This isn’t the first time I’ve posted on the idea of converting water-hogging back yard pools in arid climates to tiny permacultural paradises, but this may be the best article so far on the subject. Note that like Marcin Jakubowski, this couple fall flat on their faces over and over again in their ongoing quest to discover and refine what works and what does not. The best metaphor I know for this business of allowing “failure” to inform us comes from sailing: we tack first one way, then another, in order to go in a straight line. So, with any initiative worth its salt that both holds our attention and activates our passion, we need to learn to just keep that “line” in mind as we “correct” first one way, then another, over and over and over again.
Like Bob Dylan predicted, way back in 1962, we’re “blowin’ in the wind.” We’re feeling the (world) wind on our grinning faces, and it’s blowin’ us straight to a regenerative future for our grandchildren.
September 22, 2014
Instead of water wings and inner tubes, Dennis and Danielle McClung’s backyard pool in Mesa, Arizona, is filled with tomato plants, grape vines and wheat. There’s a chicken coop and a fish pond, and the food that comes out of the pool, from tilapia to tomatoes, feeds the McClung family of five. It’s a system that took a few frustrating failures to perfect, but now the McClungs hope to take swimming-pool farming international.
When the McClungs bought the foreclosed home in 2009, the backyard was a suburban wasteland with a cracked, concrete, in-ground pool. “The real estate agent told us we had to do something about the pool, but he didn’t give us a good option,” Dennis says. “So we figured we could turn it in to a greenhouse.”
The McClungs has some farming and building experience — Dennis worked on a dairy farm and at Home Depot, and Danielle grew up on small farm in Ohio — and they’d been trying to become as self-sufficient as possible. But they’d never started their own growing operation. Unintimidated, and with no interest in swimming, Dennis drew up a model and two days after they moved in they started framing up a greenhouse in the pool.
The McClungs get most of their food out of the pool (they’ll take their kids out for pizza occasionally) and they’re trying to share the wealth. They’ve started a non-profit and become authorities on closed-loop farming in arid areas. They’ve built pools in Haiti, as well as in their community, and they’ve turned their house and yard into a permaculture lab.
It starts with a pond — in their case, the deep end of the pool — which is full of tilapia and duckweed. Chickens roost over the pond, dropping excrement for fertilizer and eating the duckweed. Water from the fishpond is pumped into hydroponic beds where they grow everything from wheat to sweet potatoes in low-moisture coconut coir (A growing medium made from the fibers of the coconut husk, which holds water well in dry climates). Then the water is recycled back into the pond.
Solar panels on the roof of the house power the pump and collect rainwater for the pond. “There are outside inputs; people will say, ‘you’re getting solar energy from the sun, Dennis!’ but it’s pretty much closed loop,” Dennis says.
It’s taken them a while to dial in the system. They started with container gardens in the pool, which scorched almost immediately in the Arizona heat. From there, they experimented with different kind of hydroponic setups and soil mixtures. At one point, they were keeping things cool with a giant swamp cooler. “We spent a lot of time falling on our faces,” Dennis says. “We’d put one fire out with another.” Through trial and error they’ve found that chicken excrement creates an ideal algae bloom for fish food, and that duckweed oxygenates the pond and keeps the chickens fed. They’ve learned that sweet potatoes grow well without soil, but that they have to plant fruit trees outside of the pool.
They’ve turned their pool from a suburban water-suck into a densely fertile mini-farm. It’s easily replicable and is ideal in arid places such as Arizona because it uses such a small amount of water.
People in the neighborhood were curious and began coming by to check out the pool. To spread the word, the McClungs started a MeetUp group. It now has more than a thousand members. They’ve developed a big volunteer network to help build new Garden Pools. Dennis says that about a third of them are installed in actual pools, and that they dig ponds for the rest. With a volunteer team they can build one in about a day.
McClung is a perpetual tinkerer, and the Garden Pool has become something of a science experiment. He’s testing soil in the front yard and growing fruit on the roof. In addition to the circular aquaponic system, which he’s continually tweaking, he has designed a UV water sterilizer that’s housed in a five-gallon bucket.
Farming in Mesa’s arid climate has taught them lessons that transfer to other hot, dry climates. Their next move is to take what they’ve learned in the suburbs and bring it to other deserts, food and otherwise. Dennis says the most interesting part now is figuring out ways their system can be used in low-resource areas where farming is the backbone of the economy. He’s going to Ghana next year and trying to figure out the best way to build farms there. “I’m basically turning my front yard into West Africa,” he says.
Dennis wants to turn their house and their farm into a research center focused on how they can help build farms in other desert regions and develop local food systems. He says that if they can make it work there, in suburban Arizona, anyone can grow their own food. “In the States it’s cool, it’s kind of like a novelty, but in the Third World I think it can really make a difference,” he says.