Sept. 2, 2010— -- When Dennis McClung takes a dip in his backyard swimming pool, it isn't to practice his backstroke or cool off from the hot Arizona sun.
It's to tend to the subterranean garden – chock full of vegetables, fish and even chickens – that has become his family's primary source of food.
That's right. Instead of spending thousands of dollars fixing up the crumbling swimming pool in their backyard or filling it up with dirt, the McClung family turned the potentially dangerous, run-down pool into their own minifarm in the desert.
McClung, 30, said that when he and his wife Danielle first saw their Mesa, Arizona house in 2009, they knew it would be perfect for their young family. It was a corner property catty corner to the elementary school his children would attend, he said. There was just one problem: the backyard pool.
"We loved everything about it except for the pool. We didn't really feel the need to have a 9-foot-deep pool with a 2 and 4-year-old," he said. "Drownings are huge here… so basically we had a problem."
The realtor said they'd have to fill the pool with water or dirt, but McClung said he devised a third option: to create a "garden pool" that could generate enough food to help his family reach its goal of self-sufficiency.
"I came up with the idea and it looked good on paper and two days after we closed on the house it was done," he said.
That was October 2009. Now, less than a year after the family moved in, McClung said the garden produces eight eggs a day, unlimited fish, organic fruits, vegetables and herbs. He said the garden has cut the family's grocery bill by at least 75 percent.
To make the garden pool, the McClungs first used a plastic frame to cover the 16 x 30 foot pool with a tarp. Then they turned half of the pool into a tilapia pond and the other half into a vegetable garden.
Garden Pool Relies on Symbiosis
McClung said they chose tilapia because they're perfect for Arizona's hot climate and they "reproduce like crazy."
Every four to six months, the female talapia lay more than a thousand eggs that are ready for harvest in about nine months, he said. They're so prolific that he added a turtle and catfish to the pond for population control. Lemon trees and banana trees float in the water and berries and grapes grow above the water level.
Ten feet over the tilapia pond, the McClungs suspended a chicken coop with a wire bottom so that the chicken waste falls into the pond.
He said the idea to suspend the chicken coop came with the realization that starting a tilapia pool requires chicken waste to grow the algae.
"Everything we have in our garden pool has a symbiotic relationship," he said. "Everything feeds each other."
In addition to the relationship between the chicken coop and the pond, he said the water from the pond is diverted to both cool and aerate the greenhouse and to water the plants.
McClung said his wife grew up on a farm in rural Ohio. But most of the knowledge to create the garden came from Internet research and about a decade at his job at Home Depot, where he helped other families bring their ideas to life.
When he and his wife bought their home, McClung, who now works as a Web designer, said his own turn had arrived.
"It was kind of like, I finally have my own house after working at Home Depot forever and I can't wait to fix it," he said. "I was very gung ho."
Tourists Visit the Garden Pool to Learn About Sustainability
Even the McClungs' 4-year-old son enjoys working in the garden.
"He really loved when we first started picking vegetables. He thought it was the most amazing thing," McClung said. "He's really in awe. I think he appreciates food more."
The family works together in the garden every day of the week and they've even become something of a local attraction.
Tour groups of 10 to 40 people visit the McClung home regularly to learn about their organic garden and pay a suggested donation of $5 a person. A local sustainable gardening group recently made the garden pool the star destination on its tour of sustainable Arizona homes, McClung said.
"Our family made it a goal to be as self-sufficient as we can by 2012. This was just another step for us," he said. "We wanted to share what we have. If people take a couple of concepts and practice them that's great."