Hortense Miller's unique hillside home and garden above Laguna Beach, California

The Hortense Miller Garden is on a steep 2.5 acre hillside site above Laguna Beach
It's hard to beat the spectacular location of the Hortense Miller Garden high above Laguna Beach in southern California. Perched on the crest of Boat Canyon, it has unrivalled views over the Pacific and it was here that the spirited environmentalist and author, who gave her name to the garden, lived and worked there for more than 40 years in the single-storey house; creating the 2.5 acre landscape on a steep gradient; and then leaving her legacy to the local community.
There are far-reaching views of the Pacific throughout the Hortense Miller garden
Hortense was born in 1908 in St Louis, Missouri and spent her formative years there. At 12 years old she announced that she would never marry, but when she met her husband Oscar - a successful Chicago lawyer - on a paddle steamer cruising the Mississippi, some 40 years later, she changed her mind. She was a self-taught artist, although marriage afforded her the opportunity to attend the Chicago Art Institute, which laid the foundations for some of the artwork you can see at her home today - the house and garden that she and Oscar bought when he retired in 1950 and they moved to California, to the rugged, hilly plot in Boat Canyon.

Many potential purchasers had rejected the plot because of its potentially difficult location on the hillside, but Hortense saw the full potential of the site, with its stunning views over the ocean and knew she could create an unusual garden here, using native southern California plants and trees. Undaunted by the steepness of the site, she set out to create the unusual property that visitors see there today, designed entirely to maximise on the location and the unique setting overlooking the rugged land of the canyon and the ocean beyond. Extensive work was carried out on the property under Hortense's direction and it was finally completed in 1959. But sadly, Oscar, who was 30 years her senior, died later that year.
Hortense was now on her own at her California home and threw herself into both her garden and her art, creating the extraordinary legacy that she has left to the nation. She survived both fire and fury during her time there - both literally and metaphorically: the terrible fires of 1979 and 1993 that raged close to the property, but left the house standing; and heat from neighbours who objected to the house and garden - located within an exclusive, gated community - opening to the public. 
But Hortense soldiered on alone and today visitors can see that part of the impact of her unique home is the way the house is a gallery onto the garden and the terrain beyond - huge picture windows offer light and spectacular views, reminiscent of a modern art gallery where the exhibition is actually the views. There can be few gardens anywhere in the world with these attributes, and it is thanks to her foresight that it will remain open to the public. Fearing sub-division of the property after her death, Miller donated it to the City of Laguna in 1976. The Friends of the Hortense Miller Garden was founded one year later to maintain the property and offer docent-led tours.
The garden is planted with native California plants - punctuated with hundreds of steps to access the different levels - and an abundance of wildflowers, perennials and succulents. It's uniqueness is in the levels, the steep gradients and the sense of hanging on a hillside, overlooking vertical gulleys into the valley below. But it's definitely not a garden for visitors who suffer from vertigo, or sadly for the disabled because it sits on too many different levels connected by steps and walkways.
Visitors to the Hortense Miller Garden can see her artwork on show, inside and out
The house is just as interesting - a perfectly preserved mid-century style property, filled with period furnishings and rooms crafted by Hortense to make the most of both the terrain and the views from the windows. House and garden are interspersed with Hortense's own artwork: large murals like the one above in the garden; paintings and hand-painted furniture; brightly coloured collages depicting historical figures or mermaids; home-made ceramics and sculpture; or hand-built steps linking the different garden areas.
Hortense Miller lived to be 99 years old and was a favourite garden character with both friends and visitors. Her reputation spread far beyond the confines of California, attracting visitors from all over the world to her garden and she was only a few months short of 100, when she died back in 2008. Today her legend lives on, thanks to the efforts of the Friends of the Hortense Miller Garden. I was lucky enough to visit with head docent and long-term friend of Hortense, Marsha Bode, who continues to nurture the property with fellow Friends.

Visits to the garden can be arranged for every first and third Saturday of the month, plus every second and fourth Thursday, by calling (949) 497-0779. Tours take place from 10.00 am to noon and last approximately two hours. Tours are free, but donations are encouraged and there are also annual memberships available to local residents. But do book early to avoid disappointment. This is a garden well-worth visiting.

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  1. I never knew about this beautiful garden and I used to go to Laguna Beach to walk every weekend for 15 years before I moved from CA. I have it on my list now! Thank you so much for the great photo tour Charlotte : )

  2. Bad Me! Have been to Laguna a number of times and have not seen the gardens. Beautiful place in a most beautiful town on the ocean - love it. Jack


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