Dig the City

by Drucilla James

Fashionably dressed  young women, aged rocker buskers, glitzy buildings and – mangoes, melons and mangetouts growing in the streets – it must be that Dig the City time of year in Manchester again.

And most Mancunians seem to have got in on this, the country’s only urban garden festival, where you can do proper shopping and find lots of inspiration for the city garden at the same time.

And unlike most garden festivals, there’s a strong sense of the place and its history, as well as a celebration of the diverse community which gardens within the City and surrounding area.

The message seems to be: grow what you like, where you like, in what you like. There are plants cascading from above, be it from hanging teapots (courtesy of the WI) or specially decorated Doc Martens or vinyl record plant pots. Edible riches sprout from the ubiquitous raised beds filled with compost made from Manchester’s recycled food and garden waste, designed by the City’s National Trust Urban Gardener Sean complete with his ‘Top Tips’. And there’s a whole range of recycled containers ranging from barrows to briefcases, tyres to tins, and from fencing to filing cabinets- the make-do-and-mend approach slightly at odds perhaps with the sleek and conspicuous consumerism of the setting.


The most designer-esque of the show gardens has to be Dreamscape Gardens with artist Liam Curtin’s optical illusions. The garden repeats itself front and back, apparently recedes into infinity with the clever use of mirrors and allows you to see plants sideways and upside down through prismatic peepholes. It also has a sense of history with its striding viaduct and Cotinus, Sedums and Heucheras evoking industrial pollution versus the cleaner air suggested by Agapanthus and Hydrangea and there’s a nod to past pop greats too.

Optical illusion

The past stalks through the Ordsall Hall Garden display as well. A Tudor manor, it conserves traditional English vegetables, but with its wall display of plants growing from tin cans, planted pallets used both vertically and horizontally – ‘good for keeping out cats’ apparently, this show plot is also crammed with good ideas for the modern city space.


Manchester’s mighty cotton industry is also recalled in the Hanging Ditch garden, designed to be a permanent feature, where textile workers once laid out cloth to dry and also in Frog Flowers’ Cotton Bud flower installation in the Saint Anne’s Square fountain.

Cotton trade

The streets around the city centre are full of mini-gardens good enough to replicate back home – like Manchester City’s Bee Garden, which true to its purpose is full of bees attracted by the densely planted square raised bed full of pollinator-friendly flowers. Good to see too references to the City’s bee-friendly corridor with beehives and nectar-rich feeding grounds in between, utilising roof tops on its Cathedral, Art Gallery and Printworks.

Bee friendly

 Another raised square to copy is the Mondrian-inspired composition in greens from Reaseheath College showing edible growing for a city patio or roof garden. It incorporates a neat seating area from which to contemplate its mixed greens of curly kale, chard, beans, courgettes and aubergines, gabion cube havens for insects and galvanised patio pots for chillis.


Or there is the Square Roots garden design company’s low maintenance, space-saving town house plot complete with a contemporary juxtaposition of hot tub and wildflower meadow.

Many of the other displays celebrate the City’s community gardens. Indeed, winner of Best in Show, awarded by Rachel de Thame, is the Hulme Community Garden Centre exhibit – a walk-through willow tunnel to show the benefits of vertical growing where space is limited. Devoted to edible plants both the usual and the unexpected – like passion flowers, purple chokeberry, Japanese wineberry and cape gooseberries and two small ponds to boot, it stakes out a little piece of peace in the city rush.


Similarly the collaboration between Growing in the City, Bridge College and Manchester Mind garden demonstrates the power of horticulture to bring different communities together and provide therapy for mental health, exercise and social contact for autistic children and the benefits of ‘unobtrusive good’. Its edible bus-stop features plants all grown in recycled containers.

See also Sow the City’s  -We’ve bean there plan of an initiative which has established 60 edible and wildlife gardens across the city, Turton Tower Kitchen Garden Restoration Group and Incredible Edible from Salford.

Albeit with a serious message, the festival is also quirky and fun. After a pleasant stroll through the show gardens, edibles of a different kind can be sampled in the City’s shops – whether it be a Dig the City picnic platter or Dig the City cupcake in Harvey Nichols – flavours change daily; or an English Country Garden cocktail or GYO flavoured ice-creams – cucumber, mint and honey or lavender and vanilla from Selfridges; or a picnic basket and blanket from the Cathedral’s ProperTea shop. And after that there is still time for a spot of retail therapy taking in a quick glance at ‘killer heels’ in the Arndale Centre and a passing view of Diarmuid Gavin in full flow in the Festival Hub.

Red killer Heels



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