Food is free for the taking at floating ‘forest’ in NYC

In this Aug. 1, 2017, photo, the Swale garden sits docked in Concrete Plant Park in New York. The Swale garden is an old construction barge planted with vegetables, apple trees and fragrant herbs that gives New Yorkers a chance to pick their own dinners. (AP Photo/Michael Noble Jr.)

By KAREN MATTHEWS

Associated Press

NEW YORK — An old construction barge planted with vegetables, apple trees and fragrant herbs is giving apartment-dwelling New Yorkers a chance to pick something and eat it.

Part floating garden, part artwork and part community organizing project, the barge called Swale is currently docked on a river in the South Bronx and will move to Hudson River Park in lower Manhattan from Sept. 15 to Nov. 15.

Founder Mary Mattingly created Swale in part to give New Yorkers an opportunity to forage for food, which is illegal throughout the city’s 30,000 acres of public parks. The no-foraging rule doesn’t apply to Swale, since it’s a barge.

“Because not everyone has access to healthy food in New York, I saw Swale as a tool to advocate for policy change,” said Mattingly, an artist who is dividing her time between Swale and her summer residency at Monet’s Garden in Giverny, France.

Swale’s harvest is free for the taking. Dariella Rodriguez, director of outreach for Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, a community group that leads tours of Swale, said many visitors are surprised they don’t have to pay.

“Immediately they’re like, ‘how much?’ And when we tell them that it’s free, they’re really shocked,” Rodriguez said.

Swale was launched in 2016 with funding from Kickstarter and A Blade of Grass, a nonprofit that supports socially engaged art.

The hard cider company Strongbow is providing additional support this year including a donated “orchard” of eight apple trees.

“It aligns with our messaging because we’re about bringing nature into the city,” said Reggie Gustave, Strongbow’s brand manager.

The 130-foot barge is now docked in the Bronx River at Concrete Plant Park, whose decommissioned concrete silos recall the area’s industrial past.

The apples weren’t ripe yet during a visit this week but there were plenty of herbs, both culinary and medicinal. Kitchen basics like mint, thyme and oregano mingled with sassafras, bee balm, hyssop and chicory.

There was jewelweed, known for its skin-healing properties, and wild carrot, used for centuries as a contraceptive. There were chokeberry shrubs, a native plant whose tart berries can be made into jam, as well as the familiar blackberries and blueberries.

Root vegetables like potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes waited to be unearthed. What looked like daisies turned out to be coneflowers, also known as echinacea, the popular cold remedy.

“It grows wild all over the place,” said Amanda McDonald Crowley, a curator of Swale’s plants. “When you take a walk around Swale and identify an echinacea flower, you will then see them all over the city. I see weeds in the city now and recognize them as edibles. Or medicinals.”

Swale’s creators call it a floating food forest, not a garden or a farm, and there are no neat rows of carrots. The arrangement of trees, shrubs and ground cover plants can look random but is intended to make good use of the barge’s 5,000 square feet.

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