Swale: New York’s floating food forest to welcome visitors on board again for the season

Swale, New York’s first “floating food forest” housed on board an 80-foot long barge which provides free healthy plant-based edibles for visitors, is set to reopen the barge doors next month.

Swale is a collaborative floating food project dedicated to rethinking and challenging New York City residents’ relationship with the environment. The green island of Swale, which is currently moored along the Hudson River, features trees, garden, pebble walk ways, and even a disused piano that’s been used to keep bees.

Around 70% of the plants grown on the barge are edible, while the others serve to attract pollinators, including the bees, or keep pests way. Plant beds are recycled from water bladders (durable containers) used by the US Army.

In 2016, Swale hosted 60,000 visitors, 1,000 guided tours and 60 school groups. Some of the edibles found on board included bok choy, strawberries, blueberries, grape vines, cauliflower, broccoli, lemon essence, edible cactus, mint, zucchini, cantaloupe, and catnip, among other plants.

As a public platform, Swale hosts workshops, panels, pop-up dinners, film screenings, volunteer days, and even private events.

Created by artist Mary Mattingly, Swale is part-art, part-community farm. She said: “Swale brings us one step closer to transforming our city from dependence on large-scale supply chains with little accountability, to one that strives for community interdependence.

“At its heart, Swale is a call to action. It asks us to reconsider our food systems, to confirm our belief in food as a human right and to pave pathways to create public food in public space.

“A vision of what a New York City of the future could be. By bringing together groups from varying backgrounds, we will create an environment that works together to find new ideas and answers to food security.”

The artist has used water as a point of reference, hence the floating barge, intentionally. She said: “With Swale, we want to reinforce water as a commons, and work towards fresh food as a commons too.

Food forests are a naturally regenerating, resilient, and effective agro-ecosystems, which can, over time, provide free, fresh food. However, food forests on New York City’s public land have been off-limits for almost a century for fear that a glut of foragers may destroy an ecosystem. But Swale imagines a different world, a different solution.

“By creating a floating food forest, we create a different set of rules. On the water, collaboration isn’t optional; to thrive, we have to work together. The water is also New York’s largest commons. When we can better protect it, it can better protect us.”

Swale, which was aptly named after garden trenches that catch rainwater in order to create self-sustaining ecosystems, has been designed and tested collaboratively with insights from a nautical engineer, landscape architects, gardeners, artists, educators, students, and the US Coast Guard.

Public produce, according to Swale’s founding artist, is different from community gardens that are established in abandoned or private spaces.

In Seattle, a forgotten strip of land is now a source of fresh food and community pride. Residents of the Queen Anne neighborhood worked with the Department of Transportation to transform a neglected street median into a community garden and gathering space. They cleared the median of its debris and weeds, and recently constructed raised vegetable beds and planted fruit trees.

A wave of community gardens, like the Seattle one described, have sprouted up across cities in the USA including Washington, Des Moines in Iowa, and Madison in Wisconsin.

The food forest on municipal land in Seattle, according to a report in Grist in 2015, had a consistent surplus three years after it was established. And there were no significant reports of people taking advantage of the free bounty or over-foraging.

When Swale first opened to the public last year, Mary Mattingly noted that people didn’t over-forage. Instead visitors assisted with the care of Swale’s earthly delights by trimming plants, as well as bringing plants and seeds to Swale.

Mary Mattingly said: “To me, it’s proof of the obvious: People are more generous and care-giving than the city gives us credit for, and the more we are entrusted with care taking, the more we want to act accordingly.”

For the 2017 season, Swale will dock at various locations. Swale will announce the locations via their website soon.

If you want to support Swale, there are a number of ways you can do so from making a donation; helping build new plant beds, spread soil, and plant more trees; to fundraising. For more information, visit the Swale website.

Images: © Swale


Rosalind Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She is a writer specialising in sustainable life & style, music, entertainments and wellbeing. Rosalind also works as a spiritual life coach and intuitive advisor helping people to become who they truly are and manifest their heart & soul’s desires into their lives: www.rosalindmedea.com

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