05/20/2013 02:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Garden Pool: A Sustainable Oasis in a Suburban Desert

Dark Rye

Garden Pool from Dark Rye on Vimeo.

Few places on Earth are less sustainable than the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, comprised of untold thousands of acres of tract homes and mini-malls built into one of the world's harshest desert environments. But Dennis McClung and his family are making it work. In the concrete backyard of their modest house in Mesa, they've managed to create a viable family food system, all because of an empty concrete swimming pool.

In 2007, the McClungs decided they wanted to change how they lived. "Our goal sounded simple," McClung wrote on his blog, "to live as self-sufficient as possible by January 2012." They achieved that and then some. They began to build what they soon would call "The Garden Pool."

It only took them two days to put up the structure, at a cost of about $1,500, combining common household goods and a few specialty items from their local hydroponics shop and online stores. Everything came together very practically. They chose an aquaponic farming system using a tilapia pond, which uses 80 percent less water than traditional farming. The water gets constantly recycled and doesn't require the constant weeding dictated by conventional crop growth. A 35-watt fountain pump is powered by ample solar energy with a potential electrical grid backup if anything goes wrong. And the resulting vegetables and herbs get grown in reusable clay pellets, which require no tilling.

Essentially, the McClungs have overcome Phoenix's climactic challenges by cleverly manipulating something called "thermal mass," meaning that thousands of gallons of water get warmed by the sun, and the surrounding concrete and earth provides inertia against temperature fluctuations. By mimicking relationships found in natural ecologies, they've created a "permaculture" that easily feeds a family of four with fish, eggs, vegetables and a new addition, pygmy goat milk. They grow eggplants, tomatoes, all manner of peppers and lettuces, grapes, berries and mandarin orange trees. McClung estimates that his total grocery budget is $100 a month.

Interest in The Garden Pool spread quickly, as thousands of families around the world are desperately looking for ways to cut budgets and become more self-sufficient. In 2012, The Garden Pool became an official nonprofit, tasked with teaching people the ways of sustainable backyard agriculture. They have a monthly meet-up and are offering guided tours and food drives. At their website, they offer online classes on how to grow and clone goji berries; how to cook curry leaves; successful summer tree planting; air layering; and the always-popular raising dairy goats in the city.

"The Garden Pool has evolved from an empty swimming pool into a movement," McClure says. Their main work will continue to be about feeding the family self-sufficiently, but what started off as a simple idea has now grown well beyond. Swimming pools -- though incredibly fun -- are one of our most wasteful indulgences, one that can't continue if we hope to have enough water for coming generations. An 18-foot x 36-foot pool can lose around 7,000 gallons per year. The McClungs, in their quiet way, are seeking to correct that balance. But even if we don't have a concrete hole in our backyards, we can all learn a lot from The Garden Pool.

This video from Dark Rye was produced by Angus Cann and Ira Chute and edited by Andy Pickard.