The Miller Botanical Garden and Great Plant Picks

 The Miller Botanical Garden is a public garden in North Seattle full of rarities and beauty. A five-acre site, it is rather large for what was once the private residence of Pendleton and Elisabeth Miller. Built in 1948, Mrs. Miller began gardening with a passion. She not only collected rare plants from around the globe, many from Eurasia, she had a fondness for the native flora of Washington state. Today the gardens are publicly owned, a gift from Elisabeth to the citizens of Seattle. Because the home is in a gated community, there are limits as to how many visitors it can accommodate, only 500 per year. Tickets go fast. I visited last year for my first time (you can visit those two posts here and here) with dear friends and the experience was enchanting. This week I had the pleasure of visiting once more as a member of the Great Plant Picks selection committee; the Miller Botanical Garden is its home base.

Great Plant Picks is an educational element connected with the Miller Garden, as Elisabeth was a huge believer in education. In fact, the Elisabeth C. Miller Library at the University of Washington was a gift of the Millers to the horticulture community. The GPP group meets a few times a year; however, only online the past few years. This was the first in-person meeting since 2019 and my first in-person since joining GPP last year. The goal of the group is to vet plants that are proven to be reliable, easy, and hopefully readily available to Pacific Northwest gardeners from British Columbia to the southern end of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. It is a non-profit aimed at connecting gardeners with hardy and hopefully interesting plant material for their gardens.

Our meeting was focused and allowed little time for photographs save for the hour or so we had before hand, arriving a little early to be able to explore. Here then is a snapshot of a quick but fantastic look at a late winter garden some 75 years old as it begins to thaw out from a long winter and step into spring.

I shall begin at the house, the epicenter of the garden. This is now administrative offices but was once Elisabeth and Pendleton's home, built with local materials such as cedar and a local sandstone.

This is looking slightly to the left with a lovely staircase that leads up to a terrace area with a beautiful collection of trough planters full of alpine treasures. To the left, foreground is an area with a large planting of Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola' (still dormant) which Elisabeth planted. It just so happens it was the very first time it was introduced to the U.S., she was quite a plant pioneer.

A fern table, Richie Steffen the executive director is known for these. He regularly came to Joy Creek Nursery to teach workshops how to make them. You can learn more by watching this video. 

From the top of the staircase looking back down the sloped garden that terminates on the shores of Puget Sound.

A very handsome variegated cordyline. While I don't grow these, I have heard our Portland winter weather has wreaked havoc on cordylines. Not so here, they look fantastic.

Looking onto the terrace and trough planters. The doorway and windows to the left are where my group for Great Plant Picks, the perennial team, had our meeting.

Cordyline indivisa also looking great.

Just off of the only bit of lawn in the whole garden, Del and Mike, two full-time gardeners (and really swell guys!) visit with the rather large Great Plant Picks group and walk around the gardens with us.

Lawn and steps to the terrace from a wider angle.

More of the gardens close to the house.

The area to the right is the conservatory.

Looking west towards Puget Sound from the conservatory.

Terrace just outside of the conservatory. This is lushly planted with a wide variety of broadleaf evergreens and shade evergreens such as aspidistra, sarcococca and ferns.

I am not versed on the genus rhododendron, but I think this is R. sinogrande. Feel free to chime in if not.

Moving around the house to the front door ahead with appropriately mossy paths and stepping stones.

A pathway around the front of the house in quite a bit of shade with a rather large planting of ophiopogon of some sort, I believe.

Lush foliage spilling out everywhere. Apparently Elisabeth was a fan of foliage above flowers, which works so well in this mild (zone 8) maritime climate.

Saxifraga primuloides is allowed to spread in several places in the garden, a rather charming plant especially mixed with mosses.

We've just made a complete circle around the house, this path leads to the terrace and the top of the stairs.

Moving away from the house, this stairway takes you to the western areas of the garden.

This structure, a working propagation area, is just off of the stairway.

On the stairway looking down towards the nursery and greenhouses. Even in winter there is so much interesting plant material, Elisabeth was quite keen to shape trees and shrubs into interesting forms to show off their unique character.

Woodland groundcovers

Foliage textures

Corylopsis beginning to bloom with its tell tale pale yellow flowers.

Sciadopitys verticillata, Japanese umbrella pine.

The stone overlook

Just below the overlook a staircase takes you to the lower gardens towards the west. On the way you pass by this lovely arctostaphylos.

On the way down the staircase.

In the shade rockery.

Lichens and mosses adorn much of this garden.

I believe these are Morella californica (syn. Myrica californica), Pacific wax myrtle that have been pruned up. This is very near the edge of the garden towards the water.

While the steps leading up to the lookout were out of commission for repairs, the view across Puget Sound could still be seen. Even on a rather cloudy day it is still awe-inspiring.

Woodland ephemerals are literally everywhere.

Dicksonia antarctica, tree fern, in its protective covering for the colder months.

Fantastic foliage. I believe this is a rhododendron, unsure of the species.

Ypsilandra thibetica, an evergreen perennial from China.

In the wild garden looking towards the rockeries.

Some striking hellebores in a dark shade.

Just off of the parking area looking up towards the house.

Weathered bench in the middle of the wild garden

One of the whipcord hebes with an interesting silhouette.

These look to be tulip and other spring bulbs with a bit of protection from browsing deer and/or rabbits.

Headed back up the hill towards the house, I turned around and looked west with a moment of interesting light on what was a rather grey day.

Stunning sarracenia planting at the edge of the stone overlook by the parking area.

Looking back east form the parking area towards the house up above.

Closing out this post with a view from inside where my group's (the perennial committee) meeting was held. I hope the others on the trees and shrubs committees had a similarly beautiful setting. Not a bad way to spend a meeting, I'd say. We got a lot of work accomplished and headed home after 3 pm. A long day from Portland to Seattle and back but totally worth it.

Great Plant Picks is a wonderful group of horticulture professionals with collectively a huge range of plant knowledge. We all volunteer our time (gladly!) to help provide practical input regarding plants we are familiar with to aid in the selection of appropriate plant material for Pacific Northwest gardeners. It is a useful database of plants for anyone seeking information, so as Elisabeth Miller wanted, the information is available to all. 

If you would like an in-depth look at the Miller Botanical Garden, Richie Steffen, the executive director, was a recent guest on Garden Masterclass with Annie Guilfoyle and Noel Kingsbury which was recorded and made available to the public. You can find that video here. It is absolutely worth watching, Richie provides a rich background to the garden and is a wonderful speaker.

I would also like to give a shout out to the Corvallis Evening Garden Club for hosting me last week for my talk about climate-adapted plants. You are an incredible group of not only knowledgeable gardeners and plant experts, you give so much to your community as a whole. It was an inspiring trip (despite the cold weather!) and I am so happy to have met you all. A special thank you to Ruby Moon, Christina, Beatrice and Janet. Thank you, Christina and Beatrice for opening your gardens to me and to Ruby for hosting me and getting in touch. You are all wonderful. 

How blessed I feel to be surrounded by the very best in horticulture right in my own backyard.

That's a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens. As always thank you so much for reading and commenting, we do love hearing from you!


  1. Anonymous10:22 AM PDT

    Thanks for the wonderful tour through the Miller Botanical Garden! When does the Plant Pick list come out?

    1. Hi there, do you mean this year's focus? It's "Scent-sational" plants, plants with fragrance. You can find that on the home page. If you are referring to something else, let me know and I'll find out.

  2. So beautiful, even this early in the season. How wonderful that you were able to visit again and kudos to you for serving on a committee like that one. That fern table may be the most natural one I've ever seen.

    1. It was pretty wonderful to see it again, even in late winter. Richie has a way with fern tables, I particularly liked that one.

  3. Such a beautiful mature garden. Thankfully it has been saved, preserved and being taken into the future by more than competent hands. Can imagine how beautiful it would be looking out the windows onto the terrace and into the garden. Some day hope to get there. Fun to be part of the plant committee. We do one here for the perennial plant of the year but alas we don't have as lovely a space to meet in.

    1. Yes, thankfully it has been saved and is in loving, capable hands who plan to keep it going and evolving for decades to come. What an office to work in, right? Well, the Perennial Plant of the Year is a pretty tall order, hats off for that!

  4. Anonymous9:39 AM PDT

    Amazing garden. You owe yourself a visit in summer or fall, to see the garden in a different stage of its growing cycle. I've lived in Seattle almost 40 years, gardening over 22 and yet, I only saw this majestic garden through blogger's posts. I wanted to schedule a visit, but they are booked till 2024...
    I saved many of the Great Plant Picks posters over the years. They are beautiful to look at and help extend my knowledge of plants that could work in my garden.

    1. I DO owe myself a visit in summer/fall for sure, Chavli! Richie, can I visit? :)

      It is booked so quickly, it's crazy. If there's a special circumstance where you want to visit (and you're from out of town especially) and can't get in, he suggests emailing and seeing if there are any cancellations. Just sayin' ;)

      The posters are great and you can order the new one if you go to the home page - it has a link. So glad it's been helpful for you over the years, what a treasure to have in your backyard. I REALLY hope you can see it someday.

  5. A lovely look around a special garden. Did you happen to see if the Cordyline indivisa planted in the ground (on the backside of the house, the street side) were still alive? I suspect perhaps the one on the patio (in a container) was probably tucked into the greenhouse or some other protected spot for the winter.

    1. You know, I did not - I even went back through my photos to see if I had taken one. Nope but I bet it's at the very least alive, if not fabulous. I'll ask Richie next time I see him.

  6. I am just about to send off a thank you letter for coming down to see us in Corvallis. I am glad to hear you had a good time.

    I enjoyed learning more about The Miller Botanical Garden and GPP, and spent some time poking around the GPP website (thanks for the link). It's wonderful to see such a group of dedicated people working towards finding plants that are adapted for our climate. I am at the stage in my career where I am starting to consider broadening my focus as a researcher, and whether my plant pathology skills would be useful to programs such as GPP or for smaller specialty nurseries.

    1. Oh my gosh, yes, your skills are definitely useful! Absolutely. I'm so thrilled you were able to make the Corvallis EGC monthly meeting, it was a pleasure meeting you in person, Jerry. Thanks for the treats, too!

  7. What a lovely garden, the view from the top of the stairs is stunning. And of course, the view of Puget Sound. Thank you for sharing!

    1. It is so lovley, TZ garden. You bet, glad to share! Cheers!


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