Geoff Stonebanks, Sussex, UK: Chalet garden by the shore

Geoff Stonebank’s coastal garden, aptly named Driftwood, sits between Brighton and Eastbourne. Geoff opens the garden to the public yearly and raises money for charity (over £95k in the past nine years!). Driftwood is a triangular shape, measuring 100ft in length, 40ft at its widest width and 20ft at its narrowest. The ground is mostly chalk.

Geoff Stonebanks, Driftwood, Sussex
Driftwood looks out over the Sussex coast

1. Please tell us who you are, where you live and what you do for a living.

I’m Geoff Stonebanks and was extremely lucky to be able to retire early, at 51, back in 2004. Having lived in London for over 30 years, we had to move to get rid of the mortgage. After searching many areas along the south coast in Sussex, we bought a 1930s chalet bungalow, midway between Brighton and Eastbourne.

2. Please give some brief details about your garden, e.g. size, aspect, general soil type.

I have a small, triangular shaped garden, measuring just 100 feet long and 40 feet at its widest and 20 feet at its narrowest. At the front, a garden about 30 feet square. We overlook the sea. There is nothing between the garden and the sea, just a quarter of a mile away. The ground is mainly chalk.

3. Why is it important for you to create a nice garden?

I never set out to garden, let alone create one that was good enough to open for the National Garden Scheme and win three national garden awards. It all just happened.

I had worked hard before retirement and did not fancy sitting around once we moved to the coast. Hence, I began gardening with no expertise, nor qualifications. After a couple of years of working on the garden, having completed what we wanted to do in the house (2009), I was bullied into opening it for charity and have never looked back.

For me, my garden comes alive when visitors come. They are the final ingredient needed to make it all worthwhile.

Geoff Stonebanks, Driftwood, Sussex

4. How many hours a week do you spend working on your garden?

Throughout the year, (late March to mid October) I’m in the garden every single day, all day, providing it is not raining! In the winter I work on projects to make the garden look a little different for the following season.

5. How much leisure time do you spend in your garden and what do you do?

Having had such great feedback from others about the garden, I open it to the public every year and raise money for charity. Whilst that is not technically my leisure time, (I never sit and appreciate the garden as I always see things that want doing), I thrive on talking to visitors who come along. Between 2009 and Summer 2017 we have seen over 17,000 visitors and raised over £95,000 for charity, half of that for Macmillan Cancer Support.

6. What is your most prized plant and why?

I have two! When my Dad died in 2007, I inherited many plants from his garden, one of which was a standard fuchsia “Empress Of Prussia”, which I still have today. I have taken many cuttings from it and sold them on at my open garden days.

The other, also a fuchsia, “Geneii”, belonged to his sister, my Auntie Margaret. She died in 2004 and her standard is looking amazing in the garden still.

Geoff Stonebanks, Driftwood, Sussex

7. Which plant do you feel gives the best value in your garden?

A plant I discovered three years ago has rapidly become one of my favourites and gives great value for money every year at the bac. Its dreamy spires of magnificent electric blue flowers never cease to amaze visitors. It’s Salvia ‘Amistad’.

8. What is/has been your biggest challenge in this garden?

Gardening by the sea is an incredible, full time, challenge. Those who see the garden are constantly amazed at what I have been able to achieve, despite the appalling salt laden winds whistling around the garden. The winter of 2017/18 was the worst in the 14 years we have lived here.

9. What has been your biggest gardening disaster?

When we moved from London to Sussex, back in 2004, I had the entire garden brought here as well. We had two removal vans, one for the house, and one for the garden. We arrived in mid September but by early January, virtually half the plants, both those I’d planted and those still in containers, all of which I had cherished, had died with the salty winds.

Geoff Stonebanks, Driftwood, Sussex

10. What is your favourite gardening shortcut or tip, and who taught it to you?

I love to use containers and have over 250 in the garden. Many years ago, my Aunt (the one whose Fuchsia ‘Genii’ I now have) told me I should line the terracotta pots with tin foil and create a small reservoir at the base when planing up annuals. A tip I’ve never forgotten and one I regularly pass on as it works wonders on hot sunny days! Well – when we get hot sunny days!!!

11. Which plant do you wish you could grow, but cannot?

One of my favourite plants is the lupin! I have tried repeatedly to establish different ones in the garden but have failed miserably every time, as either the slugs and snails go for them or they just die!

12. What is your oldest plant, and how old is it?

My oldest plant by far is an indoor christmas cacti that was owned by my grandparents back in the 1950s! When they died in the 60s my Aunt had it, then when she died in 2004 I acquired it. It flowers as regular as clockwork! I also have a plant from the 1980s as well that looks wonderful in the back porch of the house.

Geoff Stonebanks, Driftwood, Sussex

13. Where do you find information on which plants to grow and how to care for them?

I always Google new plants and get information I need online from a number of sources, such as the RHS.

14. Do you grow anything to eat, and which have you had the most success with?

My garden has no space to grow things to eat!

15. Do you admire any famous gardeners or gardens?

No, I have my own style and have not followed or copied of been influenced by any other gardener, although many liken the front garden in some ways to Derek Jarman’s garden at Dungeness and two recent visitors from America claimed they loved my garden more than Sissinghurst!

16. What have you learnt from your own garden?

I am not a gardener! I have no formal training or expertise and I don’t have the patience to grow from seed! I’m an instant gardener (what I see in my mind’s eye has to be there the next day!)

All these things have been established, however I have learnt, and try to inspire others who visit, just do what you think is right for the plant you acquire. Nurture it, try and create a micro climate in which it will survive, and believe me, it will! I look back at what I have achieved since moving here and bitterly regret I did not take up gardening in some form as a career. If you enjoy it just go for it!

The one word that repeats in my visitors book, and on TripAdvisor is that visitors are inspired to visit Driftwood and go away and are compelled to do things in their own gardens. It is incredibly humbling to listen to their comments.

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