Pearl Fryar speaking at National Arboretum

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.