by BARBARA PAUL ROBINSON portrait by THOM THOMPSON
“The greatest way to destroy a good garden is to come home with a plant in hand and have no idea where to put it,” says William H. Frederick, Jr. Unlike the rest of us, he refrains from sticking plants anywhere, and thereby maintains the great design of his garden, Ashland Hollow, in the Red Clay Valley of Delaware. Newly acquired treasures are stored in a small nursery while he thinks about where to place them. He held Viburnum opulus ‘Aureum’ for 15 years, thinking its beautiful chartreuse foliage too strong to fit in, until he realized that while one wouldn’t work, “30 would be just perfect-a sweep among the lilacs to push the purple.”
Frederick created his first garden, which he describes as “the kind of garden everyone lays out if they have no experience what so ever;” in a corner of his grandfather’s farm. Box hedges outlined four beds of hybrid tea roses around a central circle all rimmed with perennial borders. Yet even as a beginner, Frederick grew the box from cuttings and the perennials from seed. Over time, rare plants crept in, and he began to make use of the larger landscape with eye-drawing specimens.
Mid-year in 1944, Frederick interrupted his studies at Swarthmore College to enlist in the Navy. Instead of family photos, his father sent shots of the eight-foot-tall Lilium formosanum blooming, two years after Frederick seeded them. With the war over, he returned to Swarthmore to study political science and botany and work at the college’s Scott Arboretum under its first director, John Wister, Wister’s future wife, Gertrude Smith, and British-trained Harry Wood.
Frederick decided to become a landscape architect and gained acceptance to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, but was dissuaded by the landscape architects at the National Association for Olmsted Parks, who told him, “Nobody wants gardens; we just design highways and subdivisions.” He succumbed to parental pressure and graduated from Dickinson Law School instead.
His courtship of Nancy Greenewalt led him to ask her father for her hand. In that discussion, Frederick confessed that although his parents disapproved, he wanted to “design gardens, convince people to grow things not grown before, and write about it.” Nancy’s father wisely counseled, “People who do what they don’t like are never good at it, but people who do what they care about almost always succeed.” The couple married and went to Cornell University, she to study plant science and he, nursery management and design. They opened Millcreek Nursery in 1952, and provided gardeners with rare woody plants and design for 24 years.
Frederick honed his design style through books and garden visits in Europe and Brazil. He became close friends with Roberto Burle Marx, Thomas Church, Lester Collins, and others of like mind around the world. “They were all trying to break the barriers of beaux arts gardens,” he says, in a time when most American gardens looked much like his first garden. He and his friends believed “strong design can result from the use of curvilinear forms and occult balance as opposed to rectilinear forms and symmetry.”
When the Royal Horticulture Society honored Bill Frederick last year with its prestigious Veitch Memorial Medal (rarely bestowed on Americans) it paid tribute to his “great contribution to gardens and garden design through his own garden, his writing, and his wider contribution to major gardens in America.” He wrote two classic books, One Hundred Great Garden Plants and The Exuberant Garden and the Controlling Hand. He has served on the boards of Longwood Gardens and Callaway Gardens. He has been a garden advocate at Winterthur, writing the chapter “The Artist in His Garden” in Winterthur Garden: Henry Francis du Pont’s Romance with the Land, and receiving Winterthur’s Henry Francis du Pont Award for Garden Design. He is also justifiably proud of the 33 summer interns who trained at Ashland Hollow over the years and his ongoing work to preserve open space and scenic views in the Red Clay Valley.
When asked about his favorite plants, Frederick replies, “There are more than 1,000 taxa in this garden—that means I love a lot of plants.”