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Author who cultivated an enchanting O.C. garden

Special to The Times

Hortense Miller, a feisty environmentalist and author who created one of the best private gardens in the country and whose knowledge of plants was sought by leading horticulturists, has died. She was 99.

Miller died Monday of natural causes at an assisted-living facility in Mission Viejo, said her friend Marsha Bode.

Fiercely protective of her 2 1/2 -acre property in Laguna Beach’s rugged Boat Canyon, off Coast Highway and about a five-minute drive from Main Beach, Miller gave the land to the city in 1976. She wanted the public to continue to see it the way she liked it, as a wild mix of native coastal scrub, tropical succulents, blooming perennials and exotics such as towering puya stalks from Chile.

“Age hasn’t done a thing for me,” she once said of the land she nurtured for five decades. “But it’s done wonders for the garden. It gets better all the time.”

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The land, which included her one-story house, was Miller’s pulpit where she sermonized about development, overpopulation and “the unhandy hand of man.” She would tell visitors and their volunteer docents that plants are more important than people.

The land, described as an intensely personal garden by House & Garden magazine, has been showcased in many books, including Stanley Schuler’s “America’s Great Private Gardens” and “Beautiful Gardens” by Eric Johnson and Scott Millard. It was also the focus of Miller’s book, “A Garden in Laguna.”

An editor of Fine Gardening magazine once wished to be dangled from a helicopter to be able to see the entire sloping property and its 1,500 species of plants. Horticulturists, garden writers and hobbyists made pilgrimages to see Miller and her creation, but she never kept track of them. She said her land wasn’t impressed with fame.

Although she married a wealthy lawyer who took her to see the palace grounds at Versailles -- gardens she dismissed as too showy -- she remained a Midwestern schoolteacher at heart. She learned about plants by reading botany books and through trial and error. She made fences and trellises by hand from bamboo that she grew. She worked in her garden every day, pruning and planting from the time she was 51 until she was 93 and could no longer navigate the steep terrain.

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She survived the death of her husband, Oscar, a few months after they moved into their home in 1959. She also survived fires, floods, mudslides, Santa Ana windstorms and unhappy neighbors.

Some didn’t like that the public was granted access to their gated community. “You would have thought I was opening a brothel,” Miller said. Homeowners whose view of the ocean was blocked by Miller’s garden disagreed with her stand that it was better to look at a tree. She refused to cut down her sugar-gum eucalyptus and redwoods.

Once fearful that the large parcel of open land adjacent to hers would be divided into lots with dreaded lawns, she cheered when the Irvine Co. made a deal with Orange County in 1999 to add the firm’s land to the 6,000-acre Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. Part of the arrangement allowed her to live in her home on the property for as long as she was physically able.

Her land will be preserved as she left it, and it will remain open to free public tours through Laguna Beach’s Community Services Department.

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“Someone else may have put in a pink lotus pool,” Miller said, “but I’m not a cutesy person.”

Miller was born Sept. 9, 1908, in her parents’ two-bedroom house in St. Louis. Her father, Manly Mann, sold real estate. Her mother, Selma, was a liberated housewife who took Hortense and her older sister Dorothy to hear suffragists Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Howard Shaw.

After graduating from Harris Teachers College, now Harris-Stowe State University, during the Depression, she became a substitute teacher in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, making $6 a day. Miller would take her students to study plants, sinkholes, sunfish and other bits of nature.

She met Oscar Miller on a paddle-wheel boat cruising the Mississippi River. She never thought that she would marry, but they did in 1942.

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Miller studied drawing at the Art Institute of Chicago, and the couple traveled to Europe, Russia, England, India, Iran, Asia and Mexico, where she saw bougainvillea and vowed to cultivate it. When Oscar Miller retired in 1950, they moved from Chicago to California so Hortense could have a year-round garden.

They bought the property in Boat Canyon after it was rejected by homeowners who wanted a flat yard. Hortense Miller preferred the pitched landscape, comparing it to the way light illuminates a painting propped on an easel.

She put in 400 steps made from felled redwoods, chipped riprap and salvaged railroad ties so she could reach most of it.

“The Green Woman of Laguna” was no-nonsense in her approach to gardening: “I just buy something and walk around and look for a place to stick it,” she said. “And if it doesn’t do, I put something else in. I like anything that takes care of itself and just grows. I don’t like to have to coddle them and beg them and watch them and compliment them and urge them to grow.”

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Miller complained that life was dull at 94 because it was difficult to read. She called television “slop,” preferring to look at her land, which was an ever-changing scene of petals and creatures. A garden without animals was like a florist’s refrigerator, Miller said.

A vegetarian since she was 11, she also donated to the National Audubon Society and environmental causes.

A compilation of her essays became a book, “A Garden in Laguna” (Casa Dana Books, 2002), that benefits the nonprofit Friends of the Hortense Miller Garden, which organizes tours of the gardens.

In the book, she shows reverence for fire, which she twice watched burn through her property: “Such exuberance, such flinging itself about joyously, the fire seemed to be fairly swooning with pleasure. After years of growing sagebrush scrub by earth and water, now air and fire were having a turn at it -- the Eternal Foursome joining in a dance.”

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Miller had no known survivors.

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news.obits@latimes.com

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Free tours of the garden are arranged by the city of Laguna Beach Recreation Department (949) 497-0716. The tours meet Tuesday through Saturday at 10 a.m. at Riddle Field on Hillcrest Drive. Docents escort visitors through the gated community and up to the garden.


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