An interview with Juliet Sargeant


An abridged version of the podcast.

Tell us a little about what you do.

I work as a freelance garden designer. I also run the Sussex Garden School, which is a school for garden enthusiasts and amateurs to come and get to know their gardens better and be inspired. We have not moved the school online as the whole point of the garden school is for people to have a day out in a lovely garden.

How did you get to where you are now?

I had quite a convoluted route to becoming a garden designer: my first career was in medicine. I went to medical school and then worked as a junior physician but after about four or five years, I decided to change career to garden design. I had always been interested in gardens: growing up in the grounds of a boarding school, there were 20 acres to play in and I have vivid memories of freedom and imaginative, creative outdoor playing in this great landscape. I went into medicine because you were expected to be a teacher or a nurse, or a doctor or a lawyer – nobody ever mentioned any kind of career in horticulture, it just wasn’t, it wasn’t on my radar at all. While I enjoyed working in medicine, it wasn’t a great time to work in the NHS so I decided that life was too short and so went back to my first love, which was gardens and landscape. There are some similarities between garden design and medicine – both are very people-orientated.

Growing up, was there a moment that you really got interested in plants?

To be absolutely honest, not really! For me, garden design is all about people and less about plants. I love plants, I love gardens and gardening but for me, the plants are a means to an end. And that end is to create spaces, garden spaces that people enjoy, that enhance their lives, that bring them together with their friends and family where they can relax and they can be themselves. And I like to think that I create gardens that reflect not my personality, but the personality of the user. Plants are my way of making those spaces. So I think I’ve probably come to garden design from a slightly different perspective to a lot of people who work in horticulture, probably because of my first career. As a doctor, you very quickly learn that when you meet someone, you need to identify their problem and then arrive at a solution together. It is exactly the same for garden design!

What do you think about the health and well-being aspect of gardens and gardening?

Having come a medical background, that’s something that’s always interested me . When clients say to me, “Oh, it’s so lovely. I really unwind in my garden”, that’s a great compliment. It’s great to see the evidence that gardens are good for us growing, and the public coming on-board as well as funding increasing. I think we do have to be wary so we don’t hitch all our hope to this aspect or that gardens are seen as a way of saving money in the health sector. Also, if something else comes along that is shown to have positive health impacts but is cheaper, there is a risk of all the funding disappearing. It is important to enjoy gardens for what they are  – I think we have to have the confidence to say gardens are worth having in their own right. Yes, they’re good for you but they offer so much more and don’t have to be worthy.

Is there anything you’re working on at the moment that you might like to talk about?

We’re working on a design for a Commonwealth garden. I love making gardens that tell a story, either historical or a personal story. Our brief is to tell the story of the Commonwealth of Nations, formerly known as the British Commonwealth. That’s going to be really, really interesting, because it’s a story with a darker side. Now the Commonwealth of Nations is a group of friendly nations who have a shared and often troubled history, but are now working towards equality and with respect for each other’s cultures. That is the story I will tell.

For me, gardens and plants are just another story-telling medium, like fine art painting, sculpture, and dance. It is a better, more exciting medium because you have the fourth dimension, which gardeners love to talk about –  the passage of time. There is also the unpredictable nature of nature –  nature always has something to contribute to your composition and plants can be temperamental.  

Do you have any signature plants or styles?

I try not to as it is all about translating the personality of the owner or the users into that garden space. I think the skill is in getting to know that person and understand their relationship to the landscape, as well as demystifying gardening – particularly if they don’t know how to care for plants or are frightened of killing them. My secret mission is to connect people with the wider landscape through their own gardens! And the Sussex Garden School helps here – growing an understanding of gardening practices.

Who do you work with?

We’re a very small team. I have two designers who help me, Kerry and Donna, and then we have various gardeners who help with planting on an ad hoc basis. I do like to place the plants myself; my designs on paper are pretty loose to allow me freedom to tweak on site. I also work with hard landscapers as I wouldn’t be able to create gardens without landscape contractors. Then there’s people like structural engineers, water engineers, drainage engineers and arboriculturists. Creating a garden is a team effort.

Have you had a career highlight moment?

Doing the modern slavery garden for Chelsea was an absolute pinnacle, but that’s probably an obvious answer. The real highlight it was a very, very small project – a garden I created about 12 years ago for an elderly couple who had been saving for five years for a new garden. When I first visited, I looked out of the window and the brambles were above the windowsill. The lady of the house had difficulty walking, using a zimmer frame, and hadn’t been in the garden for five years. We created a simple garden but made sure that the paths were wide enough for the zimmer frame and with lots of stopping places. Unfortunately, the gentleman died a few years later. We had planted an oak tree he had collected as an acorn, and by the time he died, it was probably about three metres tall. I went to his funeral and the garden was mentioned in his eulogy. They said how much he enjoyed the garden and how it made such a difference to his later years, and how he loved watching his oak tree grow, hoping the oak tree would be there for the next 200 years. I thought to myself, yes, that’s what it’s all about: you can get as many awards and be in as many magazines as you like but it’s really all about making a difference to just one or two people.

Is there anything you want to achieve career wise?

I’m very happy doing what I’m doing. I think over the next few years, the Sussex Garden School will be my focus, developing courses and bringing new tutors in because I I love the idea of collaboration and different creative people coming together. The whole idea of using different media, which are related to landscape, and lots of different tutors to see how they respond to the gardens we visit and how people work together.

You were inspired by your childhood landscape. Have there been any other people, gardens or plants that have inspired you?

I think in horticulture there are so many people to respect. For me, I get inspired by looking outside horticulture. Dale Chihuly is a fantastic glass artist who places glass sculptures in amongst plantings, really inspiring. I’m a big fan of Andy Goldsworthy and walking through his pieces inspire me to go away and create something else. You get this really wonderful creative chain.

You’re stuck on a deserted island, and you can have three plants or three horticulturally related items with you, what would they be?

I’m really interested in amaranth as a plant, because it’s one of these plants that does absolutely everything: you can eat its leaves and its seeds. It’s very, very nutritious, and it’ll grow absolutely anywhere. So from a very practical point of view, I would take amaranth food. Willow is one of those fantastic plants that you could use to build structures and you could use it for salicylic acid or aspirin. So I’d definitely take willow. You need some food for your soul so a scented rose too.  

Is there anything about you that might surprise people?

I think people always assume that a gardener has a beautiful garden. But my garden is not beautiful at all! It’s partly because I didn’t have a lot of time but actually, it’s more because I use it as my experimental laboratory. I’m interested in is the limits of each plant’s capabilities so in my garden, I deliberately challenge plants by putting them in suboptimal places and see what they can do. For example, books say that Mahonia thrive in sun but tolerate some shade: how much shade is ‘some’ and what does it do in very shady conditions? So I’ve got lots of stressed out plants!

Garden designers are often criticised for not being very plant aware – what are your thoughts on that?

There’s no point putting in a load of plants that aren’t right for the conditions, or most, most importantly, aren’t right for the skill level of the person who’s going to be looking after them. I do think that sometimes garden designers have a little bit too much of an eye on their portfolio and less of an eye on the garden in5 to 15 years time. This is changing but it takes a lifetime learning about plants.

Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to start a career in garden design?

I think the first thing is to really take on board the complexity of the subject of garden design. It really covers so many aspects – hard landscaping, plants, soil knowledge, tree knowledge, plant pests and diseases. It goes on and on. Don’t think that garden design is just about plants and be prepared for a lot of learning. You can learn in many different ways. Get yourself a really good course but don’t expect at the end of the course that you’re going to know very much. Once your course is finished, then you will carry on learning, but that’s the fun part and keeps you on your toes.

With thanks to Bruce Langridge and Will Ritchie of National Botanic Garden of Wales for question format and original podcast idea