Tour a Mid-Century Eden: The Gardens of Hortense Miller

Welcome to the dreamy world of Hortense Miller. She was a naturalist and artist, and lived by herself in the ultimate mid-century home perched on the side of an oceanside canyon in Laguna Beach for nearly a half century. When she died at age 99 several years ago, Hortense left her home and gardens to the city. The Friends of the Hortense Miller Garden non-profit group tend her wild gardens, and help visitors penetrate the gated neighborhood to tour the home and grounds.
 It’s impossible to capture the beauty and magic of this place, but here’s a go at it:

As you walk down a pathway into her vertical gardens, this is the view–the Pacific Ocean and to the right the steep hills of Boat Canyon in north Laguna Beach. Hortense moved to this home with her husband in 1953, but sadly he died several months later. After that, she mainly tended her 2.5-acre garden, created amazing artwork throughout her home, and hung out with her beloved pet cockatoo, Dody. But she also fed and studied the abundant wildlife in her backyard for years, luring them with birdseed, food and water.

Hortense built these three shallow “ponds” at ground level right outside her bedroom, where she watched raccoons, bobcat, coyotes, deer and all birds converge every day and night. She especially loved ravens, and even though she was a lifelong vegetarian, she feed them raw meat.

Although it’s only January, the place was starting to explode with blooms from a recent heat spell. If I had stopped to photograph the flowers, however, we would never have made it out of there by dark. (I had to be dragged out of the place after the 2-hour tour.) I will pop in some flower pics so you can get a sense of her plantings.
Hortense made all of the art of the gardens and inside her home herself. 
She designed all the gates, fences and arbors, most of which were made out of bamboo and tree rope to keep out the deer. 

This tour most likely will be confusing, but I will take you around the outside her home to check out some of the many patios, and other features, and then head down into the different gardens. This is the Gazebo Garden, with Korean Grass and azaleas. Hortense had more than 1,500 plant species, ranging from exotics in the inner gardens to mostly California natives on the outskirts.

I love her artwork and home as much as the gardens (OK, I confess, more than.). The good thing is you don’t have to choose one over the other. In fact, my favorite part of her home is the decoupage art on the wall of her bathroom (it will get it’s own post later!). I will feature her MCM home and furnishings in the next post.

The charm of the garden and grounds, beside the variety of plants,
 are all the organic materials she used for steps and pathways.

MCM aficionados will drool over her patio furniture alone. The vase is from Mexico, one of her favorite places among her world travels with her lawyer husband, Oscar, who was 20 years her senior. She said the main reason she decided to move to California from her hometown of St. Louis was to grow the bougainvillea she first saw there. (And there’s loads of it around her home.)

The garden and home is filled with her artwork, which often features natural themes, such as the sun, moon and stars, and creatures from the sea. Lots of mermaids, which she said brought bad luck. (Oh well.) She painted this table top. Hortense, born in 1908, was ahead of her time in many ways: she was a feminist, believed in population control and chose not to have children, loved animals, despised any type of cruelty, adored Mark Twain, and spurned formal religion. As an intellectual, she loved science, art, culture and celebrated the interconnectivity of nature.  

This side patio had a giant camelia tree on both sides.
Again, you hardcore gardeners would go nuts enjoying all the unusual plants and how she structured (or didn’t) the beds. (Also, feel free to comment if you have names of plants here, and I will gladly update this post! You know Hortense would have dug that!!)

Just one of the many exotic and shade plants in this side garden.

With all the amazing little flowers and architectural details, sometimes you forget to look up and take in the giant canopy of trees, including eucalyptus,black locust, chitalpa, and an ancient coral tree.

So this is around the back, her potting shed. It is delightful, with her art pieces.
She was into suns.
Most of the pottery is from Mexico.

Cool Aztec? dude. Another part of the appeal of the garden, at least for me, 
is that it has been allowed to age, for better or worse. 

So this is a side view of the home she built with her architect Knowlton Fernald, Jr. He was quoted recently in the local newspaper as saying that her main two requirements were “space for her murals and that the garden could be seen from a different angle from every room.”  This balcony is off her dining room and living room. Want to tour her home? Click HERE.
Now we head down the hill. Hortense had these handrails built out of pipe.

Although the Friends of the Hortense Miller Garden volunteers spend thousands of hours raising money to maintain the garden, it’s huge and has areas that have been neglected, such as this tropical plant garden. Many of the plants are labelled, if you can find them.
Apparently, she collected a lot of plants from Chile, because of its similar Mediterranean climate and terrain.

Even without a nurturing gardener like Hortense, these plants keep presenting their surprises. Thanks to Danger Garden (who is one of the most knowledgeable–and helpful!–garden bloggers on the Web, as far as I can tell.), this is a Billbergia nutans
During my recent tour, our wonderful docent, Helga, told us some visitors don’t get Hortense’s gardening style, and make comments, such as, “It’s not pretty,” etc.
 Not to be judgmental, but I think they are uptight dummies
 who simply do not understand the absolute charm of a “loose” garden. 

Apparently, a lot of her epiphyllums ended up here tucked away off a pathway. 

This is a Scotchman’s Purse, or Malvaiscus arboreus
because they don’t open up all the way, Helga told us. I get it, very funny!

Here is one of the winding paths, with huge Toyon Berry, giant succulents, ferns, and cacti alongside.

A lot of the beauty is the contrast of the wild, overgrown plantings
 with the symmetry and patterns of the fences

All the fences were handmade.

“If you have to be boss, stick to nasturtiums and marigold,” Hortense wrote in her book, A Garden in Laguna
How can you not heart this woman??

According to an obituary of Hortense that ran in our local newspaper, when visitors remarked on her informal style of gardening, she said, “This is my garden, not Louis XIV’s. I don’t boss this garden. I merely put plants in the ground and let them do as they wish. They know how to grow better than I do, and far more beautifully.” 

All you can think about while walking these paths
 is how much you need to come back in about a month or two. The place will be unbelievable!!!

Looking over the aloe to the chaparral on this hillsides across the canyon.
This was a little sitting area halfway down the slope with Wild Iris (a California native).

This was a gate at the bottom of the garden.

Looking out over the hills and the fortress of prickly pear and the giant yucca bloom of Boat Canyon .
Now we will climb back up to the home, and her back patio.

This is one of her murals, which she described as “institute” style (Hortense studied for a short time at the Chicago Institute of Art), on the kitchen patio between the potting shed/garage and the main house.
That brick wall, which has glass in between the openings to keep it transparent, runs into the house and turns into an inside wall. There is little that separates the indoors from the outdoors, with floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows, pergolas, patios, balconies and overhangs throughout the home.
This is detail of the bench.
More to die for MCM furniture.

There is Japanese Wisteria everywhere.

Now this is gnarly!! This vine covers the entire arbor. Hortense loved vines.
If you are in the area and would like to visit the garden,
 you need to make a reservation at least 2 weeks in advance. If you are enchanted with Hortense, you might enjoy her book, A Garden in Laguna, where she wrote essays on everything from rat’s nests, to two devastating fires in 1979 and 1993, encounters with rattlesnakes, her favorite vines, fairies, “The Blues,” milkweed, moss, daisies, doves and much more.  

Hortense made this rad sculpture, which is at the back of her garage, from the sawhorses her carpenter used to build many of her projects. To me, this woman was above all an artist, finding and creating beauty in everything from her gardens, to the local wildlife, and especially her house and furnishings. About her house, she was quoted in her 90s in the local newspaper, “Everybody who comes to visit wants to see my garden, but one of my biggest accomplishments is my house.It wasn’t easy building a midcentury-style home when everybody else in Laguna chose seaside cottages.”  If you agree, and I DO, that her house is a living museum of MCM splendor, then stay tuned for my next post!!! Click HERE to tour her home.

9 thoughts on “Tour a Mid-Century Eden: The Gardens of Hortense Miller

  1. Beautiful! Just beautiful. What a great creative force she must have been. And that dangly, fuchsia-like flower with all the colors. I have to know what it is. Not that it will grow here, but…it's amazingly colorful.

  2. Thank you for a great tour of a place I will probably never visit, I can't wait to see the house!

    (btw if Alison is referring to your IMG 4503 and 4500 it is a Billbergia nutans. I take mine outside for the summer and inside for the winter, and it blooms almost every year)

  3. Standing by for the house tour! The power of Hortense permeates every inch of that garden — not many people have the confidence to stay so true to their own vision.

  4. Love love love….this post took me back to my childhood and teen years, growing up in Southern California in the hills near the coast, in an area home to a range of "eccentrics." Women like Hortense who traveled, were educated, shunned popular culture but blazed their own trails of a little wildness…and pottery! I grew up among many gardens like this one, and I adore visiting them again like this. It's cold, grey and rainy here in Portland, but these fabulous tours you're giving me is like a trip home.

  5. Gorgeous garden! Full of character and on the contrary very pretty and looking in harmony with its location and surrounding. A couple of photos have given me ideas to adapt 🙂

  6. Oh, my, what a view and what a beautiful garden. Actually, beautiful isn't a big enough word. Should I ever find myself in that part of the world, I really must try to see it in person. Thank you for showing it to me.

  7. I am redoing the Hortense Miller website and would like to reference this page or use some of your information on our site.May I have your permission to do so?

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