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.

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