Meet a member – Jennifer McLean, Northern Beaches

By Jennifer McLean, Northern Beaches Group

This story first appeared in the APS Northern Beaches newsletter, March 2021, edited by Jane March.

Growing up

I was seven when my family moved house to a waterfront site on Kogarah Bay. Our (temporary) dwelling was a dilapidated, converted boatshed. When a northeaster blew at king tide, the bay water lapped at the edge of the veranda. The bathroom facility, an enclosed section of the veranda, had a chip heater to warm our bathwater and there was a dunny out the back.

A young Jennifer McLean

The site was a large battle axe block, and three quarters covered by a forest of orange flowered cannas. An old Navel orange tree was almost consumed by the cannas and an enormous Moreton Bay fig stood regally to one side ten metres from the water front. I don’t recall anything about the garden at our previous home, but here the living plants grabbed my attention.

The cannas were eliminated, a new house built, retaining walls constructed and garden beds and lawns installed. The orange tree had some TLC and rewarded us with sweet oranges for some years. The fig lived on for many more.

My mother dreamt of an avenue of Christmas trees (Ceratopetalum gummiferum), so she purchased twelve trees about a metre tall and planted them along the driveway. One by one they all died. It was not a promising introduction to growing our native species. However, there was a thriving and flowering,installation of “rock orchids” Dendrobium speciosum, and Elkhorns, given by my grandfather who lived a few houses away, mounted on the fence beneath the fig.

A garden at Killarney Heights

Fast forward fifteen years, Jim and I purchased a building block, with remnants of native vegetation, in the newly established Killarney Heights. Enough of it had to be cleared for a small cottage, but we managed to fence off, for protection, an area containing a scribbly gum and a few small shrubs and grasses. A few years later, some additions and a swimming pool meant the loss of our bush plot. Since the front garden and lawn had been massacred in the renovation process, we decided to make the whole area into a bush garden much to the bemusement of the neighbours.

Bush restoration

Not content with fifteen metres of contrived bushland, our next real estate purchase of five acres has challenged us with nearly thirty years of building, restoration, bush regeneration and gardening. With no house on the site we were able to choose its position for maximum privacy and passive energy saving, and minimum disturbance of the existing native vegetation. The house was positioned where rubbish had been dumped and weeds grew in profusion. To ‘skill-up’ on weeds, I enrolled at Ryde TAFE College for a one term course on weed identification and control. However, this extended into a full two year certificate course of bush regeneration which gave me many useful skills.

Jennifer’s native garden

Joining the Australian Plants Society

At the bush regeneration course I met a number of people who were also native plant enthusiasts. They introduced me to the Australian Plants Society, which led me to my first meeting of APS Northern Beaches. Here I met Cynthia Leech who was the volunteer Nursery Manager at Stony Range Botanic Garden at Dee Why. She was often bemoaning the lack of volunteer staff in the nursery and persuaded me to join her on Tuesday mornings. Cynthia was skilled and dedicated to native plants and Stony Range and a wonderful teacher. I learnt much from her about native plants and plant propagation and enjoyed our time together.


I continue to volunteer at Stony Range, but on Saturdays now, with a group of enthusiastic participants eager to learn about native plants and acquire new skills. A few years ago I began a new venture at the Royal Botanic Gardens Herbarium, mounting dried plant specimens from their collection, in readiness for digitisation and moving to the new herbarium at The Australian Botanic Garden at Mount Annan.

Jennifer (standing) generously hosting APS Northern Beaches members (photo by Georgine Jakobi)

Read about Stony Range Botanic Garden here.