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Keeper of the canyon

Unlike many gardeners, Hortense Miller lets her plants have their way. And they're the better for it -- just look at the spectacular display next to her Laguna Beach home.

June 19, 2003|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

Horticulture experts step reverentially into this Laguna Beach garden to study flora as if entering the pages of a well-worn copy of Hortus' dictionary of plants.

Flower aficionados wander through it to observe just how big a blossom can grow without much human meddling.

And British tourists visit to see how a cottage garden looks on a wilder, grander scale. Here, on a steeply sloped 2 1/2-acre plot, California natives are jumbled freely with plants from other Mediterranean climates, and winding paths are so littered with fallen leaves, pods and petals that they're obscured.

But this is not a cottage garden. It's not an ordered botanical or a California one, either. It can't be categorized except to call it by its official name: the Hortense Miller Garden.

Every inch of it has been thought about, though not necessarily embellished, by Miller, a 94-year-old who is fiercely protective of the land. Indeed, this garden in Boat Canyon has grown in its own strong-willed way, much like the woman who has nurtured it for nearly half a century.

"No garden worth the name is 'an outdoor living room.' Your living room is for you; a garden is for plants," Miller says from her glass-walled living room, which lends a view of an empire she doesn't pretend to control and no longer owns.

Miller, a widow with no children, gave her garden to the city of Laguna Beach nearly three decades ago. It cozies up against a preserve: the 6,000-acre Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.

As with the public park, you're invited to wander inside.

There are more than 1,500 plant species; take half a step and you'll see a different one: soaring Torrey pines and ground-hugging pink Allium. Skyscraping Puya stalks and reclining white oxalis. Towers of sunflowers and clusters of squat succulents.

And although organized into sections -- arboretum, perennials, Xeriscape -- it's not, by any means, sculpted. Some natives rooted here long ago. The exotics were gifts from horticulturists around the world who were awestruck by the variety they had heard about. But most plants landed here as crowns or seeds after riding piggyback on something else.

There are a few that grab, sting or scratch, such as thorny Ramona trees or prickly pear cactus, but they've been moved to high, untrammeled slopes and won't cause any harm. Except, jokes Miller, to people who have a tendency to fall uphill.

To her, rolling terrain has its advantage.

When Boat Canyon was subdivided in the late 1950s, buyers wanting a home and a formal yard with an ocean-view backdrop rejected this lot. Too upright, they said. It was the last one still for sale when Miller saw it for what it was, not what it could be: a canvas of wildflowers propped up on nature's easel, light shining on it from all angles. "It's more interesting than the showoff gardens of Versailles," she says. "We're lucky enough to walk in it, let alone make a regimented garden on a hill."

Miller's one-story house, designed by architect Knowlton Fernald, gets as much attention from people who love mid-century modern as her garden. There are only two interior walls in the main house. But as clean-lined and dramatic as it is, you get the feeling it's there only to stake up more vines, trees and bushes that overrun the stucco and brick exterior.

From the house, Miller can watch as visitors, led by volunteer docents, bob up and down the spongy paths, hunching occasionally under thick arches of chrysanthemum branches. She can also see scrub jays hop to the kitchen patio and nab peanuts she has left for them. And satiny ravens that sidestep across the honeysuckled deck rail as if they were gymnasts on a balance beam.

With all the activity that surrounds her, though, Miller is focused on one thing: a tiger lily that hasn't poked its head up in two years. Maybe, she says, it's sulking, pining for a new home.

It's been moved before. Miller was 15 when she was given the mother bulb. She's taken it with her from her childhood home in St. Louis to Chicago, where she learned at the Art Institute to create images of mermaids, "the first feminists," which decorate her home. After she married, she traveled the world. Eventually, the orange lily and Miller came to this garden, where they have survived fires, floods, mudslides, Santa Ana wind storms and the death of the land's benefactor, Miller's husband, Oscar, a few months after their home was completed in 1959.

"Fidelity is a tiger lily," says Miller of the companion she's had for almost 80 years. "But I can't expect it to go on."

Age is a subject that hovers around Miller. She mourns the changes she's seen because of development and "the unhandy hand of man" that forced away the raccoons and skunks that came to her door for Van de Kamp's cookies.

Miller has also watched people move on. Her gardener, new to the business when they started working together in the early 1960s, is now retired.

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