Remembering William Frederick, Jr.

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Feature Stories

Remembering William Frederick, Jr.

Remembering William Frederick, Jr.
Aug 21, 2018
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William Frederick, Jr.

William Heisler Frederick, Jr., was born in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1926. He was already gardening by the age of 8, creating beds of hybrid tea roses outlined with box hedges on a portion of his grandfather’s farm. Frederick enrolled in Swarthmore College but soon left to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1944. At the end of World War II, he returned to Swarthmore, studying political science and botany and graduating in 1948. While there, he worked in the college’s 300-acre Scott Arboretum under the tutelage of its head gardener, Harry Wood, its first director, John Wister, and Wister’s future wife, Gertrude Smith.      

Although he was accepted to study landscape architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Frederick acquiesced to his parents’ wishes and instead attended Dickinson Law School, graduating in 1951. He married Nancy Greenewalt on June 9 of that same year, and the couple together entered Cornell University, studying plant science and nursery management.

The Fredericks opened Millcreek Nursery in the Wilmington area in 1952. Operating through the mid-1970s, the nursery offered design services and provided rare plants that broadened the region’s plant palette. The nursery frequently exhibited at the Philadelphia Flower Show and received the Gold Medal for its design of the central exhibit in 1958. Frederick subsequently established Private Gardens Incorporated, a company focused solely on residential landscape design.

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Ashland Hollow, Wilmington, DE - Photo by Charles A. Birnbaum, 2005

The best known of the Fredericks’ gardens is, however, the one developed over 50 years at their own home in Hockessin, Delaware. Begun in 1964 on a natural canvass of open farmland and woods, the 28-acre property known as Ashland Hollow graces a stream-fed plot in the Brandywine River Valley. The seventeen-acre garden, comprising a varied series of landscapes and vistas, from manicured courtyard to meadow, is both the product of decades of continuous study and innovation and a source for teaching. The seeds for the garden were planted during a trip to Brazil in 1964, when Frederick met and befriended Roberto Burle Marx. Subsequent trips to California, and farther afield to Spain, the Netherlands, and England, would also influence the designs, as would friendships with Conrad Hamerman, Thomas Church, Lester Collins, Geoffrey Jellicoe, and other luminary figures in landscape architecture from around the globe. Since its inception, Ashland Hollow has hosted more than 30 interns, myriad students, landscape architects, and gardeners. In 2006 the Washington Post called it "one of the most admired private gardens on the East Coast."

A believer in lifelong education, Frederick continued to hone his skills as a plantsman and designer, as well as a painter. In the mid-1990s, he took classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and, beginning in 2001, he studied for three semesters at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture.

Frederick was also an accomplished author. His books One Hundred Great Garden Plants (1975) and The Exuberant Garden and the Controlling Hand (1992) met with critical acclaim. Published in 2015, his final book, Wrestling with Angels and Singing with Dragons: The Making of a Garden Across 45 Years, gave a detailed account of the development of Ashland Hollow over the last half century (an afterword by Charles Birnbaum can be read here).

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Ashland Hollow, Wilmington, DE - Photo by Charles A. Birnbaum, 2005

Frederick received the Distinguished Achievement Medal from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society in 1980. He was awarded the Henry Francis du Pont Award for Garden Design from Winterthur in 2001 and the Veitch Memorial Medal from the Royal Horticulture Society in 2005, the latter noting his “great contribution to gardens and garden design through his own garden, his writing, and his wider contribution to major gardens in America.” 

He served on the Advisory Committee of the Arthur Hoyt Scott Horticultural Foundation (now the Scott Arboretum) at Swarthmore College and on the Planning Review Committee of the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania. He was for 36 years a board member of Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, and he also served on the board of Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia.

Through a donation of $800,000, the Fredericks established the William H. Frederick, Jr. '48 Endowment for the Directorship of the Scott Arboretum in 2014. Frederick died on Wednesday, August 15, 2018, at the age of 91.

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Bill Frederick at Ashland Hollow, Wilmington, DE - Photo by Charles A. Birnbaum, 2005
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Ashland Hollow, Wilmington, DE - Photo by Charles A. Birnbaum, 2005
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Ashland Hollow, Wilmington, DE - Photo by Charles A. Birnbaum, 2005