An event it truly was – the Washington premiere of the critically acclaimed documentary about topiary artist Pearl Fryar of Bishopville, South Carolina. Brought to us by the nonprofit neighborhood-saved Avalon Theater, which tried to raise enough money to bring Fryar himself here for the premiere but that didn’t happen and Kathy Jentz was called on at the last minute to provide a substitute event of some sort. That turned out to be Kathy, myself and garden tour organizer Cheval Force Opp as panelists reviewing the movie and answering questions (fun!) Here’s my review.
The movie is aptly named because it’s about one man and it’s mainly interviews with his family, neighbors, minister, mayor, the Chamber of Commerce (Fryar’s quite a boon to his depressed little town), and tourists who’ve come to visit his famous garden. Fryar IS lovable and admirable for working hard, loving his wife, inspiring children, and wowing middle-aged women of all races with his hot body. (For real – I agree totally with the tourist who blushingly confessed that she sure liked watching him move. Trim and muscular at 66, Fryar scrambles up ladders and wields his electric hedgers with amazing agility.)
And he created a big topiary sign across the front of his garden that reads "Love, Peace, and Goodwill." Amen to that.
His leafy creations are very cool, mainly abstracts, and the movie includes good interviews with artsy types admiring his talent and conversing about negative space and all that. As out of fashion as this type of gardening may be, even the most naturalistic of gardeners will appreciate that creating beauty with living things that are lovingly tended is pretty awesome stuff.
BUT WHERE’S THE GARDENING?
While the movie teaches us that growing a 3-acre topiary garden is a helluva lot of work and not for the low-maintenance crowd, it has nothing to say about the 40 different species that Fryar grows, information that’s available only on his website. And while we’re told that he teaches the art of topiary, we don’t see him do it or find out how this self-taught pruning genius does what he does. No mention of the different growth patterns of all those plants and and how Fryar learned to harness them so skillfully. Instead of teaching us a thing or two about working with plants, the movie simply labels him a "Plant Whisperer" and leaves it at that.
So gardeners, be prepared to be a little frustrated by this movie and its lost opportunities.
We do learn one incredible piece of gardening information – that Fryar uses no pesticides at all. Of course he mulches like all organic gardeners do, but how can thick shrubs sheered to form impenetrable casings through which no light or air can penetrate possibly look so healthy? Isn’t that what arborists and pruning teachers all say NOT to do? You’re better believe I said exactly that to the audience, and I believe I concluded that remark with my fist in the air giving a little cheer: "Go, pruning!". (I’m afraid it’s true.)
Still and all, I was charmed and inspired by the man named Pearl and suggest you put the movie about him in your Netflix queue.
REMEMBERING HGTV’S ERICA GLASENER
Seeing the movie made me lament, once again, the loss of my all-time favorite gardening show, which highlighted Fryar years before moviemakers and "CBS Sunday Morning" discovered him. "A Gardener’s Diary" was hosted by actual horticulturist Erica Glasener, who found passionate, sometimes quirky gardeners all over the U.S. to interview in depth while strolling through their gardens at a leisurely pace. You know, the total opposite of those frenetic weekend make-over shows we all rant about. But guess what - she’s back! Thursday mornings at 7 a.m. Program your Tivo or VCR and enjoy!