How An Old Mesa Pool Became A Garden And An International Nonprofit

By Andrew Bernier
Published: Tuesday, April 28, 2015 - 8:23am
Updated: Tuesday, April 28, 2015 - 12:06pm
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(Photo by Andrew Bernier - KJZZ)
Dennis McClung of Mesa is president and creator of the nonprofit Garden Pool.
(Photo by Andrew Bernier - KJZZ)
Buying a house with an old pool may seem like a liability, but the McClung family turned an eyesore into a burgeoning garden.

Urban farming is increasing in the Valley, from community gardens to open-lot farms. And one family in Mesa is growing food in a new place — their pool.

Now the Valley, and the world, are looking to them for help.

Buying a house with an old pool may seem like a liability, but the McClung family turned an eyesore into a burgeoning garden.

“We want to have a lot of nutrition, a lot of food all year round in a little tiny area,” said Dennis McClung, president and creator of the nonprofit Garden Pool. When he and his family bought the house in 2009, it came with a old pool, which McClung saw as an opportunity.

“Usually they’re pretty strong structures," said McClung. "I couldn’t afford to dig and create a structure this size. You get to take advantage of gravity because everything is below grade. It makes a fantastic heat sink for a greenhouse.”

McClung started by framing and covering the pool with shade cover. The deep end became a small pond with tilapia and plants. With a chicken coop above the deep end, droppings fall into the pond, serving as nutrients for the plants. Those plants are food for the fish, ducks, chickens and goats above the pool that provide eggs and almost gallon of milk daily. The project expanded to included a full orchard in the small side yard.

“We have pomegranates, mulberries, figs, almonds, peaches, apples, nectarines, plums bananas, sugar cane, curry,” McClung said.

Around the trees are open hoses irrigating water from an unlikely source — their laundry.

“We just use the biodegradable detergent," said McClung. "So that it’s basically a plant-based soap. So our clothes still get really clean. We don’t really notice much of a difference, but we can grow about forty fruit trees."

While large industrial agriculture requires massive external inputs — such as water and fertilizers — Garden Pool doesn't.

"We don’t add water from the garden hose," said McClung. "We don’t add fertilizer from the store. We don’t add fish feed to our ponds. Very closed loop.”

This means 95 percent less water use compared to conventional farming. Rainwater harvesting funnels water to the pond and a solar-powered pump feeds the plants. The system is then designed to drain the water back into the pool.

“A lot of what we have in this system is multipurpose, and it’s all kinda interrelated to each other, too," said McClung. "We have it down to a science now, but it was chaos years ago. But it works in tune with Mother Nature.”

And this has resonated with Erin Gurston, a longtime volunteer with Garden Pool.

“Trying to really expand the whole idea that there is another way to grow food safely and without a lot of water," said Gurston.

Though she said most people go smaller and cheaper, Gurston said she got together about $2,000 for materials to build her own comprehensive Garden Pool.

“Two years ago this month actually, I had 21 people show up at my house at 7:30 in the morning one Saturday and by 8:30 that night we had it built,” Gurston said.

While Garden Pool is growing a loyal following in the Valley, McClung has been busy taking the project across the Southwest and the world.

“We’re getting ready to open student chapters and we have several overseas trips planned," said McClung. “West Africa, Ghana, Morocco. In the Saharan Desert. And then we’re going to go back to Haiti as well.”

While plans are taking the nonprofit worldwide, it keeps up with a growing local base. Chandler residents Michael and Jennifer Bostick are checking out Garden Pool for the first time.

“It looks like it could just be a typical yard, but when you really look a little deeper you can tell almost everything here is edible. So that was kind of a surprise to me. I wasn’t expecting that much,” said Jennifer. “Sort of like a grocery store in your yard,” said Michael.

The couple work in the tech industry and have a small desert landscaped yard, but they think they may be able to take a few notes and adopt some of what they see today.

“She’s had experience in nurseries and has more of a green thumb than I do," said Michael. "But I’m interested in systems, kind of self-sustaining systems. Coordinating together we might be able to actually grow sweet potatoes and stuff that we really like.”

McClung said Garden Pool requires about an hour a day to maintain — checking system pipes, pumps and harvesting food, along with milking the goats. But it rarely discourages people.

“I tell people to go out and do something and don’t just research but get your hands dirty,” McClung said.

And McClung is about to expand again — he is opening his front yard as a public testing lab for those who want to get their hands dirty before diving into their own Garden Pool.

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