The Phoenix Garden Pool
What one family in Mesa, Arizona did with an empty swimming pool will surprise you.
The McClung family bought a home in AZ in 2009. The property was a foreclosure and included an empty and broken swimming pool that the McClung’s didn’t plan on utilizing for its intended purpose. Instead, the family stuck to a goal they had made two years prior to be more self-sufficient. They filled the pool, but not with dirt or cement. Instead, the McClungs turned it into a closed-loop ecosystem that has been affectionately been dubbed the “Garden Pool.”
At first, it really was a desire to get more in touch with food and how it is grown. “It’s not every day you see people grow their own food,” Dennis commented in the embedded video above. People in the arid Arizona environment especially seemed afraid to live off what seemed to be less than hospitable land. Arizona only gets a little more than nine inches of rainfall a year.
The McClung’s Garden Pool grows everything from broccoli, potatoes, sorghum, and wheat. It’s not just meant to be vegetable garden and is home to chickens, tilapia, algae, and duckweed. The food produced from their garden is enough to feed their family of five, cutting their monthly grocery bill by 50-75%.
The garden doesn’t use traditional soil. Instead, it grows plants in clay pellets or coconut coir. The soil uses water from the pond constructed in the deep end along with a rain catchment system, which means the garden requires a small fraction of watering compared to a conventional garden. According to Dennis McClung’s estimations, it uses 90% less water than your average backyard garden.
Garden pond uses solar energy and doesn’t use commercial fertilizer—it gets that from the animals living breathing and *ahem* excreting in the enclosed structure. The chicken excrement falls through a wire mesh covering a portion of the pond and feeds the algae and duckweed below.
The tilapia live off of the plants that grow in the pond and consume those plants and excrete a nitrogen-rich “product.” That nutrient rich water is then pumped out via a solar-powered electric pump and funneled into the hydroponics system that grows the produce.
The McClungs don’t use pesticides. Rather, they introduce other creatures like ladybugs to control the aphid population and grow garlic and marigolds to repel spider mites. It’s all self-contained and symbiotic.
Over the past five years, Garden Pool has changed not only the life of the McClung family, but has started its own sustainability movement.
While it seems immensely complicated, the family is dedicated to bringing garden pools to others not only in their community, but internationally as well. Garden Pool is now recognized as a certified nonprofit organization and has traveled to Haiti in an attempt to establish similar closed-ecosystems to the people there.
Dennis and Danielle McClung offer plenty of tutorials for anyone looking to go a similar route along with the second edition of their 117-page book on how to establish a Garden Pool of your own. The monster manual has detailed instructions, pictures, diagrams, and QR codes that link you to video tutorials. On the site, it’s broken down into a few simple steps: start with an empty pool, frame the structure, add PFC for the roof, cover in UV plastic, set up your solar panels, add plants, chickens, and fish. The ultimate step is to grow and harvest!
What started as a family experiment and a personal blog has turned into a full-fledged phenomenon. Garden Pool has a Phoenix-area meet up group with nearly a thousand members. The organization attracts hundreds of local volunteers, students, and gardeners who have built a dozen Garden Pool systems in the Phoenix area.
Scientists and engineers from Cornell, Arizona State, and even the space industry have made visits to the McClung garden. They’ve received favorable press from National Geographic and Wired. And now that Garden Pool is a nonprofit, they can apply for grants and can be a research hub for closed-loop ecosystems.
Always trying new things, the family has added pygmy goats as well as fruit and nut trees into the little ecosystem. The goats eat what’s grown in the garden, produces ½ gallon of milk a day, and their waste is added to the compost pile.
According to an interview given with grist.org, Dennis says he’s obsessed with Garden Pool in the best way possible.
For the McClung family, food is currency. And with chickens that produce 6-8 eggs a day, goats that give milk, fish that thrive in their deep end environment, along with an almost endless amount of produce, the family certainly is swimming in it.
“I love it. I dream about it. What inspires me is watching families’ lives being changed, watching communities change, observing the change.”