Juliet Sargeant & her Discover Soil garden

Juliet Sargeant, founder of the Sussex Garden School, made history as the first Black garden designer to win a prestigious Gold medal at the 2016 RHS Chelsea Flower Show for her Modern Slavery garden. And now, six years later, she is getting Chelsea-ready again with another stellar Show Garden: Discover Soil.

With the countdown for the Chelsea Flower Show 2022 on, we speak to Juliet to find out all about her garden, from features to challenges, and what horticulture should be doing to address the industry’s lack of diversity. To celebrate International Women’s Day 2022 (Tuesday 8th March), let Juliet’s words inspire you…

Maria Scard

What is the Discover Soil garden all about?

Juliet’s Discover Soil garden has a simple message: get to know the good earth better. Soil plays a major role in controlling environmental interactions and regulating water flow, which is exactly what Juliet hopes people of all ages will learn when they stop by at her garden.

“It’s a children’s garden, but I really wanted to address something that was important. I want it to be a garden that engages their imaginations, but also engages their minds and thoughts. They’ve got to think about the future in a way that we never really had to,” Juliet tells Country Living.

“I think that children are already aware of climate change, so I thought why not introduce them to an equally important subject: soil. I wanted to use the garden as an exploration and invitation for children to learn more about soil,” Juliet adds. “Soil supports everything; it supports our food, it supports all the plants and all the animals on the planet, and we need to look after it.”

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Juliet Sargeant

Have there been any challenges with designing this garden?

Designing a garden for the Chelsea Flower Show isn’t always a bed of roses. “I think the main challenge has been just the complexity of the design — and working with so many other people,” Juliet tells us.

“With my small Modern Slavery garden, I just designed it and then the contractors built it. But, with this project, we’re working with structural engineers and fabricators because it’s something that I couldn’t specify the details of on my own. It’s all about working as a team, managing workloads, timelines and coordinating everybody.”

What features should we look out for in the Discover Soil garden?

The main feature of Juliet’s garden is something she calls a ‘rise-a-tron’ — a sunken space inspired by what scientists use to study what’s going on under ground. “They actually dig a chamber under the ground that they can go into, and then they make the walls from glass so they can see the soil, roots and what’s happening,” she tells us. “So, our rise-a-tron is a sort of artistic interpretation of that idea.”

Other features to look out include:

  • Animations inside the rise-a-tron
  • An area of rocks, including a rock wall to show children that soil comes from rocks
  • Permeable surfaces, including loose gravel
  • Rainwater running across the paving so that it has somewhere to go (this is to teach adults that paved driveways are not always the best option when it comes to being eco-friendly
  • A seating area
  • Roof-top meadow and a barley field
    juliet sargeant chelsea flower show 2022 garden

    An illustration of Juliet Sargeant’s Chelsea Flower Show 2022 garden

    Juliet Sargeant

    What should the horticulture industry be doing to address the lack of diversity in gardening?

    Black people have not always felt part of the horticultural scene. While the recent Black Lives Matter movement has changed the way companies talk about race (the Royal Horticultural Society, for example, appointed a Diversity & Inclusion Manager to conduct a full review) there is still much more that needs to be done.

    “Over the last couple of years, there has been more visibility of Black people in horticulture. It’s not that they weren’t there, it’s just that nobody could see that they were there before,” Juliet continues.

    “There are real economic barriers, too. If you look at society as a whole, people of colour are less well off. It can also be quite expensive to train as a garden designer because training is so expensive. A lot of designers go to private colleges with high fees. Training is expensive, and then when you start off as a designer there are usually several years where you’re not earning very much at all, so there are financial barriers.”

    What can the industry do to help those wanting to get their foot in the door? Juliet makes it clear: “I think that making access to the industry more affordable to anybody with a lower income is actually very important. This could be through the training schools offering grants and bursaries.”

    rhs chelsea flower show basks in sunshine for its press day launch

    Juliet Sargeant at her Modern Slavery Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2016

    Jack TaylorGetty Images

    What is Juliet’s advice for emerging Black garden designers?

    “Don’t listen to those niggling doubts in your head and any voices from outside that are telling you that you don’t belong,” she tells us. “Everyone asks themselves ‘should I be here’, ‘am I good enough’ or ‘is this my world’. As a person of colour, those doubts are often reinforced by other people or by the structure of society. I think that you just have to not listen to those voices and focus on what it is you want and what it is you’re passionate about.”

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