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More Than a Pretty Place

The Garden of Jerry and Liz Miller in Tustin Pleases the Eye, But It Also Serves as an Arena for Family Life

August 05, 2000|ANN CONWAY

In the spotlight: The flower-garden-framed home of Mission San Juan Capistrano director Jerry Miller and his wife, Liz, of Tustin.

Married for 34 years, the couple have raised eight children in the 3,200-square-foot Spanish-style residence they purchased in 1977.

With only one child still at home, the light-filled structure--which features a Santa Fe-themed solarium and a red tile roof studded with skylights--is quieter than in recent years. "Our life is changing," says Liz, an administrative assistant at Tustin Rehabilitation Hospital. "We're beginning to feel like we're back where we were before we had children--getting another chance to enjoy each other's company."

Into the garden: No sooner do you step into the Millers' living room than you are drawn to the colorful scene beyond its wall of windows. On view: a garden dotted with blooms that include red and white impatiens, purple lobelia, scarlet bougainvillea and pink hollyhocks.

"Because a garden is ever-changing, each season has its own favorites," Liz says as she strolls along the Spanish-tile path that borders her backyard retreat. "Spring was gorgeous here. I saw a garden sign the other day that said it all: 'Last week my garden was at its peak--too bad you missed it,' " she says, laughing. "Anybody who takes gardening seriously could use that sign."

Liz spends her mornings watering the garden where her late father used to love to help her sweep. "Once in a while he is out there with me," she says, her eyes tearing up.

In the evenings, Liz and Jerry enjoy sipping cool drinks on Adirondack-style chairs in a favorite shady corner of their patio. "There, we catch up with each other, discuss our day, share the latest news on the home front," Liz says.

Container art: Visitors to the Miller garden may be so enchanted by its rainbow of blooms that they miss one of its most interesting features: hand-painted terra cotta containers.

On several of the pots that decorate the couple's garden and solarium are scenes of the Southwest--cowboys on horseback, prairie sunsets--created by Jerry.

"Everybody else paints on canvas," Jerry says, picking up a cherished pot and turning it slowly in his hands. "But Liz has so many flowers that need pots--and I like to paint them up."

He begins with a plain terra cotta pot that he coats inside and out with white paint. "Then I use acrylic paint to cover it with a scene from a painting that I've admired," Jerry says. "For me, it's far more utilitarian to paint on a pot than on canvas."

Jerry has also used his artistic talent to embellish some of the chairs and mission-style benches in the couple's backyard.

Southwest style: When the couple prefer the protection of an enclosed area, they relax in their Santa Fe-themed solarium.

There, they can get cozy on furniture draped in colorful serapes, read by the light of a wrought-iron Spanish lamp, revisit the artistic treasures they've brought back from trips to Santa Fe, Taos and Chimayo in New Mexico.

"We love the Southwest," Jerry says. "We're always there in the winter. It's so beautiful to see it with the snow contrasted with the brown stucco dwellings."

Mission ambience: Before the couple married, a favorite place to visit was Mission San Juan Capistrano. A stroll around the mission courtyard with a stop at the fountain in the bell garden was a meaningful way to spend the day.

"Little did we know that years later the mission would become such a big part of our lives," Liz says.

For Jerry, one of the strengths of the couple's Tustin home is the opportunity it provides for peaceful contemplation.

"The mission itself is a very spiritual place--an oasis of tranquillity in a sea of modern turmoil--and when I come home and sit in our beautiful garden among its mature trees, I realize this is also a tranquil, spiritual place."

Ann Conway can be reached at (714) 966-5952 or by e-mail at

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