I remember him well. A small, neatly dressed, elderly gentleman from Ceylon. His name was Leslie Kodituwakku. He lived next door but one and was very proud of his garden.
Coming from a family of gardeners and with great enthusiasm for my new garden, it wasn’t long before a special kind of acquaintance was borne between he and I. He was recently widowed and diagnosed with terminal cancer, so I knew this was going to be a relatively short friendship.
It was blazing June when we first met and he suggested that I come and see his garden. Behind his wooden gate lay a wild, colourful, abundant journey of perennials, interesting trees, flowering shrubs, climbers and a profusion of garden birds. But it was the scattering of oriental poppies that first caught my eye; one variety in particular: a bright red and purple flower which I said reminded me of the colours of India.
Over the course of the summer and autumn, and countless glasses of wine, he taught me the name of all his beloved plants and how to create an illimitable garden; devoid of the order and structure of traditional planting, and a place where wildlife would always be welcome from the huddle of overwintering snails to the foxes and badgers that followed their noses. He particularly liked the tenacity and spontaneity of the self-seeders holding on to the tiny cracks of earth that bore their presence.
Through his deteriorating health, my family and I learned of his life in Ceylon, his flying and diving adventures when he was involved in the raising of the Mary Rose. In between times I was busy planning and shaping my new wildlife garden. First a wildlife pond, then flowerbeds stocked with perennials, then came the acers and various types of clematis viticella to run rampant over whatever it could find.
Les lived until mid-December when one day I knocked on his door to find a stillness and silence within. As he had felt his life slipping away he offloaded his possessions to whoever wanted them. To me came a dining table for sharing happy meals, then garden tools, terracotta pots, a lovely old cast iron bench, and lastly, a garden container within which there was going to be a surprise.
We missed him a lot. My budding wildlife garden brought some solace and was a tribute to his friendship, and sure enough in early June, in my surprise container bloomed a red and purple poppy. This time those vibrant colours reminded me of a very special neighbour.
Now the years have moved on and it is a bright and beautiful February day. I potter in my garden and marvel at the flowers that have seen me through the winter (mostly winter violas and hellebores) and those which have rather sneakily just arrived (narcissus). Birds crowd around the feeder and a wood mouse scurries out of my shed along the fence. My wild garden always makes me smile…..