The Soul of a Garden: Jane Scotter of Fern Verrow Farm
Photo by Jooney Woodward
What does it mean to tune a landscape to the moon? For over 25 years, Jane Scotter has practiced that rigorous and poetic calibration at Fern Verrow, her biodynamic farm in Heredfordshire, England. At the foot of the Black Mountains along the border of England and Wales, Scotter cultivates exquisite flowers and fruit, vegetables and herbs, according to the biodynamic system. Established by philosopher Rudolph Steiner in 1924, biodynamics seeks to engage with both the scientific and spiritual forces of nature.
A holistic approach, biodynamics encompasses organic growing principles—i.e. no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or artificial fertilizers—but goes further, requiring elements including special preparations for compost. Most notably, biodynamic farming is guided by a planting calendar based on astronomically-determined positions of the sun, moon, and constellations. These alignments govern when to sow, transplant, and harvest. It is a demanding commitment, but one that cultivates a farm as a living organism, and a harmonious ecological system.
Scotter also contributes to other pioneering gastronomic projects. She collaborates with esteemed chef and restaurateur Skye Gyngell of London restaurant Spring, providing the produce for the acclaimed, seasonally-driven menu. Scotter is also chief grower at Heckfield Home Farm, an organic farm at Heckfield Place, a Georgian estate lovingly transformed into a luxury hotel on 400 acres in Hampshire.
Series 21, the new Lan Jaenicke 2023 spring collection, channels both the elegance and innate intelligence of the garden. Studying and honoring the rhythms of nature through biodynamic philosophy are inspiration for Lan as she cultivates her own garden in wine country. As she notes, ”In the garden we find the intersection of beauty and labor – the gardener’s work contained within the blooming rose.” In that spirit, this week’s Journal is an homage to Jane Scotter’s dedication to those ideals. Alisa Carroll and Lan spoke with Jane from San Francisco.
AC: Jane, your career began at Neal’s Yard, the iconic British cheese purveyor, where you were partner and at the company for 17 years. What did you love about it? Was it the craft?
Yes it was definitely the craft. I love cheese, but I really enjoyed what was being done. It was all based on really good quality. That's how I've always gone through life—it has to be good or don't bother at all. I enjoyed doing the work a lot, and I visited lots of farms at that time. Then I got to a point where I just wanted to bring up my children outside of London.
AC: And that was a turning point for you?
Yes. I loved this area, and so I started to look for a place here. And I thought I could grow food, really naively. I'd never done any growing ever. I just did it badly with geraniums in my London flat, and so it was definitely was a very romantic view of being able to make a living from the land. But, nearly 30 years later, I've managed to make a success of it. I think that's determination for quality. And also maybe finding a niche where, you know, I'm not feeding the masses, but I know how to grow beautiful things so that people want what I grow because it's beautiful, or it tastes exceptional. So it’s worked for me. It's not been easy. It's been really, really hard work, and very time consuming. It's 24/7.
AC: What inspired you to stay with it?
The will, I guess. I wanted to make it work. I find it very difficult to walk away from things. If they're not working, I keep going back to it and make it work.
AC: You shared that you feel there's a resurgence of interest in growing…
There is! I think a lot of it has to do with Covid, but I think it did start perhaps more quietly before then. But since Covid, that's definitely been a big move—people wanting an alternative way of living. Lots of people that I know moved out of London, but there's also been a lot of young people who wanted to grow for a long time. I'm the head grower at another market garden at a hotel called Heckfield Place, and we're setting up a biodynamic training program for professional growers which probably will be launched in about a year's time. So that's the idea—to “grow our own growers” so that we can have pool of people who can do it properly on a commercial scale. So the future's bright.
AC: Would you share more about your work with Heckfield Home Farm at Heckfield Place?
We’re in our fifth year and now I'm the head grower there. I split my time between Fern Verrow and Heckfield Home Farm, which is linked to the luxury hotel Heckfield Place. The intentions there are fantastic. It's owned by a wonderful man who supports us and allows us to do things like education programs. It's an exciting place to be—he's hugely supportive, and trusts us to carry out his work with kindness.
AC: I was unaware that biodynamic farming started with early 20th-century philosopher Rudolf Steiner. His work had an imprint on my own life with the concept of his seven year life cycles. Did any other aspect of his philosophy inform your life, or was it primarily biodynamics?
It might have done, I’m not aware of that. I farm biodynamically not because I'm an anthroposophist [Rudolf Steiner’s early 20th-century spiritualist movement] particularly, it's because it's the best form.
I do think that we should at times separate ourselves from practicalities and embrace the idea that things can be done, and are done, by things that can’t necessarily be seen by the naked eye as it were. And that there are feelings, and there are forces. And knowing that you have to give of yourself, which is definitely about growing, not just biodynamically. And that has an effect on everything because it’s the love, it’s your gift. And to expect things to work because you want them to, that never works does it?
"I do think that we should at times separate ourselves from practicalities and embrace the idea that things can be done, and are done, by things that can’t necessarily be seen by the naked eye as it were."
LJ: We run into problems or challenges in life as well, just as with planting. I feel we are also part of the natural dynamic, the rhythm.
Yes, we're all the same. It’s all the same thing. We're just living things like everything else.
LJ: So you feel you're part of the dynamic system?
I do feel like I'm a little blob of moisture. Just a tiny little part of it. I'm definitely very affected by those things—when we have unfavorable days, when it's full moon time, and things like that.
LJ: How do you cope with the challenges?
Try to not get caught up in it too much, try to slow down a bit. I’m always having to tell myself to do that. And sometimes you get to a point of “I've got to walk away from this,” but that's rare. It will always pass. You know, we’ve had this very cold, very wet spring, and it's going on and on and on. But I was speaking to Skye [Gyngell] the other day and said, “Okay, so it's not bringing frost.” So that plum blossom that comes early and can often be knocked out by the frost of May—when we have warm days and cold nights at this time of year—it's going to be good for the plum blossoms.
The peonies that we have this year are really tall, really strong looking. And that's because we've had the cold wet spring. So it might not be a good year for getting started early—there's going to be fewer crops because it's a late start—but it's a good year for peonies.
So you just have to accept it, like with all the other things that we can't control. If it's hard, it will pass, because the opposite will always occur.
LJ: I also feel that you're so knowledgeable, and you've had so many experiences with this dynamic. Because you have that wisdom, you know what's coming, and know what will pass.
It’s experience, and age, having done it for a long time. You have to accept that you’re in the lap of the gods when you're growing.
“You have to accept that you’re in the lap of the gods when you're growing.”
AC: What are you working on now?
The training program at Heckfield Place. We haven't launched it yet, we've just finished writing the program. And for people to embrace the biodynamic methods—that we're actually putting it into real life where people can make a living from growing and you can thrive from that—a very wholesome, humble kind of existence is very rewarding. That's what I would like to pass on. And discovering beautiful flowers to grow!
LJ: On the practical side, when you're sitting in the garden, stirring the biodynamic preparation for an hour, what are your feelings or your thoughts during that time?
Well, what I try to do is not think about the work that I'm supposed to be doing. I feel that it's really important to try to drop that and be present. And I what I always try to do is in my mind's eye, I walk around the farm, and I look at everything. But I try not to look at it and say, “Oh, I must make put that down on the list.” I try to think about the beauty, and the growth. That’s what I try to think about when I do the stirring. Just giving back to it, and appreciating it, showing it the care, extending myself into that stirring, about how I feel about it, and how I care about it. It's a partnership, it can't thrive without me. And vice versa. But it is much stronger than I am. That's for sure. But I like to try to meet it the best that I can.
AC: We recently interviewed a wonderful decorative painter, Caroline Lizarraga, who said when she’s painting someone's walls, she’s putting an intention of love and care into those walls. So that is part of it.
That's what makes it work. That's what makes it happen.
AC: And you can feel that in a space or object.
LJ: Yes, like our work, we put love into it, we want to make it beautiful, to do the best work we can.
If you do that, that’s absolutely everything—the best that you can do is everything. And it may not be the same as the person next to you. But it's all part of this cycle, is it not, the whole makeup of what we are, of everything being different. And that's what makes world turn, really.