An Interesting Winter Garden by the Sea

winter garden

At this time of year, it’s always difficult to maintain an interesting looking garden that you can be proud of, especially when you are located on the coast! In recent years, I’ve been extremely pleased with my beach garden, created back in 2012. The small plot sits at the front of my chalet bungalow, facing the sea, about a quarter of a mile away. It has to take everything the elements throw at it.

We get very strong winds blowing off the sea many times during the year! I’d always seen it playing second fiddle to the main back garden, but over the years I’ve begun to realise that it is always capable of holding its own and looks quite amazing, despite what the weather throws at it, especially when the sun sets over it.

More importantly, it is incredible how low the overall maintenance on this part of the garden is compared to the rest of my plot. Surprisingly, a professional garden photographer shot the beach garden this month as well. All my pictures here were taken mid-January, through to early February.

arabis, boat and bergenia

The Arabis ferdinandi-coburgi ‘Old Gold’ is looking really stunning by the steps up from the street, in amongst the grasses and the euonymus fortuneii Emerald Gaiety. You can see the horizon and the sea in the background. Dazzling along the front of the old weathered rowing boat, the bergenia flowers are quite striking. The boat itself, which is the centrepiece of the front beach garden, is now surrounded by plants and shrubs. There is a large sea buckthorn on the right of it that may have shed its leaves for the Winter but it’s silver grey frame still leaves its mark on the landscape.

cornonilla, rosemarium

Brimming over the edge of the dinghy you can see the amazing bright yellow flowers of the coronilla valentina glauca, which really catch your eye at this time of year, along with the pale lemon flowers of the large hellebore argentifolius. The eclectic mix of object d’art around the garden, old reclaimed anchors, rusty wheels, lobster pots and reclaimed groynes all help to maintain the character of the plot all year around, not to mention the large pieces of driftwood too.


We’ve had a lot of mist and fog hang over the garden since Christmas and it really gives an interesting, if eerie feel to the beach garden. Flowering this week by the boat are the delicate flowers of the rosemarium officianalis rosea. Not far away the elegant plumes of the Miscanthus Morning Light Maiden rise up and catch the evening sunlight perfectly.

So, if you’re looking for a relatively low maintenance garden to create yourself, maybe a beach garden is a good choice. What’s more, you don’t actually have to live by the sea. You could create your dream plot wherever you like! You can read more about the garden and when it will open for the season in 2017 at

Geoff Stonebanks
Geoff Stonebanks was very lucky to be able to retire early from 30 years in Royal Mail back in 2004. He had 3 different careers with them first as a caterer, then manager of a financial analysis team and finally as an Employee Relations Manager and Personnel Manager. He sold up and moved with his partner to Bishopstone, near Seaford in East Sussex in 2004 and now spends all his time gardening and fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support. Using his multi award-winning garden, featured on Gardeners’ World on BBC TV and finalist in Gardeners’ World Magazine Garden of the Year 2016, he’s raised £95000 for various charities in 8 years, £53400 of that for Macmillan. In his spare time, he is also Assistant County Organiser for the National Gardens Scheme and their Publicity Officer for East & Mid Sussex.

Looking Forward to 2017

Petunia 'Night Sky and Bidens 'Firelight' mixed
Time moves on so quickly and 2017 will be the 5th year that I have been trialling plants for Thompson & Morgan in my multi-award winning seaside garden! Back in 2013, the first items I received were a Cox’s orange Pippin Apple Tree and a Plum Gage, Reine Claude. Back then we were sent whatever was chosen by the company and I feared that I would not be able to use then in my exposed coastal garden. Now, they are both established and have started to produce small amounts of fruit, always difficult here on the coast, with the wind blowing across the garden!

Another arrival that first Spring was a delicate rose ‘garden party’, which still flowers profusely in the front and back garden each Summer. Also received in the first year were Peruvian Tree Lily, Alstroemeria ‘Everest Collection’. These have been quite stunning year on year and much remarked on by our many garden visitors. They were all planted in a large container and are still doing really well. Last Summer, I was very lucky indeed to have trialled 2 brand new 2017 plants, featured in the Spring catalogue. The stunning new fuchsia ‘Icing Sugar’ on the front cover and the equally beautiful Bidens ‘Firelight’ on page 11. I’d suggested 2 names for the plants, but I’m afraid they weren’t the final ones chosen! However, my quote on the Fuchsia was used in publicity last November.

Fuchsia 'Icing Sugar' Alstroemeria 'Everest Collection', Bidens 'Firelight'

“Geoff Stonebanks, gardening writer, blogger and creator/owner of The Driftwood Garden near Lewes in Sussex, trialled ‘Icing Sugar’ for T&M last year and says: “The beautiful new fuchsia, ‘Icing Sugar’, certainly lives up to its name; a delicate and frosted gem.” Geoff added: “As an avid fuchsia lover, this delicate and frosted ‘Icing Sugar’, on show in my garden for the first time this summer, is utterly stunning.”

Both of these plants are ones I would heartily recommend for anyone’s garden this Summer.

So, what can I and my garden visitors look forward to seeing in 2017 from Thompson & Morgan? We’re set to open 14 times this summer and already have several coach trips booked into the garden as well, as a result of me and the garden being seen on BBC Gardeners’ World last Autumn. Here’s what we will be receiving in the next few months. Strawberry ‘Just Add Cream™’. Petunia Amore ‘Queen of Hearts’, Buddleja davidii ‘Wisteria Lane’, Geranium ‘Black Rose’, Osteospermum ‘Falling Stars’. Gazania ‘Shepherd’s Delight’, Calendula ‘Winter Wonders Collection’. Petunia ‘Mini Rosebud Romantic Peachy’, Sweet Pea ‘Earl Grey’ and finally Petunia ‘Night Sky’ again, as it was such a success in 2016.

Petunia 'Night Sky', Strawberry 'Just Add Cream', Sweet Pea 'Earl Grey'

The information both on-line and in the Spring catalogue certainly made me want to see these on show in the garden. Who could resist the chance to smell the intense perfume that evokes childhood memories of your first taste of a strawberry or appreciate the fashionable new sweet pea, offering stunning colour on both sides of the graduated or ‘flaked’ petals. I’m really looking forward to seeing how they all grow this Summer and will be posting update son my garden web site throughout the season. Check them out at

Geoff Stonebanks
Geoff Stonebanks was very lucky to be able to retire early from 30 years in Royal Mail back in 2004. He had 3 different careers with them first as a caterer, then manager of a financial analysis team and finally as an Employee Relations Manager and Personnel Manager. He sold up and moved with his partner to Bishopstone, near Seaford in East Sussex in 2004 and now spends all his time gardening and fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support. Using his multi award-winning garden, featured on Gardeners’ World on BBC TV and finalist in Gardeners’ World Magazine Garden of the Year 2016, he’s raised £95000 for various charities in 8 years, £53400 of that for Macmillan. In his spare time, he is also Assistant County Organiser for the National Gardens Scheme and their Publicity Officer for East & Mid Sussex.

A successful year at Driftwood

2013 was a very successful year for gardener Geoff Stonebanks and his garden, Driftwood!

A successful year at Driftwood

The back garden

It saw his garden related charity fundraising top the £32,000 mark in just 4 years, for which he became a finalist in the BBC Sussex Community Heroes Awards last December. Even in the depths of winter and the bad weather we have been experiencing, his back garden still seems to look better than most.

A successful year at Driftwood

Charities that Geoff supports

You may recall that last year was his first year as a member of the Thompson & Morgan Customer Trials Panel, something he will be reprising in 2014, having just been invited to take part again. Geoff was thrilled to be invited for a second year. The subject of being involved was a much talked about point with visitors last summer.

He says that by far the most successful plant he trialed, by virtue of comments received from his 2000 visitors, was the Peruvian Tree Lily Alstroemeria Collection, which he took delivery of last April. The plants flowered profusely right up to early December as the picture shows although a little burnt by the wind around the petal edges! Amazingly, these stunning plants have seen off the dreadful winter weather on the south coast, which has seen gale force winds straight off the sea and never ending rain, but are already showing strong signs of growth in early February.

Another of the trial plants from 2013 was the Foxglove ‘Dalmatian Peach’, which although they took a long time to establish, arriving March and flowering in August have withstood the winter so far and they too, are showing good signs of growth in February as you can see. The dreadful gales and torrential rain have been the worse that Geoff has experienced in the 10 years he has been living and gardening on the south coast! At times he says he has lain in bed thinking the roof would blow off the house, yet the garden seems to have come through the whole thing unscathed, apart from 2 new fence posts that were needed in the back garden, along with the propping up of an old apple tree, in danger of falling down in waterlogged ground.

A successful year at Driftwood

Foxglove ‘Dalmatian peach’

His front garden directly faces the sea between Brighton and Eastbourne as you can see. This picture was taken during one of the recent storms, yet the structure of the garden, designed to cope with the strong winds, stood firm. Geoff has used the rowing boat in the centre, along with the upturned sections of railway sleepers and some original beach groynes to create an arc of protection for the plants that are thriving in their shadow. The full force of the SW winds from the Atlantic blow up the Channel and hit the garden full on.

A successful year at Driftwood

The front garden

One of these plants is another from last year’s trial, Rose ‘Garden Party’, and several of the other plants are already showing signs of growth again. Geoff also received many bulbs as part of the trial last Autumn, that have yet to show their faces in his garden, Tulip ‘Silver Parrot’, the Iris ensata Collection and Tulip “Ice Cream”, all of which will look quite stunning once they start to grow this spring, “that is if we ever get one!” says Geoff, who promises pictures once they have flowered!

A successful year at Driftwood

Rose ‘Garden Party’

Other late arrivals were a range of hardy geraniums, the Hardy Doubles Collection comprising Southcombe Double, warm pink flowers, Plenum, ruffled purple/pink flowers, Double Jewel, white star shaped and Summer Skies, tightly frilled mauve/pink flowers. All will look wonderful, newly planted around the pond area in the back garden. Back in September Geoff also took delivery of Golden Lysimachia, which he chose to hang on to and plant out this spring. They are already showing signs of new growth in the greenhouse!

A successful year at Driftwood

Golden lysimachia

Three plants he bought himself last year from Thompson & Morgan were Buddleja ‘Buzz’ compact varieties, perfect for pots on the patio! They did well and have already shown significant growth in 2014!

A successful year at Driftwood

Buddleja ‘Buzz’

The final plants to be delivered in 2013 were a collection of Osteospermum, Cape Daisies. These were planted out in late September and have survived the winter well so far, as you can see.

A successful year at Driftwood


We have already advised Geoff of the plants he can expect to receive in 2014 so we will look forward to his updates on how they are progressing, once established.

Geoff has a busy year ahead, writing a monthly article about his garden for the Magazine, Garden News, fulfilling his volunteer role as an Assistant County Organiser and Publicity Officer for the National Gardens Scheme in East & Mid Sussex and preparing for his own 16 garden openings in 2014. In addition to the specific web page he records details of the Thompson & Morgan trial, you can read more of his garden at

Rebecca Tute
Rebecca works in the Marketing department as part of the busy web team, focusing on updating the UK news and blog pages and Thompson & Morgan's international website. Rebecca enjoys gardening and learning about flowers and growing vegetables with her young daughter.

Customer trial panel member Geoff Stonebanks

In this gardening blog post Geoff Stonebanks writes about his gardening experiences on the south coast of England and becoming a member of Thompson & Morgan’s customer trial panel.

I’m Geoff Stonebanks, fast approaching my 60th birthday and retired now with my garden in Sussex for 9 years now! Passionate gardener and fundraiser for Macmillan Cancer Support through organising garden trails and garden events.

2012 was an absolutely amazing year Driftwood.  In June I was appointed an Asst County Organiser for the National Gardens Scheme in East & Mid Sussex to be followed, in October, appointment as their Publicity Officer. July found me being overwhelmed to realise that my garden had been shortlisted to the final 15 (from over 1200 entries nationwide) in the Daily Mail National Garden Competition, only then to discover it made the final 4 and was awarded a coveted blue plaque.

In October the news was even better when I found out I had won, outright, the Garden News Best Small Garden in the UK, again from over 1000 entries. Coupled with that the garden had seen over 2000 visitors and raised over £8000 for charity in just one year! Not bad going for a small plot on the south coast that’s only 100ft long and about 40 feet at its widest point! What makes the garden even more interesting to most visitors is its location, facing the sea between Brighton and Eastbourne, exposed to the salt-laden winds from the sea.

Customer trial panel member Geoff Stonebanks

The back garden in 2007

Customer trial panel member Geoff Stonebanks

Front garden with the sea in the distance, November 2011

The 2 images show the back garden in 2007 and the front garden, with the sea in the distance, in November 2011.

It is an extremely challenging place to garden. Tim Sharples, Head Judge from the Daily Mail said “This bright, beach-inspired plot embraces its location with imaginative planting.”

In essence, it was a back garden of 2 lawns split by a central path with borders around the edge and a defined slope from bottom right to top left. The front was just lawn. Work really began in 2007 and I worked my way down the garden, with the front only being completed in February 2012. My dream was a cottage garden but the salt laden winds prevented that. Many of the trial plants I have been sent already, Dahlia Fire and Ice, Foxglove Dalmatian Pink are going to need to work hard to survive in this garden. In the end it has developed organically a bit at a time as an idea came to me, no grand plan. I did appoint a garden designer at the onset but didn’t like what they did so cut my losses and decided to create it all myself. I had to work with the prevailing weather conditions and create the gravel beds and plants that defy the wind and the lashing rain! I wanted a garden with many rooms, which was made slightly easier with the slope from bottom right to top left forcing me to create level areas across the garden to position furniture on.  I created wind breaks with grisolina littoralis and oleria transversii Tweedledum, low hedges to help protect areas and use of wicker panels to both ease the wind and help divide into rooms. The garden sloped upwards from the house, which tends to make it look smaller. However, heavy dense planting with no lawn and no exposed soil create an illusion of a garden much bigger than it actually is.

I often say I am an instant gardener, I can visualise what I want but then want to see it straight away, not having the patience to wait for it to grow that way! Competition judges last year were so impressed with the established look the garden had despite its relative newness. This seems to be a skill I have acquired to make the area look long established. They also said small gardens can be a challenge trying to fit in everything you want. They’re even more of a challenge when they’re on a slope, making them look even smaller, however, they felt I had created something special, filling the garden with a huge range of plants without making it look cramped. There are individual sculptures of metal and wood and the results of beachcombing, which they said equal a coastal heaven with its own distinctive personality.

Customer trial panel member Geoff Stonebanks

The front garden, July 2012

The front garden, which is the most coastal looking area, and clearly the most challenging to plant, now looks quite incredible in the summer as the picture shows. Visitors are absolutely stunned to see that this also has summer perennials clustered around the rowing boat in the centre of the gravel garden for protection. There is verbena bonariensis (purple top), verbena rigida (Polaris) gaillardia ‘Dazzler‘ (blanket flower), coreopsis ‘Calypso’, fuchsia ‘Winston Churchill’, and penstemon ‘Magenta White’ to name but a few. The front garden also has many different grasses (stipa tenuissima – ponytail grass – one of my favourites,) and tough coastal plants, hippophae rhamnoides (sea buckthorn) and tamarix tetrandra (4 stamen tamarisk).

Throughout the garden there are inspirations from my Dad’s sister, Margaret Grindrod, who was a keen gardener and many of whose plants (she died in 2004) I now possess and also my Dad, Ron Stonebanks, who died in 2007. He was a fish merchant on the docks in Fleetwood when I was a child and I have a fish basket and fish crates with my grandfather’s business stamped on them. These helped influence the style for the front garden. Also many of his plants are here too.

I was impressed by Derek Jarman’s garden and have taken some of those ideas. In the main I have done what I have wanted, having experienced the weather here and achieved it by trial and error. I love to visit smaller gardens and enjoy seeing things that I can take away and use myself and always pleased when others see my garden and say they will do the same.

2013 is the 4th year of opening to the public (17 times this year) and we have had over 6000 visitors so far and raised an astonishing £16000 for charity.

When I first decided to create my garden, with absolutely no qualifications or experience in garden design, I just did what felt right for me and the space I had to work with. Never be afraid to try something, even if it fails.  Be bold and put combinations of plants together that you might, at first think is unconventional, or maybe think won’t work, it is amazing what looks great together if you just think outside the box. Tim Sharples, a garden designer and Head Judge for the Daily Mail Competiton, was bowled over by the planting in the front garden (bearing in mind its exposed location) and assured me he would be taking elements to incorporate in his own future designs.

Customer trial panel member Geoff Stonebanks

The back garden, July 2012

At the back, it is difficult to gain height due to the wind, so the use of rusted metal objects and tall wooden sculpture help create height and drama to the garden, alongside the some of the perennials which give it height, the verbena again and the cephalaria gigantica (giant scabious) which shoots like a firework out of the rusted metal frame or the cynara cardunculus or cardoon rising dramatically by the pear tree!

  1. The planting elements of the garden are made up of 3 main styles/types; Coastal planting to cope with the salt-laden winds, a large butia capitata (pindo palm tree) in the centre at the back, 2 chamaerops humilis (dwarf fan palm), a trithrinax campestris (blue needle palm) and several phormium tenax (New Zealand flax).
  2. The hardy perennials that work in a coastal setting but give the flavour of a cottage garden, some of my favourites being fuchsias, 2 of which belonged to my Dad and his sister, ‘Empress of Prussia’ and Genii, of which there are now several established plants in the garden and new ones I have acquired, ‘Pink Temptation’, ‘Lena’, ‘Lady in Black’ & ‘Winston Churchill’. Other loved plants are leucanthemum x superbum ‘Snowlady’, (Shasta Daisy) and oenothera macrocarpa (evening primrose). Fuchsia ‘Duke of Wellington’, one of this year’s trial plants, can now be added to that.
  3. Then for the summer months there is the final part of the equation with the introduction of summer annuals across the garden, not just in the cottage perennial area but also in pots and containers in the coastal area as well, which bring the 2 other elements of the planting together creating a naturalistic flow and gelling between the coastal and cottage area.

So, I believe it was the combination of my success last year and the wide spread publicity of the garden through its web site,, all my tweets about events and planting in the garden and the competition success that led me to be invited to be part of the Thompson & Morgan Customer Trials in 2013.

The real challenge for me will be trying to make work the plants I am trialling in a coastal garden. Many of those being sent to me are not ones I would have chosen for this environment. I will be doing all I can to support them and I’m sure they will do well. Many visitors are amazed that I have success with plants that one would not expect to see in a coastal plot. You can all check out what is happening on the Thompson & Morgan page of my web site. I have chosen to record all the details there from receipt to flowering in words and pictures!

I am looking forward to this year and hope to report back later in the year on the successes and failures with the customer trial programme products I will be sent this summer.

Read more about becoming a member of the customer trial panel here.

Rebecca Tute
Rebecca works in the Marketing department as part of the busy web team, focusing on updating the UK news and blog pages and Thompson & Morgan's international website. Rebecca enjoys gardening and learning about flowers and growing vegetables with her young daughter.

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