Dennis and Danielle McClung bought a foreclosed home in Mesa, Arizona in 2009 that came equipped with a broken, empty swimming pool. However, they did not let this defeat them. Instead of paying to have the pool repaired, which would cost a fortune, he built a plastic cap over it and began growing things inside it.
With the help of family and friends and Internet research, Garden Pool was created. What was a cement hole was changed into a closed-loop ecosystem. It grows everything from broccoli and sweet potatoes to sorghum and wheat, with chickens tilapia, algae, and duckweed all interacting together to provide enough to feed a family of five.
Garden Pool has slashed three-quarters within a year of the McClungs monthly grocery bill. They continue to purchase items like cooking oil and coffee because one cannot eat tilapia every day. In a five-year span, the community of the Garden Pool grew. Advocates spread word about the Garden Pool across the nation.
This began as a family experiment and blog but is now a 501(c)3 nonprofit with a small staff. Garden Pool has been voted the Best Backyard Farm in Phoenix and has gained press from National Geographic TV. It formed a Phoenix-area Meetup group that has almost a thousand members. It has attracted hundreds of local volunteers, students, and gardeners who have helped build Garden Pool systems all around the Phoenix area.
Scientists and engineers from Cornell University, Arizona State University, and even the space industry have all visited Garden Pool. This spring volunteers from Garden Pool paired with Naturopaths Without Borders to travel to Haiti and build a Garden Pool there. Dennis stated that they helped approximately three-dozen being built across the country through email and phone consultations. They span from Florida to Toledo to Palm Springs.
The Garden Pool was originally constructed because McClung had a desire for his family to live more sustainably. Now that he has seen all the attention these ideas are getting and how productive it can be, he believes everyone will want to build similar systems.
These systems are great! The Garden pool grows on clay pellets or coconut coir as opposed to soil. The whole thing only required a small fraction of water in a conventional garden. This is because the excess moisture drips into the pond below and a rain catching system. This is especially true in a place like Mesa, which gets very little rain over the year.
Instead of commercial fertilizer, chicken droppings fall through wire mesh strung across the pool’s deep end, nourishing the algae and duckweed in the pond below. The tilapia eat the pond plants, release their own nitrogen-rich excrement, and the fish water then gets funneled (using a solar-powered electric pump) into the hydroponics system that grows the family produce.
The McClungs have added pygmy goats and a bunch of fruit and nut trees to the backyard mix, so their mini farm is starting to look a lot like a very hopeful — and very delicious — urban future.
Dennis says building your own Garden Pool is not as labor-intensive and complex as it sounds. In addition to free online tutorials like “Getting Started in Barrelponics” and “Growing Duckweed,” McClung teaches GP certification courses; so far, he’s certified about 20 “GP” enthusiasts in Arizona and about 12 more during the trip to Haiti this spring. He plans to help a few recent grads start their own Meetup groups in Los Angeles and New York.
He also just released the second edition of Garden Pool’s extensive how-to book, featuring 117 pages of detailed instructions, illustrations, photos, and QR codes that link to video tutorials. His goal is to encourage aspiring Garden Poolers to build and maintain their own aquaponics greenhouses, whether or not they’ve done anything remotely like it before, and whether or not they even have a pool. (One of Garden Pool’s main taglines is “use an old pool or just dig a pond!”)
Thanks to endless experimentation with new crops and filters and catchment systems, McClung claims his backyard is now “basically a Frankenstein laboratory” and not quite as pretty as the sparkling Garden Pool replicas and spinoffs he’s helped build around town. Various experiments have met with varying degrees of success (blueberries and amaranth didn’t do as well as eggplant and asparagus, for instance), but the list of things that grow like weeds in Garden Pool is long (McClung advises you to check out page 96 of his book).
He manages pest control by doing things like adding ladybugs for the aphids and selecting plants like marigolds and garlic, which repel whiteflies and spider mites, respectively. Since the system is closed and controlled, it’s a pretty fantastic way to experiment with organic gardening methods.
As far as they’ve come in the past five years, though, Dennis says they’re just rolling up their sleeves. Now that all the nonprofit paperwork is settled, Garden Pool staff can apply for grants, and, he hopes, “hop from place to place and make stuff happen.” He’d like to help build more Garden Pools in Haiti, Africa, South America, and across the globe, and eventually become something of an international hub for closed-loop system research.
Although Garden Pool is Dennis’s full-time occupation and has been for some years now, “it’s not a job yet,” he insists. “I love it. I dream about it. What inspires me is watching families’ lives being changed, watching communities change, observing the change.”
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