By Donna Furey | LB Indy
This year visitors to the annual spring open house at the Hortense Miller Garden on Saturday May, 30 will be treated to an art exhibit as well as the usual delights of the 2.5 acre garden nestled on the steep slopes of Boat Canyon.
International artist, and part-time Laguna Beach resident Gianne de Genevraye has completed 18 paintings during residencies in winter and spring. Her work employs a style she calls nature painting, which involves combining paint with natural materials like rabbit skin glue, egg and casein. “It’s all about the shapes and forms,” she says of her favorite subjects, Mediterranean plants such as aloes and echiums which she describes as sculptural.
The open house was cancelled last year as the Friends of the Garden undertook several major maintenance projects and improvements to the garden and house funded by city grants and donations.
The garden’s namesake, Hortense Miller, who was born in 1908, was a St. Louis schoolteacher when she met her husband, a Chicago lawyer. She eventually retired and with him traveled to Europe, Russia, India, and the Bordo Gardens of Mexico where she fell in love with bougainvillea. In 1959 the couple moved into a new mid-century modern home in Boat Canyon designed by Knowlton Fernald. Miller, then 50 and soon to be widowed, was ecstatic at the prospect of creating a garden that would flourish year round; her lifelong dream. Within 10 years, the garden was featured on the cover of Sunset Magazine.
The subdivision where the Millers settled, known as Allview Terrace, was mostly developed by the time they bought their lot, rejected by earlier buyers as too steep. When the development with village and ocean views first opened, it was covered with 55 species of native chaparral and a few trees planted along the road by noted landscape architect Fred Lang. With the help of just one gardener, Donald Estep, the property was improved with steps, paths, pergolas, and plants. Miller also painted murals inside and outside the house.
Miller and Estep built fences of bamboo to deter deer from eating the new plantings because it was light enough to carry along the steep slopes. Hose bibs were added as the garden spread farther down the hillsides. Miller eschewed irrigation, preferring to water by hand only those plants that needed it. Estep designed the entrance patio and the gazebo garden while Miller concentrated on the perennial gardens and the hillsides. Lang returned to plant a redwood tree, six Torrey pines, six Matilija poppies and a coral tree, the only specimen. All the other trees in the garden were planted from one or five gallon pots.
Fearing subdivision of her property after her death, Miller donated the garden to the city of Laguna Beach in 1976. The Friends of the Hortense Miller Garden was founded in 1977 to maintain the property and give docent-led garden tours. The Friends lease the property from the city for $1 per year and subsist on donations, grants and volunteer workers.
“After dark, a roistering wind from the north came down Boat Canyon. Gravel bounded over the roof, a limb twisted and fell from a lemon gum. Fire flickered at the head of the canyon…” Miller wrote in her journal of a Dec. 11, 1979, fire. It burned the whole garden, but only blistered paint on the house and cracked a window. Miller was completely philosophical about the loss. “December 13 the first green shoots appeared, [the bulb] Homeria, doing business as usual. Seventeen days later, 45 different sorts of plants begin to be green. We are on our way,” she continued.
The garden also burned in 1993. Noting the positive effects of fire, Miller’s diary lists all the plants that returned more robust than ever and all the flowers that suddenly appeared from long dormant seeds.
But by 2013, the house was deteriorating. Supports under the main wing of the house were replaced and much of the residence repainted thanks to a 2014 matching grant of $13,000 by the city and a $4,000 community assistance grant, said Deputy City Manager Ben Siegel.
In recent years, the garden also received support in gifts from The Massen-Greene Foundation, the Laguna Beach Garden Club and from the Virginia Worthington estate, a founder of the Friends of the Garden.
The windfall allowed repairs to paths, steps and railings, the restoration of the kitchen garden mural by artist Fay Wyles and upgraded sprinklers, said board member Dorthea Yellot.
Some of this year’s annual $143,700 budget will be saved for future projects and on-going restoration and repairs, said board member Sherry Stephens.
Genevraye will discuss her techniques and subject matter on docent led tours in the garden on May 15, 22 and 30. While some think native Southern California chaparral looks like weeds, she hopes her paintings will help viewers look at plants in a different way. “The English country garden, the cottage gardens, they have to go,” she said referring to styles better suited to wetter climates.
Families and cameras are welcome at the open house from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and free parking and shuttle service to the garden is available from the First Church of Christ Science, 635 High Dr. Music by local favorite Mark Turnbull and refreshments await visitors. A $20 donation is suggested. More information at: hortensemillergrden.org.