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You can pick free food from a floating New York City forest that smells like chocolate


You can pick free food from a floating New York City forest that smells like chocolate

WATCH | Raising awareness about urban farming alternatives (and showcasing an artsy botanical exhibition in the process), Mary Mattingly's seasonal "floating food forest" Swale recently re-opened beside New York City's Brooklyn Bridge Park.

More than a 'floating food forest'

In its second year of exhibition, Swale is a floating food forest built on a 140- by 30-foot barge, according to its creator, artist Mary Mattingly.

The project began as a successful 2016 Kickstarter campaign with an immediate goal of building the floating facility, as well as long-term missions to "establish permanent food forests on NYC's public land" and "advocate for policy change; for a city where public food is incorporated into the urban plan."

Belief in 'food access, food security and food sovereignty'

Mattingly told Circa that Swale aims to provide city residents with better access to healthy food. "Fresh food is so expensive," she added. "There's issues around our supply chain and how wasteful it is to bring all this fresh food in from outside all the time. I mean, there are so many reasons we needed to do it."

Marisa Prefer, Swale's garden and programs manager, agreed: "I believe in food access, food security and food sovereignty."

Paving the way for a pilot program for a public food forest

City officials may be listening. "The thing that we're most excited about is that the New York City Parks Department has decided to try [a public food forest] on land in Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx," Mattingly said. "They're slated to break ground this summer."

Prefer is hoping that initiative sticks. "That's why I work on Swale: for things like that, for public change, for shifts in government and in the world," they said.

In December, following Swale's initial exhibition at ports throughout the city, volunteers upgraded the floating facility in the Westchester County hamlet of Verplanck, 50 miles north of Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Swale now hosts more than 200 species of plants that Mattingly described as "edible, medicinal, or great pollinators for insects."

Those include everything from lacinato kale to sassafras, in a setting that replicates what a regional forest may have looked like centuries earlier, Prefer said.

Oh, and the whole thing smells like chocolate

Swale's collaboration with Brooklyn's Mast Brothers Chocolate Company has a unique benefit of its own.

"One of their byproducts of making their chocolate barks is these cocoa husks," Prefer said. "It’s a great source of nitrogen for our plants, so it also helps to hold the soil in and hold the moisture in, so we use it as mulch. And it makes Swale smell like chocolate."

Strongbow Hard Apple Ciders Presents: Swale

WATCH | This year, Mattingly partnered with the beverage company Strongbow to plant an apple orchard on a hill within the floating park. "[Strongbow] got in touch with us because they were interested in bringing more nature to the city," she said. "And apple orchards appeal to both of us."

Some Swale visitors are more hands-on with their approach than others. "People brings bag occasionally and just pick [from the gardens]," Mattingly said, "and other people are just cautious and want to learn more about the plants and get into it very slowly."

Prefer, who's conducting educational workshops on Swale, said they and Mattingly want to "connect people to their larger environment."

In keeping with Mattingly's aesthetic sensibility, Swale is enhanced by artistic flourishes with ecological benefits.

An old piano and pairs of shoes are among the unorthodox planters aboard Swale.

Getting 'closer to nature'

"We hope that people ... can see a vision of what our city could look like, more so, whether it's in their fire escape or in their public park," Prefer said.

Mattingly expressed a similar sentiment. "I hope it creates more stewards for the watery spaces of New York as well as the edible landscapes," she said. "And I hope it brings us closer to nature."

Swale staying in Brooklyn through end of June

Closed when there's heavy rain and other inclement weather, Swale is otherwise open to the public from noon to 6 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until June 30.

After that, it's expected to move to Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx, and perhaps wrap its current exhibition in Manhattan's Hudson River Park before the year comes to an end, Mattingly said.

A converted laser tag arena doesn't need sun or soil and it's the future of urban farming

WATCH | For more about urban farming strategies, check out Circa's video about AeroFarms, an indoor vertical farm that uses no sunlight, no soil, and very little water.

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