Succulents, Native Plants, Mid-Century Modern--The Hortense Miller Garden

Quintessential California Modern...
 and native plants...
 ...all the latest, trendiest, hottest up-to-date stuff in one garden...that was started back in 1959.  I visited the Hortense Miller garden this past week.  Back in the 1950's, Mr. Miller, retiring from a successful career in Chicago, asked his wife what she'd like to do next. 
"I want to move to California and grow a garden!"
"Okay, dear."
And so they did, deciding on Laguna Beach, then then known as an artist's colony.  Nowadays, few not-already-very wealthy artists can afford to live in Laguna-- the median home price is $1.25 million--but the late 1950's was a different world.  Orange County was still mostly rural, California beach towns were still sleepy, small, affordable.
Portrait of the gardener:
 Sadly, Mr. Miller, who was some thirty years older than his wife, passed away shortly after their California Modern home was completed in 1959.  Mrs. Miller spent the next 59 years growing a garden on a two and a half acre (10,100 m2) property on the lip of a canyon with views of the sea.    
What the land was, before the home was built:

 The sea fades into the sky:

The property has very little flat space;  the garden is mostly slope.
 I took a photo of the vintage mid-century chairs for you mid-century chair lovers (you know who you are!): 
 We had the luxury of a quiet and leisurely tour--there was no rush to push us through and out, so I could ponder the soul of the place a bit more than the usual snap-and-go of typical garden tours. 
Spuria Iris:
 A garden made by one person, essentially, over a long period of time prompted interesting speculation.  Mrs. Miller was a Midwesterner (St. Louis, Chicago) and appears to have had a modest, practical sensibility. 
  I don't think the garden had ever been torn out and completely remodeled--everything evolved, slowly.  Certainly the house stayed exactly the same.  
Right down to the original home-of-the-future light switches:
 There was Algerian Ivy from the 1960's, ferns from the 70's, Dietes morea from the 80's.  The trees--Eucalyptus, Agonis, Pine, an Erythrina--had been given time to mature.  Shrubs had been given time to become small trees.   
Like a page from Sunset Magazine circa 1962:
Walking through the home, I had that melancholy feeling one gets going to estate sales--a home long-lived in and loved, missing its owner.
 The garden felt more alive; the spirit of the gardener seemed more present. 
 There was a modesty to the plants--in the Internet age we've quickly grown to relish the easy availability of so many more plants than even a couple of decades ago. There were two common species of Agaves I saw, not dozens; two common species of Aloes, not dozens--Mrs. Miller was a plant lover, but not one to indulge in retail therapy.
Taste, not style, nurturence, not affluenza, patience, not insistence. Fully absorbing the point of view that produced this place, one could understand how our mania for shopping and acquiring is driven by a sensibility increasingly distant and alien from the grounded, careful optimism of sixty or seventy years ago.  Where's the outdoor kitchen with the outdoor flat-screen TV to watch from the squashy couches under the chandelier?  Not here.

Ocean views from your potting bench.  Let me repeat that:  Ocean views from your potting bench! 

 Imagine looking out to the sea from your potting bench, the Pacific ocean beyond an ocean of flowers...
With that view to work by, no wonder all the pots looked good!

Orthrosanthus multiflorus (I think) or is it Aristea ecklonii ?  Our guide said it was quite invasive in the garden, so you are hereby warned.  
 A mature Agonis flexuosa:
 Brick:  very Chicago, no?
 An old, still healthy Callistemon:

I didn't get a chance to ask what rose that was.  I didn't recognize it; it was quite fragrant.  'Don Juan'? 

 Deer still live in the area, so roses in the garden are few.  'Mermaid' was another other rose I saw.  I knew it was 'Mermaid' right away when a visitor reached out to the rose and immediately screeched--stabbed by a prickle.  You don't mess with 'Mermaid'.  Mermaids were a favorite subject of Mrs. Miller's art, which may explain the presence of that particular rose.
Ochna serrulata:
Mrs. Miller's artwork can be found throughout the property.  A handmade screen:
 This wonderful plant looked so much like a dwarf pine, carefully bonsai'd, but it was Asparagus retrofractus.  Even the name is cool.

 Euphorbia rigida

The garden gives way to surviving Coastal sage scrub.  Native plants in the garden include Heteromeles arbutifolia, Mimulus, and Rhus integrifolia

Rosa minutifolia, now rare in the wild.  Native to San Diego county and Baja California.

 At one point our group paused in the home, and looked quietly at the small dining table, with its beautiful vista.
 Someone remarked that they had known a friend of Mrs. Miller, who had recounted many happy mornings spent at that table, drinking tea and talking plants, and looking outwards, to the sea of flowers and the sea beyond.
Both ladies, now gone, garden no longer.  For a time, their spirit lingers.  In a garden, there is both all the time in the world, and never time enough.

Hortense Miller garden information here (link)


  1. Lovely, nostalgic post. It's true that somebody who gardened even 20 years ago had such a "limited" plant palette. I can't imagine the dedication of those older gardeners in tracking down "rare" plants.

    p.s. St. Louis and Chicago - yay!

  2. Wow, what an amazing garden and house, beautiful photos dear Hoover.
    xoxoxo ♡

  3. What a wonderful tour--thank you so much for sharing. I'm going to put this one on my list!

    1. I hope you get a chance to see it--who knows how long it will remain...

  4. "In a garden, there is both all the time in the world, and yet never enough" very well said!

    Thank you for the lovely tour, the pace was perfect.

  5. Thank you for the excellent tour. I would love to visit this garden, I like the spare quality, the sense of place, the (to me) unusual plants. I also admire 'Mermaid' - but will remember, look but don't touch (without gloves).

    1. I hope you get the chance to visit it someday!

  6. A wonderful post about a special gardener and her garden. Thank you for this moving and thought-provoking post!

  7. What a true California garden. I could feel this garden as I walked through it via your photos.


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