The Planthunter: Ghostly Gardens & Earthly Memories

Emma’s feature article written for Wonderground Magazine; an evocative tale of ghost gardens and memories that emerge from the soil.

This article was originally published here.

‘Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is a work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.’

 – Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (1995)

During the hot British summer of 2018, a strange pattern appeared on the front lawns of Gawthorpe Hall, an old Elizabethan manor house in Lancashire. Its blunt geometries were drawn in dead grass, as if a space ship had landed there overnight and branded the lawn with its white-hot, alien feet.

On closer examination, people noticed that the pattern was intricate and deliberate, containing a hexagon at the centre, enclosed by an octagon which was, in turn, bounded by a large square. Almost as an afterthought, this mathematical form had been softened by an embellishment of circles, whirls and links; a symmetrical arrangement that appeared pleasingly regular when viewed from the upper windows of the Hall. The media soon heard of this and started referring to it as ‘The Ghost Garden’, a name that further fed rumours that the Hall was haunted by two of the Pendle witches, a mother and her daughter who were hanged in 1612 for the heinous crime of turning a man’s beer sour.

Google Earth image of the ghost garden at Gawthorpe Hall in 2018.
Gawthorpe Hall and garden c1950. Image courtesy of Lancashire County Council’s Red Rose Collections

As the summer progressed, a variety of different patterns started appearing in grasslands all over Britain. Some, like Gawthorpe, were marked by patches of dead or dying grass. Others emerged as vibrant patterns of thriving plants, growing as if they had been selectively fed dynamic lifter by some unseen hand. Archaeologists from all over the world, excited by the idea of buried treasure, flocked to the sites and started digging, searching for the meaning that would surely lie below.


I trace a map of Eastern Australia with my finger and my own ghost gardens come to mind. My family moved around a lot when I was a kid. Mum was constantly on the go, searching for something that was always in the next town along – a new job, a new house, a new religion… a new life. Each year she’d pull up roots, randomly packing our things into those large striped canvas bags you buy at $2 shops, relocating the whole family up North, heading for that imaginary land of sun and thongs.

We’d take the trip at night – Mum, us four kids, the ancient cat and various bits and bobs of our life crammed into our tiny yellow Datsun 200-B. Like caterpillars, we’d emerge in the morning, rumpled from the trip and blinking in the sunlight of our new town.

1985 was the year of Ulverstone with its mixed smells of seaweed and cow pats and macrocarpa sap sticking to my hands. 1987 was the year of Wonthaggi where giant whale bones dwarfed the door to the pub and war cannons sat sullenly in the park like undercooked sausages. 1988 was the year of Armidale, a rather smug university town with melting hot asphalt and a summer symphony of cicadas. And 1989 became the year of The City, which spoke to me of contradictions and possibilities, poverty and privilege, all contained within the smell of fifteen different cuisines floating on the Frangipani-scented night. It was probably the most I’d ever felt at home.


As scientists would later explain, the reasons for the patterns at Gawthorpe Hall were rather prosaic. The heatwave of that year had caused some areas of the ground to dry out faster than others; specifically, the old soils of a Victorian garden which had been demolished in 1946. All over Britain, ghost gardens were revealing the traces of prehistoric structures: Roman villas, ancient henge complexes, long abandoned tombs and burial mounds. In archaeology-speak, the patterns were known as ‘cropmarks’, caused by underground structures which create different conditions throughout the soil. Some caused the plants on the surface to grow tall and lush, watered by the extra moisture found in the nooks and crannies of ancient bricks. Others killed the grass, which grew parched and dry, abandoned by soils that had been depleted by years of human meddling. The Pendle witches might have understood it differently – each ruin had simply spoken to the roots of the plants, which had passed on these stories using the language of the Earth. The Hall was indeed haunted; by the ghosts of soil and biology, ruins and other lost understandings that had made their way to the surface.

Aerial image of a Neolithic rondel enclosure from Drzemlikowice, Poland. Image Piotr Wroniecki, sourced from Wikipedia Commons


Back in the 80s a single mother could still nab a three-bedroom house on parenting benefits. While our budget didn’t stretch to the sparkling aqua pools and red-brick BBQs we saw daily on Neighbours; “at least”, she said, “we always have a garden”. On moving-in day, I’d scoot round the back to assess the potential of our new overgrown patch. I usually found it – the rusty hills-hoist which was perfect for swinging on, the gnarly old fruit tree with its endless supply of juicy blood plums, the corrugated shed where worn-down pennies could be grubbed up from the dirt and the disused outdoor dunny which I’d soon convert into a ‘snail farm’. I still prefer such gardens. The neglected ones that grow from a handful of motley cuttings begged from over the fence, the daggy ones that feature white car tyres cut in half and planted out with pansies. A couple of un-killable daisies. Borders of driftwood and shells from the beach. Such gardens would probably tell you of a hundred ordinary lives if they could talk. Perhaps we just forgot how to listen.


As the Autumn days grew colder and the rains came, the ghost garden at Gawthorpe Hall gently faded back into green, like a mirror misting over. While all traces are currently gone, many people think that the patterns will return next summer, and probably the summer after that. The serious scientists might even analyse them, using them like a canary in a coal mine, warning us of the dangerous heatwaves. Others believe that ghosts have always appeared and receded at times of change (just like the king tides). These folks are happy to stroll over the lawn, enjoying its uncomplicated neatness, dismissing its ghosts with something akin to contempt. As for the Hall itself, it remains unmoved by such petty human concerns. It is content to just exist and to become the latest strata in a deep collection of earthly memories.


Meanwhile, I remain a gardener, tending my plants and feeling the sunshine on my face. I dig holes and bury our household scraps directly into the ground, satisfied that they soon disappear and add a rich, dark humus to the bed. When I can’t be bothered with mowing and brush cutting, I surrender my garden to the oxalis, and wake up to a weedy carpet of brilliant yellow. I pick up cuttings from the footpath where they fall. I take them home and gently push them into the soil of my rental property, hoping for the best. Hoping that they will take root and grow.

Cropmarks in Grezac, France. Image by cliché J. Dassié, sourced from Wikipedia Commons