The day before we visit Driftwood, a party from Tokyo spent six hours in Geoff Stonebanks’ coastal cottage garden. And in May an Austrian garden society came to visit.
It is a testament to Geoff’s passion and skill in turning the back garden of a bungalow overlooking the sea in East Sussex into an outdoor Aladdin’s cave which has won him international acclaim, as well as an appearance on BBC’s Gardener’s World.
After 21 years working for Royal Mail, Geoff took early retirement and ever since has been busy transforming his plot into an extraordinary garden with a coastal theme, reflecting its position. In 2017, he is opening Driftwood four times for the National Garden Scheme and 10 times for other charities. As soon as my mum and I walk up the drive we can see this is no normal retiree’s home. The front garden is straight out of Agatha Christie, with genteel tables and chairs nestled in between seaside paraphernalia and shrubs and perennials that don’t mind the exposed conditions, including Acanthus, Santolina, thrift, succulents, grasses, Verbena bonariensis and the most enormous Hellebore I have seen.
Round the back, meanwhile, an earthly paradise awaits. Geoff has packed the plants in – over 800 of them – exchanging lawns for raised beds and not leaving a bare patch in the garden.
As well as a dazzling rainbow palette of annuals, there are interesting combinations such as Gunnera manicata and an apple tree, or a conifer and day lilies.
There are ornaments everywhere, many of them for sale, including tea cups floating over hedges and fairground horses peeking out from the shrubs.
This is an intensely personal garden. Under one of the olive trees sits a fish basket used by his dad on the docks at Fleetwood in the 1950s, while crates bear the legend C. F. Stonebanks, the name of his grandfather’s business. When the fishing industry declined, his parents took over a pub in the Cotswolds and a lobster pot underneath the garden’s central palm used to hang on the wall of this pub, The Dolphin.
Geoff bought the summer house with some money from his father and at first called it ‘Ron’s Place’ until his dad insisted this was disrespectful, upon which he renamed it ‘Dad’s Place’ and bought a new cast iron name plate at not inconsiderable expense.
Every corner of Driftwood is worth close inspection and reveals hidden delights, from this unusual petunia under the hostas:
To Hector the tortoise who used to belong to Geoff’s Aunt Margaret and now lives at the top of the garden.
So much work and love has been put into Driftwood. Geoff has shown what can be achieved in an ordinary back garden with a little imagination. He has certainly inspired me to be more creative in my own garden!