ABOVE: Jenny and Jim McCormack relaxing in the garden. Photo: Susanna Freymark
STORY BY Susanna Freymark
Fifty pairs of helping hands restored the McCormacks’ prize winning garden at Swan Bay.
In 2018, Jenny and Jim McCormack won the North Coast Champion Garden.
In 2022, that garden was under water with only the tops of the tallest trees poking out of the floodwaters.
On a sunny day like today, Friday, May 12, the grass is a luscious green, the camellias dance across the timber trellis and the Richmond River waters are calm and tranquil. The thought of the flood seems a world away from the 67ha property nestled in the curve of the river.
For Jim and Jenny, the flood is all too real. It has taken 14 months to repair the house and garden. They’ve only been back in their home for a month.
Jenny wasn’t sure she wanted to come back.
In 2017, floodwaters came up to the first step of the house which is on a mound.
In 2022, floodwater rose to 1.6m in the house.
That night, February 28, 2022, at 10pm when Jim got out of bed to go to the bathroom, Jenny could hear the slosh, slosh of water as he walked.
It was time to evacuate.
Earlier in the evening Jim had called the local Woodburn police officer Adam Bailey to tell him, “it’s going to be a big one”.
Jim moved three big tractors to the highest point in the road. Earlier in the day, the cattle were moved to high ground at New Italy.
Their son Josh came to the house and tied the boat to the pool fence so it was easy to get too.
Apart from tying the outdoor furniture to the veranda post, the garden was left to fend for itself as Jim, Jenny and Josh got into the boat.
Both of them describe the rising floodwaters as being “surreal” at the time.
They could see the water rising up the fence posts as they went by.
It was particularly tough for Jenny. Ten years ago, she had a brain tumour removed. It was back. She had been through a round of chemo, her balance was shot and she was feeling vulnerable.
They spent the night in the boat tied to the side of the cattle truck.
“There were three of us and two dogs in the boat,” Jenny said.
As the sun came up, they made their way to a neighbour’s house.
“All I wanted was a cup of tea,” Jenny said. Her neighbour couldn’t make anything. There was no power.
A jet ski escorted Jenny and Jim’s boat to Woodburn to the evacuation centre at the school.
They were lucky, Jenny said because they had a house they could stay in at Evans Head while Jim and Josh could fix the house.
Jenny couldn’t face coming back to her home of 30 years. She couldn’t bear to see it covered in mud or the garden destroyed.
Yet a surprising and beautiful act of kindness by 50 people transformed the garden.
In September last year, their son Josh, his friends, family from the Gold Coast and Coffs Harbour – 50 of them – turned up at Swan Bay with tools and wheelbarrows.
“They pruned, weeded and mulched,” Jim said.
There were people helping who Jim and Jenny had never met before.
There is little evidence of the catastrophic flood in the garden today. The hedges are thriving, garden ornaments scattered about the property but have been returned.
“The garden was under water for more than a week,” Jim said.
The camellias, day lilies and gardenia survived and even some of the roses.
For Jenny who knows her garden well, it is the absence of things that remind her of the floods.
The agapanthus and bird of paradise have gone. The flowers Jenny planted by the river have washed away. She won’t replant those, she has decided to keep the area as lawn only.
The frangipani and magnolia trees are slowly dying. They don’t look like they’ll bounce back.
“They’ll have to go,” Jenny said.
The floods also brought new weeds to the property. Jim said he has seen the weed coral tree popping up.
The garden and house look serene. The anguish of that night is still raw, yet here, like the sturdier plants, Jenny and Jim can heal and thrive.