a federal income tax credit when you file your taxes. This means you would save $7,500 on a solar system worth $25,000.

Combine this with state and local rebates and Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs), and total costs can be cut in half. The SRECs are generated throughout the year, and you can sell them to utility companies, which generates a very impressive return on the initial investment.

Our D.C. Mayor, Muriel Bowser, signed the Renewable Portfolio Standard Expansion Act of 2016 in summer 2016. This Act, B21-0560, raises the renewable portfolio and solar requirements to 50 percent and 5 percent, respectively, by the year 2032. In addition, the bill establishes a program within the Department of Energy and the Environment to assist low-income homeowners with installing solar systems on their homes.

The idea behind the act is to incentivize the continued growth of D.C.’s solar industry, which has grown by 170 percent over the last year. 

The investment has a payback period of only 3.5 years, while the solar panels have a warranty of 10 years and useful life of 25 years—which means you generate free electricity and extra credits for 20+ years. It's hard to beat. It's both socially responsible and economically profitable.

Many installers also offer a no-cost installation, where they front all of the money for the panels and installation and charge for electricity at a reduced rate. They are basically “leasing” your roof space and giving you a discount on the electricity in return. This is a good option for homeowners who do not want to make the initial investment or would prefer a no-money-down option. The installer collects all the proceeds from the SRECs in this case.

No matter where you live, you most likely have some amazing tax credits for solar. Take advantage of them while you still can.

3. Start saving from day one.

Annual energy costs can be in the thousands. In fact, the average annual energy expenditure per person is $3,052, including transportation and residential energy. Solar power can reduce or eliminate these costs as soon as they are installed. They also offer long-term savings, because it’s basically free to capture the power of the sun.

Solar panels significantly improve your resale value. Most home buyers understand what a home with solar panels means—especially because the system is already in place and they didn’t have to make the initial investment and installation. According to research, most homeowners see a $5,911 resale value increase per installed kilowatt. That means if you install a 3.1 kilowatt system, you could improve your home’s resale value by nearly $18,000.

Solar panels also extend the life of a roof, because they protect from the elements, such as rain, snow and debris. They make the house more energy-efficient in the summer because the hot sun is not beating down on the roof directly—it is instead being absorbed by the panels, keeping the house temperature lower.

4. Help the environment and help us all.

Solar power systems derive clean, pure energy from the sun. Installing solar panels on your home helps combat greenhouse gas emissions and reduces our collective dependence on fossil fuel. Traditional electricity is sourced from fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. When fossil fuels are burned to produce electricity, they emit harmful gases that are the primary cause of air pollution and global climate change. Not only are fossil fuels bad for the environment, but they are also a finite resource. Because of this, the price is constantly fluctuating and can increase in a short period of time.

Renewable energy also improves public health. Coal and natural gas plants produce air and water pollution that is harmful to human health. But replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, such as solar power, can reduce premature mortality as well as overall health care costs.

Although fossil fuel production requires significant water resources and causes water pollution, solar energy requires little to no water to operate. So, not only does solar power not pollute water resources, it also doesn’t put a strain on the world’s water supply.

Solar power also works during a drought or heat wave. Coal, natural gas and nuclear power use large amounts of water for cooling. During heat waves or severe droughts, as we’ve experienced in recent years, electricity generation is at risk. But solar power systems do not require water to generate electricity.

In addition, solar power creates jobs in clean energy. The U.S. has been leading the world in clean energy. Hopefully this trend will continue, in the face of government budget cuts to EPA and DOE, as innovative and forward-thinking companies continue to embrace the changing landscape of energy production and move to renewables.

Last, there are several LEED credits related to solar energy that you can investigate if you are building a green home: solar orientation, building orientation for passive solar and renewable energy.

View the LEED credit library

On Fridays, Green Home Guide shares green home-related content curated from around the web. If you see a great article on aspects of environmentally friendly home living such as green building, renovation, energy use or cleaning, please send it our way.

Good indoor air quality (IAQ) is important for any home, so that its occupants stay healthy and comfortable. We've collected a handful of recent articles that show you how to make sure the air in your home is beneficial to health:

  • Greenability offers six ways to improve indoor air quality. These tips include how to test for radon, adjust humidity levels and make smart flooring choices.
  • Learn about duct cleaning from the Do It Yourself blog. In this article, you'll find an overview of how duct cleaning contributes to IAQ, plus the steps and expense involved and what alternatives you can consider.

  • The U.S. EPA's page on protecting IAQ in your home provides several helpful resources, including guides on air cleaners and ducts, as well as tabs to bring up more information on IAQ issues specific to remodels or multifamily housing. 

Check out more tips on improving indoor air quality

We want you to have the best USGBC email experience possible and to read about the news that most interests you. That’s why we recently updated our email subscription preferences for USGBC, GBCI and our whole family of brands. Our new email subscriptions page allows you to be in charge of the types of emails you want to receive.

By updating your preferences, you ensure that you won't miss out on the best articles, updates and events.

Updating is simple. Log in to your usgbc.org account and make any desired changes to your account information. We think you’ll like what you find. Pick the content that’s relevant to you—life is too short for irrelevant emails!

Not sure how to update? Follow these four easy steps:

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Get ready to receive the most relevant content. If we missed something, let us know. To suggest other content you'd like to receive in your inbox, contact Ursula Fox-Koor.

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This article was originally published on Houzz on July 6, 2014, as "How to Recycle Your Kitchen," and is presented here with permission. Read the original article

If you like getting your hands dirty, demolition can be one of the most fun and satisfying parts of a kitchen remodel. But whether you’re going the DIY route or hiring a pro, you’re likely to end up with at least one dumpster full of trash. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 170 million tons of construction and demolition waste were generated in 2003 (the last year for which figures are available), with most of it ending up in landfills.

The sad part is that much of what ends up as waste could have been reused or recycled. While recycling building materials can take longer than simply whacking them with a sledgehammer, construction company SOD Builders says some things—such as large appliances and granite countertops—can be easily recycled with the right charity or facility.

Here you’ll learn more about what you can recycle and who might want it.

Photo: Nancy Cartwright, original photo on Houzz.

Who to hire: Green demolition is mandatory in some cities, and contractors may not get their permit deposit back if they don’t recycle a certain percentage of their construction and demolition waste.

Your general contractor (GC) may already be skilled in green demolition, or may hire a green demolition company that already has ties to local charities and can remove building materials and finishes according to their specifications. If your remodel is a DIY project, check with your municipality to find out whether any local recycling regulations apply.

Whether it’s your city or your conscience that motivates you to recycle, you may decide to hire a green demolition company yourself to keep things easy and ensure that all recyclable materials are removed properly. If you do decide to go this route, choose a reputable firm for which no complaints have been registered with the Better Business Bureau, and get references.

If you’re looking to recycle a handful of items—your appliances, countertops and cabinets, for example—you can likely handle the process yourself.

Photo: Sod Builders, Inc., original photo on Houzz.

Cost range: Because it takes more time to carefully remove building materials than to smash them with a sledgehammer, hiring a green demolition company can be more costly—up to $10,000 more per job than a regular demolition company, depending on scale and size. Fortunately, some of the extra cost can be offset by avoiding landfill charges and with tax credits earned by donating materials.

Many GCs, however, now recycle materials automatically. Oren Dagan of SOD Builders recycles many materials during a typical project. For an average kitchen, he says he usually incurs a cost of only $150 at the county recycling plant; he donates many materials for a tax write-off or reuses them in the same home.

Typical project length: About a week.

Photo: Sod Builders, Inc., original photo on Houzz.

Project considerations: If you’re working with professionals, they’re already equipped to deal with the proper removal of building materials, but if you’re doing it yourself, it’s smart to take an inventory of what you’d like to recycle and talk to local charities to determine what condition they need items to be in.

Some groups will accept only still-assembled cabinetry and countertops, while recycling plants will take scraps, remnants and small pieces. You might also consider doing a second sweep after you’re finished the remodel to donate any large remnants or unused materials instead of throwing them away.

Here are are some materials you can likely recycle or donate:

  • Kitchen appliances of all sizes
  • Cabinetry
  • Granite countertops
  • Steel, copper and brass elements—and don’t forget about plumbing
  • Lumber and plywood
  • Hardware
  • Fixtures (Including lighting, electrical and the sink)
  • Unused ceramic or vinyl tile
  • Drywall
  • New carpet and linoleum
  • Doors
  • Furnishings

Photo: Charmean Neithart Interiors, original photo on Houzz.

Getting started: Reach out to local charities about two weeks before you start the actual demo, to find out which items they’ll accept and in what condition.

Dagan donates almost all large appliances to the Salvation Army, as it accepts nonworking appliances as long as they are fixable. “I’ve never had an appliance they couldn’t fix,” says Dagan. He offers smaller appliances to Goodwill, although he doesn’t have any specific reason for splitting things up that way, other than a wish to share the wealth among multiple charities.

Habitat for Humanity also accepts a wide variety of kitchen items, from fixtures to appliances to cabinetry, although it relies on specific donation guidelines to ensure that the families who move into the homes it builds won’t get stuck with substandard materials.

Dagan also likes to recycle kitchen cabinets within the same home, and points out that old cabinetry can create great, practical storage space for a garage or workshop. If you’re getting rid of an old or damaged granite countertop, or end up with leftover pieces, Dagan says, fabricators are often happy to take them off your hands.

As for the rest, call your municipal recycling plant to find out what it accepts, whether there are fees and how those charges are calculated.

Related articles

Learn more about remodeling a kitchen sustainably

I’ll always be a California girl, and even though I’ve lived in Maryland for years now, the place that I call home has to appeal to the granola-eating, eco-conscious hippie in me. Fenwick Station, a LEED Gold, six-story multifamily residential building in downtown Silver Spring, definitely fits that bill.

Certified under LEED BD+C: New Construction, the Fenwick connects the Woodside neighborhood, Silver Spring Central Business District and public transportation hubs. Sustainable features are integrated into the property, creating a unique and inviting place to live. Silver Spring, like its neighbor Washington, D.C., is a hotbed of green buildings and infrastructure, including LEED- and Parksmart-certified buildings; Montgomery County alone has 190 LEED-certified projects.

In this area, you can find competitively priced green apartments within walking distance of shops, restaurants, entertainment and parks. After facing rent increases at my last building, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I could pay less per month and live in a beautiful building in the same neighborhood. Score.

Photo and feature image credit Max Zhang Photography.

Look good, feel good

Making the decision to live at the Fenwick was easy because it looks good. Beyond the fine finishes of the interior décor, the building also features colorful murals, sculptures and art installations from local artists. The amenities spaces—club room, gym, courtyard and pool, roof terrace, library and meeting areas—all flow into one another, so it feels like it’s one big communal space. The intention was to design artful, inviting and engaging social places, and to select materials—such as wood, steel, decorative concrete and resin graphic panels—that evoke a sense of authenticity and craftsmanship in the way they age.

Inside the units, big windows let in lots of daylight. Modern design and Energy Star stainless steel appliances set a clean tone for the living spaces, and eco-friendly carpet runs through the bedrooms. When I moved in, I felt an urgent need to declutter my life and donate or repurpose the literal baggage that I’d schlepped from apartment to apartment.

Go anywhere, anytime

The Fenwick is accessible by multiple walking and bike paths and is a five-minute walk to the Silver Spring Metro station, MARC train station and bus transit hub. I don’t own a car, so it was important for me to access multiple modes of transportation from my doorstep. At USGBC, we emphasize transit-oriented design for green buildings—and as someone who grew up in the suburbs driving everywhere, I do feel it improves quality of life to have freedom to move, without being tethered to the cost of a car.

Track and manage consumption

Each residence is decked out with pretty, energy-efficient appliances, and water fixtures in the bathroom are minimal flush and flow (yes, the water pressure is slightly less, but that’s a reasonable compromise.) This not only helps me conserve water, but also energy, which is individually metered by the local utility.

I manage the temperature of my apartment using the utility panel in my home, as well as online through the utility’s website, which helps reduce cost. My average electric bill is about $60 cheaper than average for a comparable unit, and my biggest electric expense goes to heating water (can’t live without those hot showers.) While I was always pretty conscious about conserving resources, having easy access to the information has motivated me to find more opportunities to scale back usage.

Grow amidst green

The landscaping around the building is also full of life. This project was one of the first in the area to implement the county’s stringent stormwater management regulations on a tight urban site, driving creative solutions that integrate those needed facilities and ultimately gave the building its distinct, green look. Native greenery has been woven into the architecture, streetscape, amenity courtyard and roof terrace using the same materials and detailing as the rest of the building. The plant palette also supports native insect and bird habitat, and the green roof was designed for a variety of sun exposures and seed dispersal methods for continuous regeneration and climatic adaptation. I’ll take this surrounding over a concrete jungle any day.

The bottom line: my building fits my life. I don’t have to travel far on foot or bike to see friends, shop at the local farmer’s market, see a concert at the Fillmore or hit up a 7-Eleven for a taquito. Like many who work in sustainability, I know that my ability to contribute doesn’t end when I leave the office. I am fortunate to be able to choose where I live, and as more renters decide to put their dollars toward residential buildings like the Fenwick, sustainable housing will not just be preferred in the marketplace, it will become the norm.

Look up LEED-certified multifamily projects in your area

Windows can be both a friend and an enemy to the energy efficiency of your home: They are an ideal resource for harnessing heat from the sun, while at the same time, a potential source of waste, leaking your heated or cooled air and increasing your energy bills. Indeed, your windows are responsible for as much as 20 percent of the energy loss in your home. With a few tips, you can harness your windows’ power without the waste.

We can take few tips from passive solar homes, which are designed to work in harmony with nature by capturing thermal energy through the strategic use of glass and shade. But even without a solar house, you can learn to use the sun as your own personal heater—simply turn it off and on with the use of shades or blinds. Here are a few considerations for easy year-round energy maximization.

Keep out the cold

For insulating your windows in the winter months, one of the best options is cellular shades, which feature pockets that create layers between your snug living space and the chilly outdoors. Cellular shades come in varying levels of thickness: singe cell, double cell and triple cell. The higher the thickness, the better the insulation.

Roman shades with an insulated liner are also good options. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Roman shades act as both insulation and barrier to the cold air. Adding drapes around shades creates an additional blockage between the cold air and your home.

Keep shades open during the day on windows that get full sun to welcome solar warmth, and close them when the sun sets to create a barrier against the colder temperatures. On windows that don’t get a lot of sun, keep shades closed to protect your room from the cool air that may seep through the glass, and add drapes on top of that for even greater insulation. White and light-colored window treatments filter in some sunlight to prevent a room from feeling too dark and dreary.

Block out the heat 

In warmer climates or summer months, shades can still act as a buffer, but in the opposite way: keeping the heat out and the cool air inside. Especially helpful on west- and south-facing windows, shades block the strong summer sun to keep a room comfortable. Blackout shades are particularly effective in blocking out heat and keeping rooms cooler.

Shutters and blinds are also an effective option at keeping heat out, according to the U.S. Department of Energy: “When completely closed and lowered on a sunny window, highly reflective blinds can reduce heat gain by around 45 percent. They can also be adjusted to block and reflect direct sunlight onto a light-colored ceiling. A light-colored ceiling will diffuse the light without much heat or glare.

As the position and strength of the sun changes throughout the day and the year, using and adjusting window treatments strategically in your home will help you maximize their energy-saving effects.

Read our roundup of ways to be more efficient with windows and doors

The U.S. EPA has a great resource for homeowners looking to estimate their carbon footprint: the Carbon Footprint Calculator.

This quick online tool covers the categories of home energy, transportation and waste. To start, you plug in your zip code and the number of people in your household. Then, for each of the three sectors, enter your current usage, as well as actions you might take to reduce it in the future, such as adjusting your thermostat or driving fewer miles.

The calculator adjusts as you go, giving you a total compared with the U.S. average for the zip code and number of people in your home. Click "View the report" at the end to see a graphic breakdown of your planned actions and how they translate into reduced CO2 and dollars saved. 

Try the Carbon Footprint Calculator

On Fridays, Green Home Guide shares green home-related content curated from around the web. If you see a great article on aspects of environmentally friendly home living such as green building, renovation, energy use or cleaning, please send it our way.

Spring officially starts on March 20, and before you know it, it will be time to think about gardening. Green Home Guide has rounded up a few useful articles for you:

  • Do you live in a dry climate? Curbed's article about drought-resistant landscaping shares tips for locating your garden site, choosing plants and reducing water waste.
  • The Missouri Botanical Garden compiled tips on sustainable gardening that include how to recycle plant material and pots and how to incorporate rainscaping features and other water collection methods.

  • OneYardRevolution's video "How to Grow a Lot of Food in a Small Garden" offers nine tips for growing more food sustainably in less space:

 

Learn how to create a community garden