When it comes to dreamy English countryside getaways, Heckfield Place is at the top of the list. Set on more than 400 acres in the rolling hills of Hampshire just an hour outside London, there are long walks, bike rides, a spa with organic Wildsmith products, a cinema with deep leather seats—and 45 elegant rooms and suites melding its Georgian history with contemporary design and fabrics.
The resort also offers an impressive slate of lifelong learning classes through its Assembly program—this fall’s lineup includes watercolor painting, foraging for mushrooms, canning and preserving, and astronomy.
But for me and many guests, the big draw at Heckfield Place is the food. The food program is led by culinary director Skye Gyngell, an award-winning chef who also owns Spring in London and the new Spring shop in Notting Hill. Gyngell was at the forefront of using local products, starting her career at London’s Petersham Nurseries in 2004 before “farm to table” was a well-known phrase, and earning a Michelin star there in 2011.
Yes, many top country hotels boast about their on-site herb gardens, but the culinary mission here is directly linked to what is grown that day at the vast Heckfield garden and farm, making it one of the biggest draws for food-focused travelers in the United Kingdom.
It also goes beyond organic growing practices. I became especially curious when I saw that Heckfield Place’s market garden earned biodynamic certification, which “meets and exceeds EU organic standards,” according to the country’s Biodynamic Association. (Look for the Demeter International logo, which sets worldwide standards for biodynamic gardening.) Heckfield Place is the first U.K. hotel to achieve this with its garden.
There are currently around 5,000 certified biodynamic farms worldwide. To compare, there are more than 16,500 certified organic farms in the United States alone.
What does this mean? Why is biodynamic better than organic? I spent the day with David Rowley, head market gardener at Heckfield Home Farm, to find out.
The biggest takeaway? “If you’re growing conventionally, it kills everything but saves the crop,” says Rowley. “In biodynamics, it’s the other end of the spectrum, giving energy back to the ground and encouraging all the life around the crops.”
Garden tours are included with hotel stays, and anyone can book a private tour. You’ll be guided through the grounds, glasshouses, and greenhouses by Rowley or another gardener, learning about the history and meaning of biodynamics. Make sure to leave time afterward to relax on the terrace with a pot of tea and a slice of lemon poppyseed cake.
Rowley talked about what biodynamic agriculture means, the nutritional value of freshly picked produce, and when a carrot tastes its very best.
Let’s start with the delicious angle—what do you grow here?
We grow 60 to 70 different vegetable crops, plus about 40 to 50 different cut-flower crops. It’s quite the list and includes lemon verbena, thyme, asparagus, four kinds of radishes, basil, seven different types of salad, 20 varieties of tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, and berries including strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries. The cut-flower bunches are sold in our market and are used to decorate the hotel.
So what is biodynamic gardening and why is it something more farms should try and do?
Biodynamic gardening is the framework of agriculture laid out by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. It’s the opposite of conventional agriculture, which is the application of chemicals and fertilizers. It’s basically his projection on how to use all the energy existing on a farm. Of course, we’re doing hand weeding and other forms of control, but we’re not putting any foreign poison into the system at all.
After a few years of doing that, we find that nature has its own way of balancing things out and the system works all by itself.
Steiner saw that if we were to continue with the then-modern-day way of agriculture, we’d end up with very little soil, structure, and life to work with. He saw what was coming, that all the chemical fertilizers were killing off things in such big ways. And now today, if we continue down this path we’re on, what will it look like in 100 years? In biodynamics, we have life and growth all over the place.
We have 400 acres here and it’s a collection point for sunshine, rain, and all of the cosmic energies that were identified by Steiner. The hoof action of cows on the soil, for example, is often forgotten. We take some of that manure, compost it with other green materials from the market garden, add the biodynamic preps to the compost heap, turn it 60 days later, bring it to the soils, and plant direct seeds or transplants from the glasshouses into that compost.
If you consider one carrot or one parsley leaf, and all of the energy going into that food to be picked and served a few hours later, it’s a reflection of incredible power.
[For further insight into what biodynamic gardening entails, visit the Biodynamic Association, which describes the self-sustaining, regenerative practices of the farms.]
How long does it take to become certified biodynamic?
It takes three years to become certified. After two years, you’re certified organic, at least with the process currently in the U.K.
Big question: How does the produce taste?
Quality-wise, it tastes better. I have chefs visit who discover how much better it tastes, especially when just picked fresh.
People would also be surprised about the nutritional value of something picked that day. The nutritional content in vegetables decreases not in days or weeks, but in hours. It decreases very quickly.
What is the thing you look forward to eating the most, any time of year?
The carrot after the first frost in the autumn. We grow carrots in the summer and they taste great, but the first frost is cold enough to change the starches to sugars stored in the carrot. The flavor changes overnight and it’s crispy and sweet and carrot-y all together. Never peel a good carrot, just wipe the soil off it.
So you do grow crops all year-round.
In the glasshouses, we do have heat so we can grow some things in there. But part of biodynamics is the crops that we’re growing and selling as food need to be connected to the soil. So we have polytunnels here which are unheated but with crop selection, we can grow brassica salads [such as cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli] and other winter-loving crops. We have food on the table year-round from the ground here.
More of us are choosing to eat a more vegetable-heavy diet or even totally vegetarian. How does that play into biodynamic agriculture?
Biodynamics is a framework, however you choose to eat. From my perspective, you need to have ruminating animals in the system. If you take them away, where do we get manure that is powering and feeding the soil? The nutritional value can’t be matched.