When Hortense Miller moved to her hilltop home in Laguna Beach, she said she "wanted to be the mother of a bougainvillea." Nearly 30 years later, some might argue that she let the maternal instinct get the better of her.
Today Hortense Miller is the overseer of what is surely the most spectacular and varied back-yard garden in Orange County. Covering 2.5 acres of hillside behind her home on the upper slopes of Boat Canyon, the garden contains more than 1,200 species of plants both native and foreign, and Miller knows every one of them.
For the last 10 years the garden has been administered by the city of Laguna Beach, which arranges docent tours through the grounds Tuesdays through Saturdays, but Miller still owns the land and continues to spend a part of each day tending it.
"I'm a plant nut," she said. "And this is what's called a natural garden. I don't interfere with it. I just put the things in the ground and let them grow."
Visitors expecting a closely tended, sculptured work of botanical art, she said, can be disappointed. The garden is a fascinating mix of local coastal scrub growing alongside such exotics as tropical succulents, native South African flowering plants and several varieties of roses, annuals, flowers and grasses. It makes for an almost overwhelming wash of colors and textures.
"People who like this sort of garden are overjoyed when they see it," Miller said. "But people who are expecting something like Versailles, well, they don't say much. That kind of garden is for putting on silk clothes and showing off. We've never had a landscape gardener. We just keep pecking away at it."
When she planted the first of the garden's plants in 1959, Miller said she "wanted everything I saw. I'm easy to please when it comes to plants. I like everything."
And everything seems to like her. She pointed out several plants, such as a large poinsettia that now overgrows one path like a canopy, that shot up from small beginnings. The poinsettia, she said, originally was a gift from her maid and sat in a four-inch pot.
The garden has attracted a local following enthusiastic enough to create its own organization, called the Friends of the Hortense Miller Garden. The group helps to raise funds to maintain the garden by sponsoring events such as a dinner at the Cottage Restaurant in Laguna Beach next Tuesday evening. One member of the organization, Ora Sterling, called the garden "Laguna Beach's best-kept secret."
For the most part, said Miller, her visitors are knowledgeable gardeners themselves, and she likes it that way.
"I don't want just casual people to come up," she said. "I like to see people who really know and love the plants. Gardening is like baseball; you have to study it to appreciate it."
THE HORTENSE MILLER GARDEN
Where: 22511 Allview Terrace, Laguna Beach.
What: A 2.5-acre natural garden featuring native plants as well as tropical, subtropical and exotic plants from around the world.
Hours: Visits arranged at visitors' convenience through the Laguna Beach Human Affairs Department. Available days are Tuesdays through Fridays, and Saturday mornings. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Visits: Must be arranged by calling the city offices at (714) 497-3311. Tours conducted by docents last about two hours. Admission free.
Best months to see blooming plants: April, May, November.
Friends of the Hortense Miller Garden: Phone (714) 497-6484.