Yesterday, we went to check out Swale, a floating food forest began its second season. Swale, built on a 130 foot by 40 foot deck barge, aims to educate and empower New Yorkers about fresh, healthy food – and the best part is that you can pick the food for free! We walked around the project, currently docked at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, with artist and founder Mary Mattingly. You can watch the visit in our Facebook live video (embedded below), but we’re also including in this article still photographs from the visit.

“We’re really eager to make an alternative to the expensive places where we can get fresh food right now, and there are lots of places [in the city] where we can’t get any fresh food.” The Swale team is also thinking about how they “can transform public land to also be edible spaces, spaces where people can forage from….What we’re really pushing for is more public spaces with multiple uses,” says Mattingly.

Last year, the vegetables, fruits, and herbs were set up in low planters with walkways around them but this year, the experience is even more naturalistic with a large mound built in partnership with the NYC Department of Parks, which also donated the plants. There are apple trees, blueberry patches, strawberry plants, kale, basil, mint and sage, and medicinal plants. The plants can be watered through a filtration system that takes river water, desalinates it, and filters out the sand and carbon, and stored in several tanks. There is a particular interest in perennial crops that can condition the soil without the need for fertilizers.

Foraging and growing food on public land is illegal in New York City, but Mattingly believes that change happens through stewardship and more people from the ground up saying, “We want to do this” and show they can take care of the land. The Swale hopes that the barge is just the first step towards that transition of repurposing public land.

Mattingly’s interest in food stems from her own experience growing up in a tobacco growing town that didn’t have access to fresh water. She says “It’s always [been] on my mind, how to deal with the future of water and the present of water, and how we can clean it ourselves and also care for it…I got involved in this idea after learning that water in New York City is the only commons that existed.” Her goal is to “use the watery commons and try to do something different with agriculture.”

The barge, rented from King Marine, was used to haul sand for construction, and the space within was designed in partnership with a permaculture specialist, scientist and engineer. The engineered hill, which has a small apple grove, was engineered with the help of the NYC Department of Parks and has different layers of gravel, lava rock and soil. A white 10 x 12 foot greenhouse, made by the arts group Biome Arts, is the architectural star of the barge, also doubling as a small theater and performance space.

Everything on Swale is also hands on (and feet on), so you can walk on the paths up and around the hill, you can volunteer to help plant – there’s a whole day of gardening on for tomorrow from 12 to 6 PM – and you can take classes and tours aboard the barge. On our visit, Mattingly’s students from Parsons School of Design were helping with the planting and also creating some art installations – look for pieces of a a deconstructed piano.

In the video, Mattingly speaks of a man who jogged all the way from Queens to the Bronx, where Swale was docked at the time, to get ingredients for a smoothie! Walking around, you might smell a distinct scent of chocolate – that’s because Mast Brothers just donated its leftover cocoa hulls which is great for the soil.

Join in tomorrow for the volunteer gardening day or check out Swale anytime Thursday to Sundays from 12 to 6 PM. Swale will be at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park until June 30th, after which it will head to Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx.

Watch the live video of our visit to Swale:

Next, read about the Top 10 Secrets of Brooklyn Bridge Park.