When Geoff Stonebanks was given the option to retire early at 51, he sold up in the city and moved to the South Coast. After viewing 140 houses he and his partner could only agree on one, Driftwood, a property with a front lawn facing the sea and a back garden with a path and borders that blurred into the lawn.
After two years of doing up the house Geoff was bored and looking for a new project. “The obvious one was the garden,” he says. “Despite having an aunt with a lovely garden and a dad with what I’d call a ‘tidy’ garden, I really didn’t have much of an idea how or where to start.”
Employing a garden designer seemed like a good first step but on seeing the scheme Geoff decided to go it alone. He bought a summer house for the top of the plot, laid a patio for a seating area and set about transforming the 100 x 40 foot plot into something spectacular.
“When I started on the garden it was really just to keep me active – it was something to do – today, 12 years later it’s grown organically into something of which I am hugely proud. I have little time for anything else!”
Geoff first opened his garden for charity in 2009 and, spurred on by the positive reaction, approached the National Garden Scheme in 2010.
“At the time it was felt that my garden was too small to open alone so I opened with three other local gardens. Then in 2011, the new County Organiser, Irene, visited and made the suggestion that if I developed the front garden too I could open on my own.”
Despite the challenges of a garden ruffled by sea breezes Geoff threw himself into the project and opened alone in 2012.
“I’ve never looked back,” he says.
While the climate is not conducive to a cottage garden, Geoff has created an exuberantly gorgeous array of rooms and plants. His favourite spots are the pond by the gate which welcomes visitors and partially obscures the surprises to come and the green table and chairs nestled among the Leucanthemum Snowlady (shasta daisies). But, although he’s been gardening for over 12 years, Geoff still doesn’t consider himself a gardener.
“I paint with plants,” he explains. “I dress my garden as if it were a film set. I’ve created nine different rooms, moving pots around (I have about 300) to craft alternative colour palettes and planting schemes, rethinking the layout so that it’s always evolving. The only downside is the watering!”
In the height of summer ensuring 300 pots are fully watered can take Geoff seven hours. But it doesn’t faze him.
“My garden isn’t for sitting in, I’ve tried, but I always see something that needs doing.”
Geoff does, however, allow his mum (who he’s currently caring for) and his partner – and not forgetting the thousands of annual visitors – to enjoy the fruits of his labour. Since opening he has raised a life-changing £120,000 for charity, welcomed over 20,000 visitors, served seven choices and 8,000 portions of home-made cake (cappuccino and walnut is a perennial favourite) won countless awards, appeared on Gardeners’ World, featured in the Sunday Telegraph and Coast Magazine and received 96 five-star reviews on Trip Advisor. With so much achieved, what ambitions are left for Geoff?
“Well, I’d like to get to 100 five-star reviews and raise £200,000 for charity, and to keep welcoming people who love my garden as much as I do,” he says.
And his top tips to get started in gardening?
“Actively look for inspiration; visit gardens that are like yours or that you’d aspire to own and translate what you see into something realistic. And remember, I still feel I know nothing about gardening and look what I’ve managed to achieve.”
You can visit Driftwood on Tuesday, July 09, 2019 11:00 – 17:00 or book by-arrangement until the end of July. For more details click here.
Also open on the South Coast this July – and new for 2019 – are the Rodmell & Peacehaven Trail gardens. Opening on July 20 and 21 you can discover more here.
Main photo credit: Brighton Pictures