Feature article, Irish Exteriors Magazine, 2005
Until recently gardening was just a hobby for County Wexford dairy farmers, Caroline and Harry Deacon. Today the award winning Coolaught Gardens welcomes up to a hundred visitors a week, and a thriving garden centre inhabits almost every square inch of the old farmyard.
Built in the 1700's Coolaught has been in the Deacon family for three generations. Though it has evolved and been modified down through the years several of the original walls constructed of mud and wattle still exist. It lies close to the 17th century estate of Castleboro, site of one of the most Ireland's most spectacular ruins. Harry’s father could recall the fateful day in 1923 when the great house of Castleboro was burnt to the ground.
The front garden at Coolaught has a formal layout that has remained unchanged for over a hundred years. Beneath the springy squares of lawn lie hundreds of crocus bulbs, which come into spectacular effect each spring. The lawn requires careful maintenance, sprays or weed killers are not used as they could adversely affect the crocuses, neither is the grass closely mown. Planting in the south facing herbaceous border at the foot of the garden is broadly similar to how it was over a century ago, with only a few new species introduced by Caroline. A corner of the garden is maintained with the specific intention of attracting butterflies and bees to the garden. The towering Buddleia attract hundreds of butterflies throughout the summer months. Harry is particularly pleased at the fact that the giant Elephant Hawk Moth visited the garden earlier this year.
Across a gravelled lane lies an orchard that was planted by Harry’s grandfather and it is this area that has been recently developed by the present occupants. On entering the garden, your first impression is of informality, bordering almost on the wild side. Plants and shrubs ooze from their beds onto the grass paths, leggy blooms hang lazily across ones path, climbers tangle and drape themselves through the fruit trees. However, it gradually becomes clear that Harry and Caroline have given the layout of the garden considerable thought.
The new pergola has already disappeared beneath a cloud of heavenly scented roses. “We love to cultivate the older varieties of roses such as Madame Isaac Periere, Comte de Chamborde, Gertrude Jekyll, and what’s important for us too is that they have a good smell.”
Emerging from the pergola you are plunged straight into the laburnum walk. This has been cleverly designed - rather than running in a straight line it is deeply curved, so by the time you reach your goal, the past has vanished behind you. “I don’t like straight paths”, says Caroline, “ so everything here is curving, you have to go around a corner to find out what’s beyond.”
The ‘Wow’ factor is immediate as you leave the laburnum walk, Everywhere you turn, beds and borders are bursting with colour, from strong primaries to soothing blues and sparkling whites. It is direct assault on the visual and olfactory senses. There are over forty five varieties of Clematis and over twenty varieties of Camellias. The couple is particularly keen to source unusual plants, such as different varieties of Agapanthus, Timaru and Fritillaria. The banter is gentle between the two owners as we tour the garden - Harry is nonplussed with Caroline’s current fad for Salvia, while Caroline teases Harry over his obsession with Magnolias.
The most recent addition to this haven of tranquillity is the “Egyptian Garden”. This creation was inspired by a visit to Egypt in 2002, a silver anniversary present from the family. The entrance is heralded by an iron archway designed by Harry. It depicts the two Gods most favoured by the Egyptians - a circle with emanating rays represents the Sun God ‘Ra’, while an eye represents the God ‘Horus’, who in his efforts to ward off evil, lost an eye in battle. The dusky coloured gravel represents the river Nile. In planning this area the Deacons laid out the path to resemble as closely as possible the actual passage of the great river itself.
Here the blooms are bright and vivid; yellows, fiery reds, deep blues and orange. “The colours in the planting are chosen for their brightness, boldness, “heat in your face”, as this was the impression they had on their travels.
The final feature of the Egyptian theme is the cosmic circle with granite standing stone. Originally the divisions within the circle were planted with herbs associated with the twelve signs of the zodiac. The herbs took to their new site with gusto and quickly grew out of control - several have been replaced with rock plants and low growing perennials.
The Garden Centre was opened in 2001. It is already a huge success, Caroline takes particular pride in the range of unusual plants that are for sale. Unusual varieties of herbaceous plants, trees and shrubs and old rose varieties compete for shelf space. Many plants are propagated from their own gardens. At any one time there can be up to 120 varieties of old roses, numerous Clematis, Camellias, Magnolias and hardy Orchids. “What you see here in the yard is only about a third of what we actually have in stock. We really only display those plants that are in season or in bloom.” When I comment to Harry that it sounds like he has created quite a monster of a project, he readily agrees: “I’m just waiting for it all to come up from behind and bite me any day now!”
Coolaught gardens won second prize in Wexford in the National Gardens Competition in 2000. Achieving such an award does not come easily. Maintenance of the one acre garden is a fulltime job. “I can easily be working in the garden from nine in the morning till ten at night,” admitted Caroline. Summer is a particularly busy time at Coolaught, extra hands are needed to manage the volume of visitors, including guided tour groups. Fortunately help is at hand. Their son, Clifford, and daughters; Naomi and Janet, all chip in with the maintenance and running the garden centre. Harry’s sister, Carolyn also lends a helping hand.
Between the farming and the gardening it is hard to imagine that the Deacon’s have any desire to expand their efforts. Not so, future plans are already hatching which will entail the development of a woodland area; some dairy pasture will be needed for this new project, and you get the impression that the placid dairy herd is having a rapidly diminishing say in Coolaught’s daily affairs.