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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Tough Row to Hoe : Independent and outspoken Hortense Miller, who has been gardening on a rugged Laguna Beach hillside since 1959, wonders who will reap what she has sown when she no longer can.

July 24, 1994|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA BEACH — Like a teacher showing off prized student artwork on back-to-school night, Hortense Miller walks through her famous garden, pointing out the monstera deliciosa from Mexico here and the Belle of Portugal with its 50-foot long vines there.

Miller's botanical oasis, which weathered fires both last year and in 1979, is on the steep eastern side of rugged Boat Canyon. Dubbed a "walk on the wild side" by Horticulture magazine, it is considered one of the best private gardens in America and draws visitors from around the world.

She began planting her garden in 1959 and has tended it every day ("a day I can't go outdoors is a day lost"). But at 85, Miller says she's "a little worried about what will happen with the garden after my death."

With no heirs and wanting to see her botanical legacy live on, Miller deeded her property to the city of Laguna Beach in 1977--a move that infuriated some of her Allview Terrace neighbors, who feared that opening the garden to public tours would cause traffic problems on their private street. "You would have thought I was opening a brothel," she recalls.

Under terms of the deed, the city is required to maintain her property as a garden after she dies, "and I don't mean a kindergarten or a beer garden," Miller says. If they fail to uphold their end of the bargain, she says, "they lose it, and it would go to the Nature Conservancy."

In an agreement with the city, the Friends of the Hortense Miller Garden will maintain the garden, provided the group generates adequate funding. "But the future of the garden," says Friends member Pat Worthington, "really depends on attracting the right person to undertake the hands-on leadership role in the garden--there's got to be another Hortense in the future somewhere.

"If there's one thing Hortense does not represent, it's a committee. She is an extremely independent, unique individual, and her garden reflects that. So the Friends are going to be faced with the choice of whether to pick another very independent person and give them free rein--in which case the garden will continue to be an individual, unique entity--or try to run it by committee, in which case it will eventually be of no interest."

In the meantime, the former Midwestern schoolteacher--long ago called "one of the great American gardeners" by House and Garden magazine--continues doing what she does best: tending her sprawling garden filled with more than 1,000 species of foreign and native plants and trees.

Gingerly descending a few steps to the second level of the garden--past the Chinese jasmine and the African geraniums and the Japanese anemone--Miller pauses on the narrow, mulch-topped path to admire a sprawling bougainvillea.

Planted 30 years ago from a one-gallon can, it now climbs halfway up a towering sugar gum eucalyptus tree and creeps 40 feet along the deer fence, a homemade affair Miller fashioned from bamboo, bender board and one-inch gas pipes held together with a continuous line of Manila hemp--"That's the best rope there is, you know."

Miller, who moved to Laguna in 1952, says she couldn't grow the colorful tropical vines in the small garden she used to have at her home north of Chicago. She first fell in love with bougainvillea when she and her late husband, Oscar, visited Mexico in 1942.

"I came to Laguna because I wanted to be the mother of a bougainvillea," says Miller, gently pulling down a thorny green branch festooned with delicate, tissue-paper-thin red bracts.

"I like bougainvilleas better than children," she adds mischievously, a characteristically cheery laugh blossoming forth.

Miller, who has the friendly yet no-nonsense demeanor of someone who spent 25 years in classrooms, is described by friends as an independent, intelligent, opinionated, well-traveled, well-read woman whose knowledge of things botanical is no less than encyclopedic. But she has never belonged to a garden club. "They're too silly," she says, adding, "I've never been a joiner."

Although she good-naturedly says she's reached an age where people tend to want to hug her ("They didn't do that when I was 60; I look innocent now, I guess"), she's as opinionated as ever.

Among her special concerns are the environment and the need to curb Earth's population, which has grown from less than 2 billion when she was born in 1908 to nearly 6 billion today and is expected to triple again in the next 70 years.

"We're in real trouble," she says. "What I object to is that they're killing off the country and the animals. It's going to be a dull world when it's nothing but us and potatoes--potatoes because they give you the most food per acre of any crop." So, she adds with a laugh, "live another 50 years, and you're going to eat potatoes for breakfast and for lunch and for supper."

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