Juliet Sargeant on helping to connect children with nature and how she found her passion
Garden designer Juliet Sargeant on finding her passion as a garden designer and designing a garden for Blue Peter at Chelsea Flower Show 2022. Portrait Cristian Barnett
When Juliet Sargeant started her three-year degree in garden design in the early 1990s, she told herself she was just taking a break from medicine (she had then completed four years as a junior hospital doctor), and would definitely return to it. Four years later – she took a year off to have her first child – she found herself in the spare room of her London home, drawing up plans for her mother’s garden, and she knew this career was the one she passionately wanted.
Although she was born in Tanzania (her father was a Tanzanian barrister), she was brought, aged two, to England by her English mother when her parents split up. And so it was the woods and fields of Surrey, where her mother took a residential job in a state-run boarding school for troubled, inner-city children, that became her design inspiration. “I’m on this quest to reinvent the experiences of my childhood for my clients,” she says. “Especially if they tell me they’ve got children and they want to connect with nature. I draw on the feelings I had when I was playing in the woods with my friends, making camps, picking blackberries and bluebells in the school grounds, all those years ago."
I’m on this quest to reinvent the experiences of my childhood for my clients
Like other designers at that time, initially she made the mistake of going after whatever work she could find. “I now realise that it’s much more important to find out where your strengths are and what you’re passionate about, and really go for that. That enables you to offer your clients the best that you can do.” Today she feels that her best involves understanding what makes her clients tick – medical training, she says, teaches you how to listen – and making them feel comfortable in their gardens, and boosting their confidence in the outdoors.
Juliet’s first big break came in 2004, when she won a competition, with three other designers, to make a domestic-sized garden for RHS Garden Wisley, which remained in place for several years. Like many of her subsequent gardens, it incorporated conceptual elements, in this case Perspex screens imprinted with photos of deciduous shrubs in leaf so that when the real shrubs in the garden shed their leaves in autumn, there was an echo of their summer forms.
It’s much more important to find out where your strengths are and what you’re passionate about, and really go for that
The painted doors set in vibrant planting and opening on to a dark, unplanted centre in her Modern Slavery Garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2016 created a confident and arresting design that won her a Gold medal and the People’s Choice award, and a whirlwind of media attention. It was, she says, the highlight of her career, which has so far included lecturing at design colleges, chairing the Society of Garden Design, TV presenting, contributing to radio shows and, most recently, becoming a commentator on the lack of diversity in horticulture. As one of a handful of people of colour to make it to the top, does she feel the need to be a spokesperson on the issue?
“After the death of George Floyd there were lots of quite troubled and raw conversations and I was called on to comment and to join in those conversations. I did feel an obligation to accept those invitations. I get a bit annoyed when people say the reason there are so few black people in horticulture is because they don’t have a connection with the landscape and aren’t interested in gardening. First of all, black people covers an enormous group of multiple cultures and ethnicities so you can’t generalise in that way. But there is also the very, very important factor of poverty. If you’re busy trying to put food on the table and get your children educated you don’t have time or energy to go looking at National Trust properties, and you may not feel welcome. On top of that, people of colour have fewer opportunities once they’re qualified.”
After the death of George Floyd there were lots of quite troubled and raw conversations and I was called on to comment and to join in those conversations. I did feel an obligation to accept those invitations.
Juliet is happy to talk about inclusivity in horticulture if asked to but she’d rather inspire people through her work. That’s one of the reasons she is so excited about the garden she’s been asked to design for Blue Peter at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. “It’s an invitation to children to engage with soil, to feel it, to smell it. Parts of the garden will be bare soil, which is a bit of a risk at Chelsea because judges don’t like seeing bare soil.” She is collaborating with three artists on the Blue Peter garden – art in the garden, she believes, contributes to the narrative – and this
is the direction in which she would like to take her Sussex Garden School, which she founded in 2018 with a programme of design and planting short courses led by her. “The aim is to have somewhere people can do all sorts of creative things inspired by landscape.”
The New Blue Peter Garden – Discover Soil will be relocated to RHS Garden Bridgewater after the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Find out more about Juliet’s work at julietsargeant.com and sussexgardenschool.com
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Annie Gatti is an award-winning garden writer and co-author of the RHS Your Wellbeing Garden
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