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P.J. Miller (1915-1984)
Horticulturist and Garden Supervisor


PJ Miller

In the Garden’s early years as a San Diego County park and then as a botanical garden, P.J. Miller was the County’s onsite Garden Supervisor from 1961 to 1978. His dedication, skills, and long tenure were important in establishing what became San Diego Botanic Garden. Miller was a skilled horticulturist and supervisor who was dedicated, productive, and hard-working. Nurseryman Bill Nelson remembered, “If you wanted to talk to P.J., you had to talk to him on the run, as he went quickly from one job to the next.”

Pius John Miller (P.J.) was born on March 31, 1915 in Gervais, Oregon, one of 13 children. His parents were immigrants from Selz, Russia, but were originally from Alsace-Lorraine. They had an onion farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Later they grew flowers and vegetables for a seed business in which young P.J. was also involved.

Miller joined the U.S Army Corps of Engineers in February, 1939. During WWII he was shipped to England, and in 1944 he was a part of the D-Day Normandy invasion. While on leave the same year he met his wife, Christian Susi (Chris) at the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. After Germany surrendered, they married on June 8, 1945. In early 1946 Chris joined P.J., returning to the States on the Queen Mary ocean liner as a war bride.

A few years later the Millers moved to the San Diego area where he worked in the nursery industry. At their first home in Imperial Beach their garden included bird-of paradise and split-leaf philodendrons. Later they relocated to Vista, where P.J. had a small nursery.

Miller was hired in 1961 by the San Diego County Parks and Recreation Department for the developing Quail Park Botanic Garden. The Millers lived in the Lawn House until 1964 when they moved into the Larabee House. The same year Miller was joined by Clarence Heidemann, a retired Marine master sergeant who had also served in WWII and the Korean War. Heidemann and his wife, Bernie moved into the Lawn House until he retired in 1982. P.J. was an advocate of low-water plants and landscapes that were adapted to the local arid climate. He favored sustainable horticulture by using mulch, compost, and minimal pesticides, and by downscaling to smaller lawns.

In 1970 Miller worked with pioneer protea grower Howard Asper, to plant the one of the earliest protea gardens in a U.S. public garden. It was located in what is today’s South African Garden.

Miller planted colorful annual and perennial beds in focal points along garden paths which could be watered with a hose from the relatively few water spigots existing at that time. In the Encinitas Mediterranean climate’s cooler, rainier winter and spring seasons, he especially liked cinerarias and snapdragons. He also planted azaleas and camellias in appropriate locations for their seasonal blooms.

Miller was skilled in propagation from seeds and cuttings. He was very successful germinating silver trees (Leucodendron argenteum) and established several groves in the Garden. (This species is now critically endangered in their habitat near Cape Town, South Africa.) He also propagated one of the two dawn redwoods in the Garden from a cutting of the Garden’s original dawn redwood, which was initially planted at Camp Pendleton in the late 1940s as a part of the first distribution of this species in the United States. Earlier dawn redwoods were known only from fossils and were thought to be extinct before being discovered in western China in the early 1940s.

Miller coordinated the planting and garden maintenance efforts of the San Diego County Parks and Recreation personnel, and court assisted laborers and volunteers. He assisted the County’s Planner, Peter Cuthbert, in planning and design of the Garden, along with the Quail Botanical Garden Foundation’s Landscape Committee, whose chair was Mildred Macpherson. Miller also helped co- ordinate and facilitate various County Park departments in constructing and installing the Garden’s new facilities: the entrance, roads, sidewalks, parking lot, bathrooms, fencing and pathways, as well as building renovations.

In 1962, Charles Larabee stopped at the Garden and spent the afternoon with Miller. (Larabee was the ex-husband of Ruth Larabee, who donated her estate to the County to be developed as a park.) During this visit, it’s likely that Larabee informed Miller about the earlier plantings made by the Larabees and Anton van Amersfoort, as well as the buildings and facilities.

In addition to being a link with the Larabee past, Miller also fostered young horticulturists. He encouraged Gil Voss to apply for a gardener position 1974, and in 1980 Voss succeeded Miller as the Garden’s on-site Supervisor.

In 1973 the Garden received its first modern-era irrigation system, donated by the Toro Company through its irrigation expert, Ed Hunter, along with other donors. This greatly expanded the range of plants that could be grown at the Garden.

Miller was a good friend of Horace Anderson, a notable horticulturist and owner of the nearby La Costa Nursery, who introduced a number of outstanding ornamental plants to Southern California, including Meyer asparagus fern and majesty palm. Anderson was the first to recommend to San Diego County that the newly donated park be developed as a botanical garden. Anderson’s grandson Eric, now owner of Anderson’s Seedco, and a former SDBG board trustee, often went along with his grandfather on visits to the Garden. He remembers his grandfather and P.J. Miller as being like “two peas in a pod” in their enthusiasm for plants. Anderson expanded Miller’s interest to include a greater range of plants, especially the tropical species that were planted in the mid to late 1970s in Palm Canyon and in the Waterfall area after the new irrigation system was installed.

Miller’s British-born wife, Chris, was cheerful and fun-loving. His County boss, Gerald Culbertson, appreciated Chris for her outgoing personality and her help interacting with the Garden’s visitors.

One of her best friends was Shirley Casper, wife of famed golfer, Billy Casper. Chris and Shirley met while working in a store in Imperial Beach in the early 1950s. Later at the Garden the Millers were often visited on Sundays by the Caspers, and also Shirley’s mother, Dorothy Rader and her family. Shirley Casper and her younger siblings, John and Margee Rader, remembered Chris Miller as someone who was “always laughing.” John Rader later became a prominent horticulturist and co- founder of Euro-American Propagators with its Proven Winners and Proven Selection brands. He credited P.J. Miller as an important horticultural influence.

John Rader recalls boyhood visits to see “Uncle P.J.” and “Aunt Chrissy” at the new botanic garden in the 1960s and early 1970s. P.J. gave everyone a garden tour and loved to teach about plants and nature. Chris made sandwiches, and the adults played cards and relaxed in the house while the Casper and Rader children played outside. P.J. always told the kids to stay off of the sandstone cliffs, watch out for rattlesnakes, don’t bother the neighbors, and come back to the house by 4:00 p. m. when flocks of quail came out of the chaparral to be fed. Another highlight was a grey fox that often came to drink from a pool behind the Lawn House in the late afternoon.

These Casper and Rader family visits occurred when Billy Casper was at the peak of his long career as one of the leading golfers in the era of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player. Even during the busy spring/summer golf season, he came back to San Diego every few weeks to see his family, and then on Sunday afternoons the Caspers visited the Millers at the Garden. In 1973 the Caspers moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, but in mid- winter Billy would often return to San Diego to play golf.

Chris Miller often traveled back to England during summer vacations to visit family in Woking, Surrey near London. P.J. went with her several times and visited notable British gardens, returning with seeds, cuttings, garden brochures and other materials.

P.J. Miller retired in September 1978 after working at the Garden for almost two decades, and moved to a condo in Encinitas. He served as a Foundation Board member for several years. He and Chris later moved to the Portland, Oregon area, where Miller’s relatives lived. He died there from cancer on December 31, 1984 at age 69.

After P.J.’s death Chris Miller moved back to Woking, Surrey, England on the outskirts of London, to be with her sisters. She returned to San Diego several times to visit friends while one of Shirley Casper’s teenage sons came to England and stayed with her for several months. Chris Miller died from cancer in 1989.

Banner Photo: Rachel Cobb