HOME DESIGN : Garden: Dry but Not Dull

Sharon Cohoon is a free-lance writer based in Huntington Beach

We’re approaching gardening all wrong. In the fourth year of a drought, headed into a bone-dry summer, and with no assurance that next year will be any wetter, we continue to squander half our water consumption on landscaping. And half of that on grass that no one ever sets foot on.

Water districts and “xeriscape” architects who landscape with drought-resistant plants warn us that these landscaping habits are wasteful and could lead to mandatory water rationing.

But it’s worse than that: The way we’re gardening is dull.

Or so it seems after visiting the Hortense Miller Garden in Laguna Beach. Mrs. Miller’s garden is blooming proof that water conservation and colorful landscaping are not mutually exclusive. Gardening Hortense-style also looks like a lot more fun.


For more than three decades, she has been practicing the kind of water-wise gardening that water conservationists are now urging the rest of us to follow. Fortunately for neophytes, the 81-year-old gardener is willing to share what she has learned. Her horticultural paradise is open to the public through docent-conducted tours arranged through the city of Laguna Beach.

The 2.5-acre Hortense Miller Garden, which sprawls half-way down the eastern slope of a coastal canyon with a wedge-shaped view of the sea, contains more than 1,500 species, including native Californian and African bunch grasses, but not a single blade of mowable turf. If a plant doesn’t provide flowers or food or habitat for wildlife, it’s not for Mrs. Miller.

“When I saw my first Mexican garden, I realized a lawn was a waste of time,” she says, “and when I moved here from Chicago in 1952, I decided I was never going to mow one again.”

Mrs. Miller eliminated turf for aesthetic reasons--too boring. But Tom Ashe, director of Landscapes Southern California Style, a water-conserving demonstration garden on the grounds of the Western Municipal Water District in Riverside, describes the environmental rationale.

“Turf lawns are three-time losers,” he says. “They’re our biggest water wasters and maintenance cost. But the kicker for me is that they also operate as an environmental deficit. Turf doesn’t create enough oxygen to compensate for the pollution caused by the mowers, blowers, and edgers needed to maintain it.”

Another of Mrs. Miller’s practices that water conservationists wish the rest of us would adopt is grouping plants with similar water requirements. Her home at the top of her property is a low-slung, mostly horizontal, modern house with a bird’s-eye view of the canyon, and she has created a cool oasis of color and shade immediately below it. Her thirstier plants grow here.

The vegetation farther down the hill and angling up the northern slope towards Irvine Ranch pastureland, however, gradually blends into pure California coastal chaparral. This less-thirsty area, the greater part of her garden, receives no irrigation other than rainfall.

Even in the cultivated portion of Mrs. Miller’s garden, the majority of plants are drought-tolerant. This “fairyland,” as one docent describes it, is dramatic evidence that xeriscape doesn’t mean no flowers. In spring, the California wild lilacs are crowned with cobalt blue, lilac or frothy white flowers; the feathery acacia tree is ablaze in sulfur yellow; the Mexico fire sage is covered with fire-red trumpets, and the hellebore sports exotic, chartreuse flowers. Each of these thrives without putting any great demand on the dwindling domestic water supply.

Despite its sparse rain, “California is a gardener’s paradise,” Mrs. Miller says. Plants from climates with similar wet-winter, dry-summer weather patterns--like the Mediterranean, South Africa, Australia, and central Chile--all do well here. Even picky gardeners can find species to love, she says.

She has yet to find a plant she doesn’t love, she says, but the longer she lives among the chaparral, the more she appreciates rugged native species, especially after watching a brush fire roar down the canyon and sweep it clean in 1979. The fire changed direction and spared her house, but it came close enough to bubble the paint and crack some glass. New green sprouts appeared above the ash days after the fire, and a few months later the canyon produced a spectacular wildflower show.

Mike Evans of the Tree of Life Nursery, a California native-plants wholesaler in San Juan Capistrano, wishes there were more Hortense Millers. “If you’re not out there all the time, mowing, edging, pruning and cleaning up leaf litter, your garden can support lizards, birds and butterflies.” The more natives you use in your landscaping, he says, the more it will look like the outdoors and the less like a formal garden. That, he says, is its charm.

Mrs. Miller agrees. We spend too much time trying to shape and perfect our gardens, she proclaims, and we only succeed in making them tame and staid. Plants know what to do without us, she scolds.

“People ought to have more modesty,” she says. “Go clean up the sink, sew on a button, read the dictionary. Leave your plants alone.”

Natural gardens like Mrs. Miller’s don’t use fertilizers or pesticides. Leaf droppings, except giant-size ones like sycamores, are left where they fall in this garden. Cuttings are ground into mulch, which enriches and cools the soil, keeps down dust and creates soft pathways.

No pesticides means a few chewed plants, but Mrs. Miller doesn’t begrudge insects an occasional lunch. There are too many people on this planet and too few animals, in her opinion, and the world is a poorer place for it.

Visits to the Hortense Miller Garden are arranged through the city of Laguna Beach. The docent-led tours normally take about two hours and are conducted Tuesdays through Saturdays. Admission is free, but make reservations at least two weeks in advance during spring and early summer. Phone (714) 497-0716 between 10 a.m and noon for further details.

Other alternative gardens open to the public include:

Fullerton Arboretum: This 26-acre botanical collection on the Cal State Fullerton campus has a large assortment of interesting, drought-tolerant plants. Though the arboretum provides a self-guided tour pamphlet, a guide would be helpful to understand these plants’ applicability in your own yard.

The arboretum is open 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. daily, except on major holidays. For information on guided tours, call (714) 773-3579.

Niguel Botanical Preserve: Crown Valley Park’s 19-acre arboretum is still mostly in the planning stage, but it will specialize in drought-tolerant plants suitable for residential sites. The preserve is at 29751 Crown Valley Parkway, Laguna Niguel. Hours: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Landscapes Southern Californian Style: This demonstration garden is a collaborative effort between the Western Municipal Water District and UC Riverside. The garden combines drought-tolerant plants available in any nursery--such as India hawthorn, bottle brush, and agapanthus--with less-familiar species in settings that visitors can easily visualize in their own yards.

Plants are clearly labeled, educational signs are self-explanatory and free literature on water-conserving gardening is available. The garden’s field of wild flowers is an excellent argument for eliminating turf. The field’s gazania base will ensure greenery and some color all year.

Landscapes Southern California Style is at 450 Allessandro Blvd. in Riverside. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Groups tours are available. Call (714) 780-4170 for details.