Garden Designer: Bill Frederick

Garden Designer: Bill Frederick Cover

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William H. Frederick. Jr.

By Barbara Paul Robinson

“The greatest way to destroy a good garden is to come home with plant in hand and have no idea where to put it,” says William F. Frederick, Jr. Unlike the rest of us, he refrains from sticking it in anywhere, thereby maintaining the great design of his garden, Ashland Hollow, in the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania. Instead, newly acquired treasures are stored in a small nursery bed while he thinks about it. Bill held Viburnum opulus aureus for fifteen years, thinking its beautiful chartreuse foliage too strong to fit in until he realized that while one wouldn’t work, “thirty would be just perfect — a sweep among the lilacs to push the purple.”

Bill’s passion for plants began as a boy when he created his first garden in a corner of his grandfather’s farm that he describes as “the kind of garden everyone lays out if they have no experience whatsoever.” Box hedges outlined four beds of hybrid tea roses around a central circle rimmed with perennial borders. But even as a beginner, Bill grew the box from cuttings and the perennials from seed. Over time, rare plants crept in and Bill began to make use of the larger landscape with eye-drawing specimens

Mid-year in 1944, Bill left Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania to enlist in the Navy. Instead of family photos, his father sent shots of the Lilium philapense formosanum finally blooming eight feet tall two years after Bill seeded them. With the war over, Bill returned, studying political science and botany, spending spend all his spare time working at Swarthmore’s Scott Arboretum for the first director, John Wistar, his wife, Gertrude Smith and British-trained Henry Wood.

Accepted at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design to become a landscape architect, Bill arrived in Boston but was dissuaded by the landscape architects at Olmstead Associations, “Nobody wants gardens; we just design highways and subdivisions.” Abandoning Harvard, Bill succumbed to parental pressure, graduating from Dickinson Law School.

Happily, his courtship of Nancy Greenewalt led him to ask her father for her hand. In that interview, Bill confessed that although his parents disapproved, “I want 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.”

Nancy and Bill married and went to Cornell University, Nancy to study plant science and Bill, nursery management and design. They opened Mill Creek Nursery in 1952, offering rare woody plants and Bill’s designs. Because Nancy phased out to raise their four children and Bill grew more interested in design, they closed the Nursery after nineteen years. Bill’s plant expertise lives on in his classic book One Hundred Great Garden Plants followed later by his Exuberant Garden.

A voracious reader and extensive traveler to visit gardens in England and Europe, Bill honed his design style. Along the way, he became close friends with kindred spirits, including Brazilian Roberto Berle Marx, Americans Thomas Church and Lester Collins, and others of like mind around the world. “They were all trying to break the barriers of beaux arts gardens,” he says, when most American gardens looked alike, much like Bill’s first garden. Instead, they all believed that “strong design can use circular rather than rectangular forms, can follow the occult rather than the symmetrical.”

When the Royal Horticulture Society honored Bill last year with its prestigious Veitch 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.” In addition to his creation at Ashland Hollow, Bill has enriched Longwood Gardens, as chair of the first operating foundation board (he is still on the board), Callaway Gardens, on the board for 17 years. He has also been a garden advocate at Winterthur, writing a chapter “The Artist in His Garden” in Winterthur Garden: Henry Francis du Pont’s Romance With the Land, and receiving Winterthur’s Henry Francis DuPont Award for Garden Design. Bill is also justifiably proud of the 33 summer interns trained at Ashland Hollow over the years and his ongoing work to preserve open space and scenic views in the Brandywine area.

When asked about his favorite plants, Bill replied, ‘’ There are more than 1,000 taxa in this garden — that means I love a lot of plants.”