Imagine walking on water to pick fresh apples. You can actually do just that in the Big Apple, and no powers to perform miracles are required. Just hop aboard Swale, billed as a “floating food forest,” currently in the Hudson River.
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Launched in 2016, Swale is a repurposed barge outfitted with a 130-foot by 40-foot platform on which a 5,000-square-foot garden with an apple orchard is planted. Some 50 tons of soil, plus10 tons of gravel and 15 tons of lava rock strategically placed, create an inviting park like atmosphere. Recycled cocoa bean shells, procured from a Brooklyn, N.Y. chocolate maker, provide mulch with a pleasant chocolate aroma.
Swale recently set sail from Brooklyn Bridge Park and is now docked at the Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx through September. The public is welcome to visit Thursday through Sunday from 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm EST, and pick produce, all at no charge.
More than 400 Swale plants and shrubs yield fresh raspberries, kale, tomatoes, beets, chard, arugula, leeks, artichokes, and many other fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
Considered part artwork, part sustainable community resource, Swale is named after a geographical feature. A “swale” is a low marsh between ridges.
Swale is sponsored for the 2017 season by the Bronx Museum, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Hudson River Park Trust, and the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), among other NYC organizations.
Moreover, in 2017 a British cider company is teaming up with Swale.
“Swale is part of a national campaign called ‘Nature Remix’ in a partnership with Strongbow Apple Ciders,” Mattingly relates. “Through this partnership, we were able to add 200 new plant varieties, eight apple trees, terraform more growing space, and, most importantly, continue Swale’s mission of providing free food for anyone to pick from. This partnership also expands our public-facing initiatives of building stewardship initiatives throughout New York City.”
Many volunteers, including artists, students, representatives of community groups, and friends of Mattingly, assist with Swale’s maintenance.
Water Cleaning Protocol
Swale cleans and utilizes about 55 gallons of river water a day to augment a rainwater collection and filtering system that hydrates all the plants, shrubs, and trees, Mattingly points out. This unique protocol minimizes food safety concerns that might be associated with potentially contaminated river water.
“We worked with environmental engineer Lonny Grafman at Humboldt State University, Arcata, Calif., and Liz Lund, a water engineer, to devise a system where we can pull water from whatever river Swale is floating in and clean it and use it to water the plants so the whole system is efficient and sustainable,” Mattingly explains. “The plants are perennials, so they come back stronger every year. The soil increases in health the more that the perennials work with it and we use the river water.”
The soil for Swale came from Organic Recycling Inc., one of the NYC Parks approved companies. “Swale has also worked with Julie Ramos, MD, a Columbia University cardiologist, to complete a medicinal plant guide,” Mattingly notes. “Moreover, Swale has been supported by the Food and Nutrition Resources Foundation, which has provided funding and educational materials.”
Mattingly says she was inspired to create a floating community garden because of a 100-year-old law stating that picking food from public land in NYC is considered destruction of property.
This year, thanks to Swale and the organizations that support it, the NYC DPR broke ground the third week of June for its first public food forest on land in Concrete Plant Park, creating a new precedent contrary to that law.
“Strengthening the commons through stewardship in public spaces is the ethos of Swale,” Mattingly emphasizes. “Like water, we believe that fresh and healthy food is also a human right. It is exciting to witness and be a part of the changes in New York City’s public land management as it makes space for edible landscaping, and I hope we can encourage more people to participate.”