Opening your garden for charity

Geoff Stonebanks has been opening his Driftwood Garden since 2009 and raised over £62,000 for various charities. He shares his top tips on opening your garden, including that all important cup of tea and cake!

Driftwood Garden
Grand Driftwood opening with Christine Walkden.
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If you enjoy gardening and your garden you may have considered opening to raise money for your favourite charity. Well, if so here are a few tips that I’ve picked up along the way. I’d have to say that I’m a bit of an open garden veteran, having now opened my garden 100 times in the last seven years for  various charitable causes.

If, like me, you are very passionate about your plot, then it is highly likely that friends and family will have repeatedly told you how nice it looks, and maybe even suggested that you open it up to the public to raise money for a local charity. Well that’s exactly what happened to me back in 2009.

To open or not

Seascape front garden
The seascape front garden at Driftwood Garden, East Sussex

Back then, I was proud of my small garden – just 100 feet long by 40 feet at its widest –but not even in my wildest dreams would I have considered opening it up to the public. It just was not good enough! What did I know about gardening or plants? I had no training or experience. I had been lucky enough to retire early and move to the coast and take up a hobby… and mine just happened to be gardening. But after two to three years of working on the garden, I was persuaded – well, in hindsight, maybe bullied – by family and friends, who kept telling me it was worthy of opening for others to see.

The problem was, it was my garden and I did not see it the same way as they did. The first time I opened was as part of a trail for a local charity, Seaford in Bloom, and we were open for three hours one Sunday afternoon. At 2pm people were queuing to come and see the garden. Halfway through the afternoon, having had over a hundred visitors, a further hundred came – and each one sought me out to say they had met friends in the other gardens on the trail who told them that they must come and see this garden. So by the time the gate closed I was persuaded that, yes, my garden was good enough for others to see. More importantly money had been raised for a local charity, so a win-win situation.

In 2010 I opened again and tentatively put my garden forward to be part of the National Gardens Scheme. I worked extremely hard to make it the best it could possibly look, and I tried to brush up on the names of the plants I had. The County Organiser came to see the garden and loved it straight away. However, she said the garden was not big enough to open on its own. Elation then despair all at the same time after all my efforts. I was not to be beaten though, and went looking for other small gardens local to me. We then put ourselves forward to the County Organiser who subsequently approved the gardens, and in 2011 we opened as a group for the National Gardens Scheme. No mean feat for a small seaside garden. It’s now raised over £16,000 for the NGS.

So, bear in mind that small is beautiful and interesting and can sustain visitors’ interest. I make a point of talking to visitors and asking them if they feel cheated in some way as the garden is small. To date I have had nothing but praise, and we have seen over 12,000 visitors in seven years, with many returning year on year. It turns out that many garden visitors – me included – like to see gardens on a scale that we can relate to, and hopefully pinch some ideas from in order to replicate in our own plots. My garden comes alive with visitors – they are the final ingredient to make it blossom. All the hard work that goes into getting it ready to open pales into insignificance compared to the amazing ‘buzz’ you get when visitors come and talk to you about it. The day will fly by, trust me. As for knowledge of all the plants, believe me, there will be two or three key plants in your garden that visitors always ask the names of – so as long as you know those, you’re home and dry.

cream tea
A cup of tea and piece of cake is important for any garden visit!

Tea and cake

However, there may be one issue besides the garden that worries you. After all, no garden visit is the same without the infamous tea and cake. But there’s no need to fret – you don’t need to go overboard. Simple, homemade cakes concocted by yourself or friends and a nice cup of tea make all the difference to a nice day out – although you will need to rope in some friends to help you on the day. And I guarantee that after you close the garden gate you will be on a high for days.

Start small and see where it leads you. Does your garden fit the bill? It’s a good idea to ask a friend or family member what they think, because, like me, you’re bound to judge your garden more harshly than others. And remember, size isn’t everything.  Have I persuaded you? I hope so. You never know where it may lead you, we’ve raised over £62,000 so far through the garden-related events and now I organise a garden trail for Macmillan with Christine Walkden as it’s patron and a smaller trail for the local Mayor, both celebrating five years in 2016.

Geoff Stonebanks

About Geoff Stonebanks

Geoff Stonebanks lives in Bishopstone, near Seaford in East Sussex and spends all his time gardening and fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support. Using his multi award-winning garden - Driftwood - he has raised over £131,000 for various charities in 9 years, £80,000 of that for Macmillan. The garden, which first opened to the public in 2009 has featured on BBC2 Gardeners' World, Good Morning Britain and in many national and local media publications. In his spare time, Geoff is also an Assistant County Organiser & Publicity Officer in East & Mid Sussex for the National Garden Scheme.
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