The Miller Botanical Garden Part I

 The Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden just north of Seattle is a five-acre botanical garden overlooking Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula. The garden's location in a private neighborhood limits the amount of visitors; in other words, appointments are necessary. Lucky me, my friend and fellow blogger Gina of Fernhaven tracked down three tickets for her, myself and our friend Anna of the blog Flutter and Hum to pay this vast Pacific Northwest wonderland a visit last week. We were lucky, the weather cooperated. The four-hour drive went quickly. We had a blast on our visit, one I will be processing for months to come. Richie Steffen, the executive director, warmly welcomed us and several other visitors this special day. Of course, I overindulged the number of photos, so this will be in two parts. The sun was bright in this primarily woodland setting, so shadows were challenging but nonetheless, I invite you to sit back and take in Part 1 of a visit to this enchanting garden.

First a little garden history, taken from the website:

The garden is the former residence of Pendleton and Elisabeth Carey Miller. The Millers purchased five acres of land in 1948 with expansive views over Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula. 

Elisabeth Carey Miller was born in Spokane, Washington, although she spent most of her life in the Seattle area where she attended the University of Washington. A world renowned horticulturist, she was a member of over 25 horticultural organizations, received numerous national and international awards, and was regarded as one of the finest plantswomen of the world. Her own garden contains some 4,000 species, many of which are unique in the western hemisphere.
Mrs. Miller was not only known for her gardening skills, but also for her community involvement, having served as a driving force for the creation of the Center for Urban Horticulture and the Elisabeth C. Miller Library at the University of Washington Botanical Gardens as well as the Seattle Chinese Garden. The Elisabeth C. Miller Library represents one of the best horticultural book collections available to the gardening public. She was a founder of the Northwest Horticultural Society and an active member of the Garden Club of America and served on numerous boards and as a facilitator of several civic projects. She was well respected for her generous contributions of time and financial support to public horticulture and the community at large. Her legacy continues not only through the Miller Garden but also through the Pendleton and Elisabeth Carey Miller Charitable Foundation

After driving through a labyrinth of windy woodland streets perched on a hill, we finally found the entrance to the garden and parked, warmly greeted by Richie. All three of us - Anna, Gina and I are former Joy Creek Nursery people and so we know Richie, a friend of the nursery and good friend of Maurice, former owner of the nursery. To our right as we parked, a stone amphitheater of plants welcomed us.

Narcissus, agave, sedum, lewisia - oh my - it must be a Pacific Northwest garden as we are so fortunate to be able to grow a wide range of plants. Although our climate is very similar to Seattle's, the marine influence is felt here more prominently as you can just make out Puget Sound in the background. The entire garden on a hill cascades down to eventually meet the water, so they have a bit of a protected weather pocket.

The one and only Richie Steffen, a plant lover if ever there was one.

Anyone who is acquainted with Richie knows he has horticultural exuberance! He loves plants and he willingly shares his vast knowledge of the plant kingdom. Richie joined the Miller Garden in 2000, bringing with him a variety of horticultural expertise. After moving from Maryland to Seattle in 1989, he worked at Sky Nursery in Shoreline, the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Federal Way, and as a part-time instructor for the horticulture program at Edmonds Community College before beginning work at the Miller Garden. In May 2017 Richie became director of the Miller Garden and he oversees all aspects of the Garden, including the plant collections, educational programs, and staff.

He also currently serves as a board member of the Northwest Horticultural Society as well as board member and president of the Hardy Fern Foundation.

Richie is always on the hunt for what is new in horticulture throughout the country by travelling, plant collecting, visiting gardens and networking with other horticulture professionals. He regularly lectures and writes and is always ready to share his love for plants. Richie also enjoys photography and his photos can be seen in many regional publications as well as the websites for the Miller Garden and Great Plant Picks.

Taken from the website, a map of the gardens. The house in the center (in brown), once the home of the Miller family, now houses offices and administration. We'll start the tour closest to the house.

Local architect Daniel E. Lamont designed their home with an exterior of natural materials, including rustic and rugged thick hand split clear red cedar (Thuja plicata) siding complemented by soft fawn, buff and peach toned sandstone walls. The gracious ranch style design provides a subtle backdrop to surrounding garden. 

Details around the house

A series of alpine planters near the house

Spiky details of pinecones from Pinus sabiana, I believe.

A path around the house in the south deciduous area with Adiantum venustum filling in the ground cover level. This is very typical of this garden in general, i.e., densely spreading groundcovers mixing seamlessly. It gives a very lush feel.

Erythronium or trout lilies spreading through the ferns.

Anemonella thalictroides in a soft pink double form in one of the trough gardens.

 Cordyline indivisa in a container steals the show on the patio area outside the house where the alpine, carnivorous and trough containers live.

Interesting bark of Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium'

Leucothoe, likely Leucothoe fontanesiana 'Rollissonii' a little further away from the house as the tour made our way up around the northern part of the house to the gully garden area.

Many mature trees with a secondary canopy of smaller but mature deciduous trees create a layered effect, one that mimics the forests of the Pacific Northwest well. I found many native woodland plants in this garden, something Elisabeth Miller was particularly fond of as well as unusual plants and plants from Japan and China.

One can feel quite small in a garden such as this. Magnificent mature trees are everywhere.

A native woodland plant, Smilacina racemosa covered a lot of territory. 

I love this use of an old fishing float pinned into the ground - it moves with the hoses - a hose guard. A very clever solution. Now I'm going to be looking for these in antique markets.

Richie pointed out many beautiful rhododendrons such as this, Rhododendron quinquefolium and azaleas on the property. As he formerly worked for the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Federal Way, he has been able to add some amazing (and often fragrant) plants to the Miller.

Another Pacific Northwest native, Synthris missurica in the garden. 

A very finely petaled rhododendron species.

Into the woodland, a soft purple rhododendron glows.

The view of the front of the house with lovely mature Japanese maples, many ferns (Richie is president of the Hardy Fern Foundation, after all!), mahonia species and more.

New fronds of Parablechnum novae-zelandiae. I've seen photos of this when it's in full leaf and it is spectacular. This is combined with a variegated form of lily of the valley. This fern was photographed by Danger Garden last year, check out her blog post here. It's the very last photo.

More woodland magic with Ophiopogon p. 'Nigrescens', trilliums and others.

A sweet tiarella (possibly T. trifoliata var. unifoliata) nestled in the rocks among maidenhair ferns.

A very rare double Trillium ovatum. I was told they don't come true from seed, rather you have to divide. It's a small patch but a magnificent and rare one.

It's been a rather wet and cold spring so far so most ferns were in this stage, which I love. The white anemones in the background carpeted many areas of the woodland floor. Anemone nemorosa (possibly 'Flore Pleno' or 'Vestal' - there are many cultivars listed on their plant list) is a spring ephemeral, going dormant when the temperatures rise in summer.

There are so many species of trilliums in this five-acre garden, it's incredible.

A whole flat of Asplenium trichomanes, maidenhair spleenwort waiting to go out into the garden. A garden like this I imagine a flat of something disappears rather quickly.

Path details

Epimedium catching the afternoon light

A beautiful threadleaf Japanese maple.

A rather beautifully scented Rhododendron luteum 'Golden Comet' (thank you Gina for the correct i.d.). It perfumed the outdoor room attached to the house.

The view of Puget Sound beyond. This is from the enclosed outdoor room. What a place!

My fellow garden bloggers, friends, former Joy Creekers and all around awesome humans: Gina and Anna. We had such a great day! Thank you, Richie, Del and crew for welcoming us all and for such amazing information. We are all overwhelmed and excited about the Miller. We'll be back, for sure.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next time on the blog, for there is so much more of this garden yet to explore.

That's a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens. As always thank you so much for reading, we love connecting with you all! Happy gardening.


  1. Anonymous10:18 AM PDT

    Tamara, I am so happy you visited the Miller Garden because it brought back good memories of my own visit there several years back. Such great photos and commentary! Now... if I could only find a local source for that Parablechnum!! Can't wait for the second half of your visit! Erik

    1. I'm so glad, Erik! Thank you for your kind comments. Yes, that Parablechnum is amazing. I wonder if Loree of Danger Garden has acquired one. I'm on the lookout myself. Part 2 has even more photos so stay tuned!!

    2. Anonymous8:46 PM PDT

      Try Dancing Oaks as a source for the fern. I bought one there maybe five years ago. It is worth the search.

    3. I've also seen it on the Keeping It Green Nursery website, but they are usually sold out. Also, during the tour, Richie mentioned they had collected spores from their plants and will be growing them. So he said to keep an eye out at Hardy Fern Foundation plant sales in the upcoming future. I will be looking for it for sure too!

    4. Thank you both for your suggestions. I'll keep my eyes open at both, nothing available as of right now.

  2. It was a job to "tour" this garden with you, Tamara. My dream garden would be a woodland space (with ample water), which of course couldn't be further from the reality that surrounds me.

    1. Aaah, a woodland space like this - so different from your climate, indeed. We are all craving sunshine here - if that makes you feel any better? I hope you guys do get some rain soon. And your garden is amazing and beautiful.

  3. Oh Tamara - what a great post!! And what a great visit we had! I'm still savoring all the beauty we were privileged to experience.. I can't remember the name of the yellow rhododendron either, even though I repeated it several times in my head when Richie told us. Go figure... Like you, I'll be hunting for those genius fishing floats - what a great repurposing! Looking forward to part two. :)

    1. Your post was awesome too, Anna! What fun we had!! I'm still savoring it also. So if any of us finds those floats, we'll buy the lot and split them up between us! Yes, stay tuned for part 2 with even more photos. It's overwhelming to go through over 900 photos. What's wrong with me?

  4. Oh heaven! Such a beautiful garden with even more wonderful friends! So much inspiration there. That yellow Rhody is Rhododendron luteum 'Golden Comet'. I wrote it down as I knew I'd forget it otherwise! And that fragrant white Rhododendron that I will be hunting everywhere for is Rhododendron quinquefolium. It was so graceful and elegant- probably my favorite plant of the day if I had to pick just one. I will be definitely incorporating many ideas I got this day into my developing woodland garden. I'm ready for part 2!

    1. Thank you Gina for the correct identifications, I'm glad someone was paying attention. Interesting that was your favorite plant - the R. quinquefolium. It's a beauty allright! Such fun we all had, thank you for driving and for being so fabulous!

  5. 900 photos? I'm glad I'm not the only one who occasionally goes crazy that way! I love the image of the Parablechnum novae-zelandiae surrounded by the variegated lily of the valley. I guess the later had gone dormant when I took my photo. And no, I haven't found that fern yet!

    So I am curious about the other Cordyline indivisa I saw, the ones in the ground. Did they make it through the bad winter or are they gone?

    I'm so glad you three got to see this treasure of a garden together, what fun! And in spring too. My first visit was in July and the second in September so I've not seen it in it's fresh new growth stage.

    1. Yup, 900. Me too, I'm glad I'm not alone in my crazy photo taking. And yes, I noticed the lily of the valley was dormant in your pic. I like it better when you saw it, if I'm honest - without the lily.

      The Cordyline indivisa were alive and well in the ground. A couple looked a little ratty but fine and will hopefully grow out of it if the weather ever warms up beyond 50 degrees.

      It was a super fun trip and we were thrilled to see it in spring. I look forward to seeing it in other seasons in the future.

  6. Anonymous7:32 AM PDT

    The fun adventure of the happy 'Creekers' must have been true joy (too corny?), right up there with the actual garden visit itself.
    Great photo of the unusual pinecones... had I seen them on a nature walk I'd definitely collect a few to place around my garden.
    The old fishing float pinned into the ground... I'd love to have one of those too.

    1. Hee hee....'Creekers' - I like that. It was true joy! Indeed. We talked nerdy plant stuff the whole way there and back (some 8+ hours in the car for us). Those pinecones look dangerous but oh so beautiful. Thanks for your comments, Chavli! Cheers!


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