This Is Not Just Any Plot : Gardener Shares Laguna Oasis in Her National Writing Debut

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hortense Miller--one of Orange County's most famous (she'd say "notorious") gardeners--makes her national writing debut in the January/February issue of Fine Gardening. Although the magazine and Miller are both pleased with the results, editing the 84-year-old gardener's copy proved a rare challenge, says staff editor Chris Curless.

It is Fine Gardening's policy to let gardeners describe their gardens in their own words rather than filtering information through an interviewer, Curless says. However, because most gardeners aren't writers, this policy sometimes creates problems for the editorial staff, he says.

"Some of the gardeners sound wonderful on the phone, but something happens when they put that sheet of paper in front of them," he says. "They think of their English teachers or something, and that's the end of it. All the life disappears."

Not exactly the problem Curless faced with Miller.

Her images were rich and evocative ("When the fog is low, it comes up the canyon like a snake following its curves"); her opinions firmly but entertainingly stated ("A garden without animals is like a florist's refrigerator"); her style as flowing and natural as her gardening ("People can't imagine that what they buy in a gallon pot can cover a wall, grow two stories high, cover a hillside").

With material like this, Curless says, any pruning seemed a pity. Yet the copy needed to be shortened to fit its space, and the idiosyncrasies of Southern California gardening clarified for a national audience.

"We worked very hard to preserve as much of Hortense's voice as possible, though," he says. "She has such a wonderful way of expressing herself."

Told of the editor's comment about her writing style, Miller feigned no surprise. Although she has yet to figure out what others mean by her "voice," this isn't the first time she's been told she has one.

"My English teacher in college told me I had an original way of saying things and ought to be a writer," she says. "But I didn't have anything to say."

Then , maybe.

Miller clearly has no problem now . She's been providing the bulk of articles for the Friends of the Hortense Miller Garden Monthly Newsletter since it was first published in 1978.

"No one else wants to do it," she protests.

(Selected articles from the first 10 years of the newsletter have been compiled in the anthology "The Garden Writings of Hortense Miller," available through the group by writing to PO Box 742, Laguna Beach, Calif., 92652-0742. The membership fee of $15 per year includes the newsletter.)

Well, maybe there is some small satisfaction in having a place to vent her opinions, Miller confesses. "I am a passionate objector."

Although she wasn't published until she was in her 70s, you might say Miller has been training to be a writer all her life. She's kept a journal since she was 12 and is an avid reader.

"I don't own a TV," she says. "Reading is my entertainment."

Because Miller had described her garden so well, Curless thought he had a pretty good idea of what to expect when he flew out to photograph it last April. But the garden's location on the side of a canyon in Laguna overlooking the ocean still blew him away.

"It's such an awe-inspiring setting," he says. "And I was fortunate enough to be there in early spring after your wet winter when the hillsides were still green and everything was fragrant and floriferous."

The garden's fortunate setting did make it challenging to photograph, however.

"I wish I could have hung from a helicopter 50 feet above the garden," Curless says. "There's no other way to capture it all in one shot. All you can show are bits and pieces. But maybe that's OK. That's the way the garden is. It slowly unfolds."

Miller's hospitality was awe-inspiring too, Curless says. "Hortense was the most natural, unpretentious, easy hostess. She put me up for the night and treated me so well, I felt like I had known her for years. It was almost like going home."

If Miller was relaxed about hosting an editor from one of the top gardening magazines in the country, it may be because publicity has been no stranger.

House & Garden was the first to publicize her garden in 1965, but there have been scores of articles between that debut and Miller's latest appearance. Even her potting shed was singled out for attention once.

Miller's garden has been featured in books too. "The Quest for Paradise, A History of the World's Gardens," by Ronald King, was one of the first. "Only three gardens west of the Mississippi were mentioned," Miller says, "and I'm one of them."

"Beautiful Gardens," by Eric Johnson & Scott Millard, is among the latest. "We made the front cover," she says proudly.

Publicity neither pleases nor fazes Miller. "When it comes to you late in life, you've learned you can live without it," she says.

Still, she admits, publicity is great for her garden. Every media story increases the flow of visitors for months afterward, she says. And Miller never tires of showing off the creation on which she and Mother Nature collaborate.

"Age hasn't done a thing for me," she says, "but it's done wonders for the garden. It gets better all the time."

Despite all the previous publicity, the latest article in Fine Gardening is significant for Miller. It may, by her own reckoning, be the last major story on the garden published during her lifetime. "What else is there?" she asks.

If so, it only seems fitting that the last word on the Garden be in Hortense's own inimitable voice.

To make reservations to visit the garden, contact the Recreation and Social Services Department of the City of Laguna Beach, 505 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, Calif. 92651, or call (714) 497-0716. (Miller deeded the property to the city in the early '80s.)

Docent-led tours are conducted every Wednesday and Saturday and on alternate Thursdays, from 10 a.m. until noon.

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