Everybody's a Critic

Pearl Fryar, in Person

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If you haven't seen the documentary A Man Named Pearl, it's worth subscribing to Netflix for because it's "the inspiring story of self-taught topiary artist Pearl Fryar….It offers an upbeat message that speaks to respect for both self and others, and shows what one person can achieve when he allows himself to share the full expression of his humanity." Well, gotta agree with that PR language from the website because watching the 66-year-old (at the time) scramble up extension ladders wielding heavy power hedge-clippers is inspiring for all gardeners, aging or not.

What's unusual about Fryar's topiaries is that, in the words of one art professor interviewed in the movie, they're "elegant abstract art", and have actually been commissioned by museums.

And where does this Edward Scissorhands-style genius create his magic? In Bishopville, SC, home to 3,670 people with a per capita income of $15,000. Their one claim to fame and tourist attraction? Pearl Fryar.

For photos of his garden, a plant list, information about finding Fryar's topiaries near you and more, visit his website. His garden has been designated a garden to preserve by the Garden Conservancy – one of only 17 in the U.S. – and that's great news. The Conservancy has hired a garden manager and a part-time gardener for him, and bought Fryar a cherry-picker so he doesn't have to scramble up those wobbly ladders any more. !

So what's Fryar doing all dressed up, speaking from a podium with the flag prop? The movie was shown as part of the DC Environmental Film Festival and Fryar was invited to speak, as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series of the National Arboretum. Of course your intrepid blogger was there, taking notes, and here's what I can add to what we learn in the movie itself.

About the Pruning and the Plants

  • Incredibly, he prunes even dogwoods into "snowballs". It's not supposed to work, but somehow does. Actually, he says there ARE no rules for pruning – well, if you're a talented as him, I suppose.
  • Fryar's garden has a purpose – to express his inner feelings. "The garden is based on love," he says.
  • He started out as a gardener with one clear goal in mind: to win "Yard of the Month" there in Bishopville. And it broke the color barrier when he won it.
  • He uses lots of Terralosa junipers.
  • People come from all over the world to see his "cut-up bushes".
  • He manages with NO pesticides and NO fertilizer.
  • The secret to his garden's success? Pine needle mulch and trenches around his borders that catch the water.
  • Asked what he does with all those clippings, he says he never has to rake them because he prunes so often – every 4-6 weeks.
  • What he does is "no different from bonsai," except that he prunes from the top.
  • He recommends power hedge-trimmers with reciprocating blades, "not the flimsy machines you find at Home Depot".

About the Man named Pearl

  • The spiritual side of this practice that was commented on in the movie by several neighbors is evident in Fryar's passion for helping kids labeled "at-risk", the ones who don't succeed in school. He'd rather talk about them than even his beloved topiary.
  • At 70, he was probably the fittest person in any room. In the movie female visitors are heard praising his topiaries and adding flirtatiously, "His body is like really nice to look at". Indeed, even in a suit! Fortunately his wife of 43 years isn't bothered, even by the hugs he gives to hundreds of ladies.

Posted by on May 1, 2010 at 4:57 am, in the category Everybody's a Critic.
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15 Responses to “Pearl Fryar, in Person”

  1. Botany Buddy says:

    I have had the pleasure of meeting Pearl many times. In the early 90′s he came by to do demonstrations at Soil Service Nursery in KC,MO several years in a row. This was my first designer gig, and i was just starting the lecture / garden club circuit. He is an absolute wonderful human being, one of the softest gentlemen you will ever meet, and a giant ball of solid muscle. No matter how natural you are, you have to respect and awe at what the man has done.

  2. LKK says:

    2 things:

    Those are Juniperus chinensis ‘Torulosa’ aka Hollywood junipers.

    Also, if you go to the website, please know that the calendars are SOLD OUT. The website has not been updated to reflect this.

  3. SJ says:

    I saw the movie last year and Pearl is awesome! I would love some day to tour his garden.

  4. He’s made a name for himself and maybe you can admire his singlemindedness in keeping his trees and shrubs trimmed within an inch of their lives. But his unsustainable landscaping sets unrealistic goals for “normal” gardeners who have busy lives, in my opinion. I would rather see more informal and untrimmed mixed hedgerows in the landscape.

  5. This was a fantastic movie!!
    I’ve been meaning to post about it and so glad you did! Pearl is incredible and the movie was awesome… I highly recommend it.

  6. Botany Buddy says:

    What Pearl does may be unsustainable to anyone else, but he isn’t suggesting anyone else do it either. He is an artist, and his shears are his tool and his plants his medium. He is not a designer selling ideas to anyone else. One of the joys of what he does is actually seeing him do it. You will never see him say, “Oh you could use that over there and turn it into this.” He looks at a plant and sees what he can do with it, and what it is asking him to make it rather than what it can do for him. He would never say he is a gardener or designer in the truest sense. He would say that he is a topiary artist. If you have ever met him or seen the documentary, you would know he is not single minded either. He is one of the most grounded, well rounded people you will ever meet. More of us should come off our pedestals and emulate the person he is whether we like his art or not. Pearl has not made a name for himself. He was just being himself, and everyone else happened to find him.

  7. LKK says:

    Botany_Buddy is right. If you ever meet Pearl, he will tell you NOT to cut up your bushes like he did. He calls the garden a monster because he created it and now he has to maintain it.

    Pearl is an artist. Plants are his sculptural media. Even if you do not like his style, you have to admire him as a person.

  8. Ali M says:

    An interesting aside from another south carolinian, Pearl’s trees grow so much faster than others around here. It has to be all that shaping that stimulates growth.

    LKK and Buddy are correct, Pearl is the most sincere gentleman you could ever meet. He deserves all the acclaim he has received.

  9. Hoover says:

    He’s a National Treasure!

    “Sustainable”? Neither was Mozart or Beethoven or Michelangelo. “Sustainable” is quite beside the point.

  10. Susan Harris says:

    I doubt if we’d be praising Pearl’s garden or Pearl himself if he sprayed with pesticides or overfertilized. If he grew prize-winning hybrid tea roses, for example. Au contraire, he’s how he gardens (from above):
    # He manages with NO pesticides and NO fertilizer.
    # The secret to his garden’s success? Pine needle mulch and trenches around his borders that catch the water.

  11. sarina says:

    Hoover is right. He knows how to live green in an artistic way or, will it be “how to present green”? Whatever it is, he shows that without fertilizer plant can grow.

  12. magicbean says:

    Pearl is my garden god, I completely idolize him. It never really mattered what he grew or why – what really mattered was that he created community, created beauty out of cast-offs and the forgotten, invited the least well-off to be a part of the process, and made bridges between neighbors that were islands alone. He’s a genius and a gift, and a testament to the power of human interaction with growing that can change the world.

  13. Never heard of him, but really admire his style and would love to watch the film. A true topiary genius!

  14. Patrick says:

    His topiaries are unbelievable. His yard is worthy of any praise it gets, so awe inspiring. It blows me away. ANd on top of that, He is a wonderful human being. Everyone of us should be inspired by his generous nature and the joy for gardening he shares with everyone that visits his yard. I loved the part where he talks about making the canapy of a tree into a cube…

  15. Markkane says:

    I profiled Pearl in Fine Gardening magazine about 1991, and he was the same man then, with the same goals, as now. After all these years he has indeed inspired the young people of Bishopville, not to mention some of his neighbors, showing all that hard work leads to great things.

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