NEW YORK >> In a South Bronx forest, the ground sways as visitors collect blueberries, onions and wild carrots. The plants bob up and down as guests gather oregano or basil to add to their next meal. The floating forest on the Bronx River has one main purpose: to engage New Yorkers in a conversation about the benefits of shared, public food by offering crops to pick and eat.
“Not everyone has a garden, or access to earth, and it’s expensive. So how do we work together to get around that?” said Marisa Prefer, who manages the public programs for Swale, the floating forest project by the artist Mary Mattingly that started a year ago.
The artist transformed a 130-foot barge, once used for hauling sand to construction sites, into a public food forest with free edible and medicinal treasures. Last week, the floating green space moved from Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park to Concrete Plant Park in the South Bronx, one of the largest food deserts in the country, where healthy, fresh options are hard to come by, and Friday afternoon it opened to the public.
“We’re trying to talk about food access, food security and food justice, and what those three things mean,” Prefer said. “What do they mean in New York City? What do they mean in the South Bronx? What do they mean in Brooklyn?”
One way to start that dialogue: Rent an empty barge from a marina in Verplanck, New York; load it with soil, gravel and plants; anchor it at locations around the five boroughs; and invite people to harvest unlimited fruits, vegetables and perennials — free.
In city parks, plucking plants and foraging for food is illegal. An ordinance from the New York City public park system, which includes 30,000 acres in nearly 2,000 parks, equates the cutting, removing or defacing of trees, plants and flowers with destruction of property. Scavenging city greenery for snacks not only threatens vegetation, but it can also create health issues for people eating plants from contaminated soil, said Bram Gunther, who oversees part of the Parks and Recreation Department’s division of forestry, horticulture and natural resources.
The Swale project found a loophole. Backed by the city’s parks department, the floating forest circumvents rules about foraging on public land because technically, it is on the water.
“Swale does not fall under that rubric, so it would be the only place that you can, within a New York City public space, do this activity,” said Gunther, adding that although community gardens may permit growing and harvesting food, they are run by neighborhood groups and local residents, and are not always open to the public.
Prefer said she’s often asked if the crops on the floating forest would disappear if everyone came and picked them all. But Swale has experienced the opposite. Visitors are often hesitant to take more than they need, according to Prefer. And passers-by are sometimes surprised to learn that they may eat the day lilies, taste-test the thyme, cilantro and grapes, or take them home for that night’s salad or stew.
“I was just captivated by the whole idea of it,” said Amy Losak, a New Jersey resident who has visited Swale three times (most recently, last month in Brooklyn). “I’m not a botanist. I’m not a horticulturist. I’m not a gardener — but I found it a little bit of an escape being in that space. A nice respite.”
“It’s uniquely New York,” Losak added, “and yet it ripples beyond New York.”
A lush forest floating among ferries is, indeed, an unusual sight in New York City. But public food forests, and initiatives to harvest food in public spaces, have gained traction elsewhere in the country. The Beacon Food Forest, which started in 2009, offers an edible landscape in Seattle, and a “guerrilla gardening” movement has taken shape in parts of California, as horticulture activists and enthusiasts like Ron Finley began planting gardens in food deserts and unused public spaces — traffic medians and parking lots — to grow food for all to share.
Swale will remain anchored in the Bronx through Sept. 3. By then, the trees on board will be decorated with apples, peaches and pears. Having this free, edible forest in a place like the South Bronx may inspire alternative thinking.
“It is art, and art is a way to jump-start the imagination,” Gunther said of the project. “Imagination leads to potentially new ways of practice or policy. It’s a way to think about other possibilities for food within the city.”