How to create drama in a garden

Geoff Stonebanks dresses his garden like a film set to create drama at every step.

Blue birds and fence at Driftwood garden

Adding the wow factor to a garden is a fine art. Award winning garden designer, Geoff Stonebanks shares his tips and advice for creating garden drama.

One of my Facebook friends, Janet White, recently wrote this after I’d posted some images of my garden on social media. “I don’t see it (Driftwood) as a “garden” more a work of art. Well done Geoff, you work so hard.” That was like, music to my ears. When journalists and visitors ask how I feel about gardening, I nearly always respond by saying that I feel as though I am dressing a film set rather than actually gardening!

How to create drama in the garden

So, how have I created the drama in my garden at Driftwood? For me, the drama is as much about the artefacts I’ve curated over the years, as it is the many varied plants. The two work in perfect harmony together to create the overall set piece that visitors see.

Rowing boat in Driftwood Garden
Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Gwen from Herefordshire said in her review on TripAdvisor this summer “This lovely garden is an explosion of colour and ideas, with nature and art combined, it is a feast for the senses. So many different little areas to explore and all with seating to sit and enjoy.”

So, how and when did it all begin? Starting in the dress circle, better known as the beach garden, the rowing boat was the centre piece when I set about its creation back in 2012. I knew it would set the tone for the rest of the front garden, bearing in mind there is nothing between us and the sea, a quarter of a mile away. Those who have visited in recent years will know the boat has now been joined by a multitude of other marine objets d’art, among them six large rusty anchors, seven lobster pots in assorted sizes and a beautiful collection of rusty sculpture pieces. Along the front of the beach garden, atop the grass bank, sits a beautiful, if a little whimsical, metal fence that always makes me imagine I’m on an ocean liner, looking out to sea when viewing the distant ocean. 

metal fence at front of Driftwood garden
Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Plant features

The drama continues in the beach garden with the use of some fabulous plants to add a touch of height and elegance to the proceedings. The large acanthus sits at the bow of the boat and every year produces multiple stems of lilac flowers that beautifully complement the floating flower heads of the Verbena bonariensis which has now self-seeded around the plot. A magnificent and dramatic addition a few years ago was a rusty metal sculpture of a woman that gazes out to sea too. She was the final year design project of a friend’s grand-daughter and once I saw it, asked if she wanted to sell it. Clearly the answer was yes!

Acanthus and verbena at Driftwood garden
Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Moving into the stalls at the back, there is even more drama to amuse and engage the visitor. More rusty metal abounds in the form of arches and large plant supports seen as you weave your way through the different rooms. 

Fake perspective

Halfway down the garden visitors discover my folly door. In the early days, when the fence was new and bare, I wanted ways to hide it and the idea of a folly door complete with arch and ivy growing around it seemed the perfect answer. It took a few years to establish, along with other planting to conceal the fence, but the end result is very pleasing to the eye and is another element that helps make this relatively small garden punch above its weight and seem much bigger. The drama is heightened by cramming the steps in front, with containers bursting with summer annuals to help create the illusion.  

Folly door at Driftwood garden
Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Just down from the folly door, is a drama filled corner of the garden. It is an all-time favourite spot for visitors to sit and enjoy their tea and cake. They love to see the rusty old vintage children’s rocking horse vaulting the hedge and sit surrounded by stunning Shasta daisies and other beautiful planting. Vintage tea cups on metal spikes adorn the hedge too, adding to the spectacle.

vintage rocking horse and Shasta daisies at Driftwood garden
Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Seasoned with sculpture

Any garden will benefit from some colourful sculpture to help liven up a dark corner or a shady nook. In the centre of my plot, I have a small patch of tall palms, which, in themselves create a magical scene in a play, add to that the lovely blue birds with metal fence painted the same colour and the filmset view is complete. In the same area, an eye-catching Torbay palm and two large specimens of New Zealand flax complete the picture along with a few marine buoys. 

Torbay palm and phormiums at Driftwood garden
Image: Geoff Stonebanks

For me, it’s equally important to ensure the extras you add to your garden work well and enhance the look of the plants chosen. Trust me most things will work if you give it a little thought and it will enable you to create your own wonderland to look out on every day. 

You may not have to look too far for these special things, many of mine have been in the family for years and I have just created a feature from them. Two in particular in my garden, the old fish crates and a fish basket all used by my grandfather and father on the docks in Fleetwood in the 1950’s. Happy set dressing.


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