Creativity Found

Juliet Sargeant – from medical practice to Chelsea Flower Show

April 10, 2022 Juliet Sargeant Season 4 Episode 8
Creativity Found
Juliet Sargeant – from medical practice to Chelsea Flower Show
Show Notes Transcript

Juliet Sargeant was an academic child who loved the sciences, and at a young age decided she wanted to be a doctor, and in particular a psychiatrist. She successfully studied and practised medicine, and was on the cusp of specializing, when she took a break to try something different, just for a few years. So how is it that nowadays you can hear her giving advice on the BBC Radio show Gardener’s Question Time rather than giving medical advice to patients? 

In this episode we find out the difference between gardening and garden design, how Juliet won Gold and People’s Choice at RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2015, and what she has planned – in conjunction with BBC hit children’s TV show Blue Peter – for Chelsea 2022 and beyond.

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Claire Waite Brown:

Juliet Sargent was an academic child who loved the sciences, and at a young age decided she wanted to be a doctor, and in particular, a psychiatrist. She successfully studied and practised medicine, and was on the cusp of specialising when she took a break to try something new, just for a few years. So how is it that nowadays you can hear her giving advice on gardeners question time, a UK radio show for our worldwide listeners, rather than giving medical advice to patients? Let's find out. Hi, Julia. How are you?

Unknown:

Hello, Claire. I'm very, very well. Thank you.

Claire Waite Brown:

Okay, please start by telling us through what discipline you have been able to channel your creativity.

Unknown:

Oh, I work as a garden designer. And I'm based in Sussex mainly. So it's through garden design, creating outdoor spaces for people.

Claire Waite Brown:

How exciting. Did you have a creative upbringing at home in your education?

Unknown:

No, I didn't have a creative upbringing, really. I was fairly academic at school. So I think in those days, it was just accepted that I would be you know, a teacher, a lawyer, a nurse, a doctor, something like that. And I was fairly sciency at school. So I was just sort of chugged along with that, like many people, but I did love art. I always loved art. And I was quite disappointed when it came to choosing my own levels. I needed to drop something. And that was where I dropped any kind of creative subject really, and really focused on the sciences. But when I think back at home, my mum, my mum brought us up on her own. So she was sort of just busy trying to survive, I think. But I have since discovered that she actually is very creative. She's a botanical painter. So I think even though it wasn't expressed in my childhood, I think there was that creativity there.

Claire Waite Brown:

And there's the botanical connection as well.

Unknown:

Yes, there is yes, yeah, my mum just loves plants, but she's a real details person, which I'm not quite such a detail person.

Claire Waite Brown:

Okay, you went to medical school and you practised medicine. What was that life like?

Unknown:

I loved medicine. In fact, I decided when I was about seven that I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be a psychiatrist. And I really, really loved the practice of medicine I loved that every person that comes to you is is so completely different their circumstances, their illness, the way they respond. I just loved it, but Being an NHS doctor in the in the early 90s, was fairly gruelling, and I decided that I wanted to do something less stressful, although at times it can feel good and design can feel quite stressful, I have to say it's not the same as being in accidents and emergency. So I wanted to do something more creative and a bit less stressful.

Claire Waite Brown:

So can you tell me about when you're a young person, and you say, oh, I want to go into medicine, or whether it's or I want to go into psychiatry? What does that actually mean? What is your path of studying and working and getting to a certain position?

Unknown:

Well, I had to work very hard at school A levels. And then I went to medical school, and did five, no six years of studying at medical school, and then a year of house jobs. And during that time you rotate, so you do sort of six months, whilst not studying sort of working on people with liver problems, then stomach, then brain and heart sort of thing. And then you progress in those days, you progressed to senior house officer and then again, rotated to different jobs. And at that stage, at the end of senior house jobs, I did what's called the MRCP, which is the sort of higher medical exams and the idea of that is it's the sort of gateway to specialising. So I was then at that point, supposed to go on and do psychiatry, and trained to be a psychiatrist, but I'd sort of slightly lost the will. That point?

Claire Waite Brown:

Yeah. So you do everything else, you're doing a bit of all the parts of the body, therefore, you can specialise or go to what

Unknown:

Yeah, so you, so you learn to be a generalist first. And then and then you specialise, which I think, actually strangely relates to garden design, because I see garden designers as really like the sort of GP, the general practitioner of garden making. Because we have to know a bit about everything we have to know about plants and botany, we have to understand the soil. But surprisingly, a lot of people don't realise this, we also have to know about the construction, the hard landscaping, so we know about how to choose the right pavers, what foundations they need, how deep the foundation has to be for a wall, how to construct a water feature, how to work with timber, and then there's all the law stuff, tree law, boundaries, highways, laws, it's a fantastically general career. And I think that's probably one of the things so it was creative. And General, whereas medicine was sort of less creative in general, if that makes sense. Yeah, no, you're

Claire Waite Brown:

mixing you're getting to mix a bit of that academic sciency mind with the creative. It sounds like quite a good option. So let's go to how this came about. You took time out to study garden design. What was the catalyst for doing that? Why that why garden design? And was there a bigger plan around it?

Unknown:

Well, I'd always done a little bit of gardening, even as a child, my mum gave me a corner of the garden and said, Look, you know, here we are. Here's a little packet of seeds, you can do what you like this is your part of the garden and it being the 70s I created a rockery. And I also played a lot outside, my mum was working and we were fortunate enough to live in the grounds of a boarding school, so I had acres and acres to play. And so I always had that sort of love of landscape and gardening. But it was it was sort of unfulfilled, unrealized and and that was chugging along with my medicine, feeling a bit exhausted. And one weekend, my husband just sort of was moaning, as usual. And he just sort of tossed me the the colour supplement for the Sunday newspaper and said, Look, why didn't you do this new garden design course they're starting up degrees in garden design. Why don't you do this if you're so fed up with medicine? So I went along just just to see what it was all about, really, and decided to take a break, I decided to stop medicine for a while. I was expecting our first baby. And I thought oh, well, you know, I'll just have a baby. As you as you do with your first life will be exactly the same after I just have this baby quickly. And then while I'm doing that, I'll do an extra degree. So I left medicine and went off to do the degree at Capel Manor whilst having and raising our first daughter.

Claire Waite Brown:

What was the process for getting onto the course?

Unknown:

Well, it was a completely new course. So I think they were probably slightly desperate for students so they let me in I didn't have to prove very much, except that I was enthusiastic. And I had to take along a portfolio of bits of creative stuff that I'd done. I mean, of course, they weren't asking me to show them any garden designs, of course, but that I showed them like oil paintings and little watercolour sketches that I'd done. And I showed them photographs of what I'd done in our own home, you know, with the sorts of decor in our own home, just to show some kind of creative flair. And also, of course, I wax lyrical about my, my love of plants and gardening so that they, yeah, they let me on the course.

Claire Waite Brown:

You've already explained that there was perhaps more to garden design than the listeners might think. Was it the same for you when you started the course? Was it different or different to what you might have expected?

Unknown:

Yeah, it was complete a In fact, I didn't actually understand what a garden designer was, when I went on the course, I thought that I was going on a gardening course. And again, I think that's often people confuse the two. So I thought I would be sort of, you know, learning to prune roses and digging and picking out cucumbers or whatever, I had no idea that garden design is about creating the structure of a garden, the hard landscaping and the planting, and also the sort of Designing Spaces, understanding three dimensional space in the exterior world. I hadn't got any of that. And the course was brilliant. It doesn't actually run any more cable, but it was we it was so interesting. We did history of architecture, life drawing, photography, so I learned to develop my own black and white films we did model making. Just so interesting. Really?

Claire Waite Brown:

Did your baby like it as well. For me?

Unknown:

Yes. So a lot of when she was little, a lot of the time, she was on the floor in her in her cot. And I was sort of at the drawing board scratching away and drawing. And also, of course, she got very used to chugging around gardens with me. Wow, well, I learned my plant names.

Claire Waite Brown:

Brilliant. How did that studying compare with the studying you've been doing for medical practice.

Unknown:

So with medicine, because you do these rotations, while you're studying, you do six week rotations. Being young, what we used to do is really not a lot of work for the first five weeks, and then cram for the last week for the test at the end. So it was it was very intense and intensive, I think, you know, I think a lot of people know the doctors and medical students, they sort of work hard and play hard. And of course, very academic, you spent a lot of time trying to understand what on earth, the tutors were talking about. And you had to do physics and chemistry and all sorts of completely impenetrable stuff. Whereas with design, it was challenging in a different way. It wasn't so much trying to understand it, but it was trying to trying to do something interesting, trying to sort of reach places of my mind that, you know, use use creative muscles that I hadn't used before, it was that that sort of challenge. And challenge with withdrawing, I'm not particularly good at drawing, so channel, trying to, you know, learn skills that I've never ever really learned before. And much more group work. I loved working in the studio, and just seeing what other people were doing sort of bouncing creative ideas. And we did this completely terrifying. Presentation, we had to present our work. And then the rest of the group was supposed to give you constructive criticism. And that was that was terrifying, completely terrifying. So yeah, very, I loved being immersed in that sort of creative atmosphere and creative group and being in a room where, you know, in one corner, there'd be a model and another corner, somebody will be putting up their their plans. And in another corner, somebody else will be taking photographs and that sort of bars, creative bars I just loved. Whereas in medicine, most of most of the studying was done, you know, head down in a book.

Claire Waite Brown:

Yeah, it does sound really fun and interesting. And with that extra variety, I can I can just imagine what you're describing there. Well, with that in mind, then this was meant to be a break I say in inverted commas. So after this break, what happened next? Did you go back to medicine?

Unknown:

The Well that was the idea. The idea was that I take a break, have a me do a degree and then go back to medicine. But of course By the time I'd been out for four years, I didn't really want to go back. But even then I thought, well, maybe what I'll do is six months of garden design in the summer. And then six months of medicine in the winter, I thought that sounded ideal. But it never really happened. I never, I never got back to medicine. And I think, again, partly was misunderstanding what garden design is because, of course, garden designers are busy all through the year. In fact, some of our busiest times are in the winter months, because that's when we're planning and preparing and getting ready for planting. And even planting happens through the winter as well. So the break when I was supposed to do a bit of medicine never really happened.

Claire Waite Brown:

Speaking of that, for the uninitiated among us on a day to day basis, what does a garden designer do? I mean, with any project are some of the elements of the process some things that you like better than others? Some elements, fulfil you creatively more than others? Sorry, that was a big cacophony of questions

Unknown:

there. Yeah, so a lot of the time, a garden designer will be in the office, actually. And a lot of work is done on the computer. I'm not actually very computer literate. So what happens is that I tend to come up with the design on paper. And then I've got some fabulous younger designers who work with me, and they transfer everything onto the computers and do the computer drawings, and then work up the detail. But it's surprising, actually how little time we spend outside, of course, we go and visit the site. And we visit the clients and talk to them about what they want and their dream for the garden. And but then having done that it's into the studio working on the designs, you know, looking at photographs to remind us of the site, then once all that's done the planning, we have to work out all the logistics make to make it all happen, we bring in a contractor to actually build the garden, so then we have to manage the contract. And then when it comes to the planting, again, the planting designs are all done on paper first, and then out into the nursery to buy the plants and get them into the garden and start planting. That's the outdoor bit the planting. But that tends to happen towards the end.

Claire Waite Brown:

And are there any bits that you prefer?

Unknown:

I love the the initial buzz of meeting the client and hearing what they want how they want to live their garden lives, and then trying to come up with a design that works for them. That's the most exciting bit. And and then then as I said that, we get it all down onto paper. And then we go back and present it to the client. And that's always a little bit nerve wracking because you just you don't know how they're going to respond to it, which I suppose is a bit like a you know, a sculptor, or an artist unveiling their piece to see if the face drops or whether the face lights up. Unfortunately, they're usually happy. And then the sort of logistical making the thing happen is a bit more like hard work. Because it can be tremendously complex actually making the garden happen.

Claire Waite Brown:

Creativity found.co.uk is the place to go to find workshops, courses, supplies, kits, and books to help you get creative. So if you're looking for your own creativity found experience, go have a browse to see what's on offer so far. And if you can help adults to find their new creative passion, please get in touch on social media, or through the contact details on the website. We're gonna I'm going to talk about a bit more of the showy side of what you do now with actual shows. So in 2015, your modern slavery garden won gold and People's Choice at Chelsea Flower Show. How did you come to design and construct this garden? And what was the Chelsea experience? Like? How does that differ from the life of every day garden designer?

Unknown:

Yeah, Chelsea was an amazing experience. I'd actually given up any hope of showing at Chelsea because I think it was probably about five or eight years before I had designed a garden which was actually about modern slavery without me realising I had been very, very moved by the tragedy of the Chinese cockle pickers, which some people may remember. And I designed a garden which was about the dangers that fishermen undertake in order to put food on our plates. Of course, it was quite a strange subject. And I get, I didn't manage to get a sponsor, I was given a place by the RHS, which was surprising. But I couldn't get a sponsor. I couldn't convince anybody that this was something to show at Chelsea. And I happen to mention it to a client whose garden I was working on. And unbeknownst to me, she was a campaigner against modern slavery. And they sort of hatched this plan to do a Chelsea garden. So one day, she just wandered into the garden where I was working and said, Oh, you know, we fancy doing a Chelsea garden, would you design it for us? Because I said, Yeah. And then she explained that they wanted it to be a garden about modern slavery. Yeah, so I hadn't really understood at all that what happened to the Chinese cockle pickers was modern slavery. And I think that was actually quite good when it came to designing the garden. Because for me, it was a complete journey of understanding and discovery about this awful topic, which I think helped me to create a garden that invited other people to go on that journey of understanding more, rather than it being me pontificating as an expert. At least I hope that well, that's what I was trying to achieve. Yeah.

Claire Waite Brown:

And how do you get that from the concept on the paper, perhaps, to the physical garden at the show?

Unknown:

Well, I always start with research, particularly as I knew absolutely nothing about modern slavery. So I started with the research and I, I went to Chelsea, because I knew, of course, particularly in wealthy parts, like Chelsea and Knightsbridge. That's where a lot, a lot of domestic servitude, happens. I wandered around. And I just got inspired by the symbolism of the Georgian houses in Chelsea, the beautifully painted front doors, and also the railings, which can look quite aggressive and look like bars. So I think what I was looking for, and what I try to do when I'm telling a story through a garden, is find symbolism that might speak to people. And so that's how I started really, with the Georgian doors and the bars. And I introduced into the garden, what I call layers of meaning, which is really just ever subtler hints and tips that people can read, if they want to. So I was really, really determined that the garden should just be beautiful to look at, so that if people wanted to just enjoy the flowers, and not engage with the subject, that's fine. You know, there is a flower show. Fair enough. But then if they wanted to look a little more closely at some of the details of the garden, they could start to think to themselves, why is that there? And what what do those numbers mean? And what is this modern slavery that they're on about? People engage in different ways and in different levels? With with anything, really? And I think it needs to be an invitation for people.

Claire Waite Brown:

Do you think as you say, you're building a picture, you're building a story, if you were to do a painting, you might do that in the same way have symbolisms in there. And I can see that for a show for this. Once in a Lifetime type area. When you're doing commissions for people's gardens or maybe public Commission's, do you get that same input? Do you get that inspiration that you can use in other people's gardens that you're maybe then not ever going to see again, yourself?

Unknown:

It tends to be very client LED. So some gardens are very practical. You know, I want a barbecue here, patio here a football pitch here. It's less conceptual, I suppose. Whereas some clients might have, for example, a beautiful painting on the wall. And I'll say to them, oh, you know, are you interested in such and such a painter? Or do you like the colour purple or whatever. And if they if they are interested in the idea of me creating a garden inspired by something that they love, then I'll do it that way. Because I it's it's fun. I love working that way. And very rarely, I will be inspired to do something and the client is sort of completely unaware that I'm actually working to a concept. I just do it for fun. And they don't realise that that's what I'm doing just because it's a good way to get your creative juices flowing. Really.

Claire Waite Brown:

Yeah, good for you. Brilliant. Right now. Now, as we're speaking, you've been working on a garden for this year's Chelsea flower show with a popular UK children's television show, telling me more about that and how things are going and what's happening with that project.

Unknown:

Yes, we are so busy on the countdown to Chelsea, we've been working on it for over a year. Now. Up until January, it was all completely secret. We weren't allowed to tell anybody. But I can now reveal that we're working on the new Blue Peter garden, the new Blue Peter garden, discover soil. Because I was asked to do a garden for Blue Peter. But I was allowed to choose what the theme would be. So I've decided to make it all about soil. Because I like a challenge. And everybody wonders how on earth are you going to do a garden about soil? Watch Chelsea and you'll find out?

Claire Waite Brown:

Brilliant. We obviously have listeners in the US and other countries who might not quite understand the significance of the Blue Peter garden to the to the UK audience.

Unknown:

Yeah, well, Blue Peter is the longest running children's programme in the world. I think it started back in the late 50s. I think. So it's a bit of an institution that people in my generation grew up with Blue Peter, because there really wasn't a lot else to watch. On television. You would always watch Blue Peter. And they would sort of do make and do. And we would be sort of sticking things together and making models and cooking things. And it was just a lovely, what would what they would call now a magazine programme, I suppose for children.

Claire Waite Brown:

Yeah. And the beauty of it as well as that it is still going and it hasn't been sidelined among modern era. And and it's grown with the times as well, hasn't

Unknown:

it? Yeah, it's evolved. So it's a very modern programme now. But it does the same thing. It's it's a very safe place for children to watch television and to engage with. Now of course, they engage with the Blue Peter website online and do sorts of online stuff. It's educational, but not in a teaching way. When I was speaking to the editor, she said to me, we we like it to be an invitation for children to explore and discover the world. But we're not actually an educational programme. And I loved that. And that's why I called it discover soil, rather than come here. And I'll tell you about soil. I think that's lovely. And I think that is what Blue Peter does, actually.

Claire Waite Brown:

Yeah, definitely. And people are always very proud. Those people who have their Blue Peter badges,

Unknown:

yes. And I now have a Blue Peter badge. I never got one as a child. But the editor very kindly presented me and it's a Green Blue Peter badge because normally, as the name suggests, a Blue Peter baj would be blue. But for people who are and children who are particularly interested in environmental stuff, they get a green one.

Claire Waite Brown:

Brilliant. Tell me now about why you started Sussex garden school and what happens with that and what your hopes are for it going forward.

Unknown:

Oh, Sussex garden school. Yes. I've always always loved sharing my knowledge. When I when I did medicine, there's this sort of phrase in medicine, which is slightly alarming, which is see one do one teach one is not quite like that. But doctors pride themselves on being shown something once than doing it and then being able to show somebody else how to do it. So as a junior doctor, you're thrown into teaching, passing on your skills very quickly. And I loved that I loved showing other people and seeing them acquire skills. And so I've always done it in garden design from very early on teaching about plant planting design. And about five years ago, I decided that rather than teaching at other people's colleges, because I've taught for professionals and and amateur enthusiasts, I thought, well, I'll set up the Sussex garden school, because then I can teach in the way that I want to and I wanted it not to be just about garden design. But I wanted it to be about landscape and the way that landscape inspires all sorts of creativity. So poetry painting, pottery stained glass. You know, if you look at Creative People so often, they are inspired by nature and the landscape. And so at the assassins garden school our aim is to have not just me giving workshops, but lots of different creatives sharing their skills and their knowledge and their creativity.

Claire Waite Brown:

Brilliant It's thanks so much for telling us all about that Juliette. How can people connect with you?

Unknown:

Oh, well, we've got two websites, we've got WW dot, Juliette sargent.com. And on there we've got a dedicated Chelsea Flower Show page where I'm sort of sharing the journey and blogging so that people can see. And I'm really keen for people to get behind the scenes and see what we do in the run up to Chelsea. And then for the Sussex garden school, we've got WWE dot Sussex garden School, where you can see the courses that we're running. And of course, we're on Twitter and Instagram.

Claire Waite Brown:

Brilliant, thank you so much for talking to me today.

Unknown:

Thank you, Claire. Lovely, thank you.

Claire Waite Brown:

Creativity found isn't openstage Arts production. If you're listening on Apple podcasts, please subscribe rate and review. If you would like to contribute to future episodes, visit K O hyphen F i.com/creativity found podcast. If you contact any of the artists featured sign up to their workshops, or buy their products don't forget to mention creativity found podcast on Instagram or Facebook. Follow at creativity found podcast where you'll find photos of our contributors artwork and be kept abreast of everything we're up to