Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden, Bishopville, SC



Mr. Pearl Fryar with the author
The Man

A visit to Pearl Fryar's topiary garden is not complete without a visit with Mr. Pearl Fryar himself. He is a "people person" with a positive attitude. Like other home gardens, his is a reflection of his own creativity, ingenuity and personal philosophy.

The Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden is located in Mr. Pearl's yard and adjacent lot in what might otherwise be a typical but unremarkable suburban neighborhood in Bishopville, SC. Before visiting in late December, we understood that visitors are welcome to stroll about the property so long as they respect the Fryar's privacy and don't inconvenience the neighbors. We were strolling about when Mr. Pearl arrived from running errands, parked his car, got into his Gator utility vehicle and pulled around to greet us. He introduced himself as the man "who created this monster."

Mr. Pearl Fryar

The average homeowner who is loath to prune his shrubs more than once a summer would agree that Mr. Pearl's yard is, indeed, a demanding beast. All topiaries are pruned every four to six weeks, inspected more frequently, and it seems that every living plant is topiaried. But this has been his pet project for over 30 years, and he has no plans to give it up.

Foundation plants. Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden, Bishopville, SC
Though he itched to do something creative, Mr. Fryar was employed in a mundane business to provide for his family. Eventually he established this home when it was in "nothing but a corn field", and began landscaping. That's when he began to carve a niche for himself. In fact, his creative self began cutting lots of fantastic niches in his shrubs and trees.

Fantastic topiary forms. Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden, Bishopville, SC
Mr. Pearl acquires most of his plants from local nurseries, but seldom pays full price. Here in the south, nurseries tend to pitch the remains of diseased, damaged and dying plants onto piles at the edge of the woods. That's where he looks. Then Mr. Pearl brings some home, nurses them to health, and turns them into something unique. Rather than yank out the annoying "volunteers" that spring up in his garden, he lets them flourish and turns them into topiaries, too. He prefers to work with plants proven to succeed in the Deep South, but isn't afraid to experiment with plants such as Weeping Blue Atlas Cedars (Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca Pendula') and Alberta Spruce (Picea glauca) that aren't supposed to do around here.

Visitors kiosk. Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden
Pearl Fryar's creative streak doesn't end with topiaried plants. He also fashions wonderful "junk art" sculptures and features them in his garden. The first one we noticed was an embellished barrel near the street that silently begged me to open it and explore. Inside were garden brochures and a jar for visitors to deposit donations. Mr. Pearl operates on the "honor system", expecting donations to stay in the jar until he gets around to emptying it. I took a brochure.

His sculptures are made of scrap metal left over from industries and stuff he scrounges from junk yards. Many of them were designed with interchangeable parts that he can pop off from one and replace on another creating a slightly different look. Some are fountains, some have messages welded on, one celebrates music, some mean nothing at all. Noting that "junk art" has become popular among collectors, Mr. Pearl doesn't sell them, though people have begged him. He said it takes too long to make one, so doesn't want to be bothered replacing them.

Many of us can understand and identify with Mr. Pearl's life story. As a little boy, he liked messing with things and being creative. He took academic achievement tests with mediocre results, but, he explained, tests don't measure creativity and passion, so he just got on with life doing what he had to do. He didn't do what he really wanted to do until he had enough money and the time to get on with it. That's when he started "cuttin' bushes" because he wanted to win a local "Yard Of The Month" contest.

Free-form topiary sculptures, traditional clover leaf and fountain.


When you're cuttin' bushes, you have time to think. Reflecting on his experience, Pearl Fryar considered that there are lots of young people who are just as he was. Because they don't test well, their callings in life elude them. Face it, academic scholarships go to the highest academic achievers. The rest either trudge along or give up. He decided he could try to help. So, he established a charitable organization to grant scholarships to "C-students" who exhibit creativity and gumption, attend a local technical college, and commit themselves to succeeding.

After awhile, people began to notice his works. The word spread near and far. Mr. Fryar has been given the ceremonial keys to three cities. Two separate days have been declared Pearl Fryar Day (once by the SC House of Representatives and once by the Mayor of Bishopville). He has won numerous awards for accomplishments, been featured in publications such as The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine, twice in the Charlotte Observer, Guideposts magazine, National Geographic and the local Lee County Observer, and on Martha Stewart's show.

A documentary movie, A Man Named Pearl, was released in 2006 to critical acclaim, and has been shown many times nationally. But, you gotta know, pearls can be overlooked even in their hometowns. Mr. Pearl told us about a young lady, a native of Bishopville living way across the country, who saw the documentary and called her mother in Bishopville to tell her about it. "Oh, Dear, you must be mistaken. There's nothing like that here in Bishopville." Well, the young lady flew more than a couple thousand miles to visit and show her mom Pearl Fryar's famous topiary garden nearly around the corner.

Mr. Pearl has been invited to speak to plantspeople at important venues around the country. He is amused that he often shares the stage with professional horticulturists. Though he claims he don't know nothing about plants, he once spoke at such an event at Harvard University. "They wouldn't even let me in there academically, but they invited me to speak 'cause I cut up bushes!"

Mr. Pearl Fryar discusses Eleagnus pungens espalier

We wandered with Mr. Pearl to a back corner of his yard. There was a fresh restroom with a plaque attributing it to Coca Cola and a local government's generosity. As we discussed an Eleagnus he was training to espalierg, my wife asked about the restroom. Apparently, here's how it happened; some well-heeled visitors needed to pee. He probably would've invited them into the house, but they declined to impose. But one of the visitors knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody else in the Coca Cola company and made a call. Within a few months, the restroom appeared magically with attributive plaques. He said, "You don't just write a letter to Coca Cola and ask them to build a restroom in your back yard."

When we arrived at the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden, I spied Mr. Pearl's old iconic ladder platform that he used to prune his taller topiaries. I took a picture of it. "How quaint", I thought. Later on during our visit, he said he doesn't use it any more. It's there for show. He wanted us to see his new platform. Before long his apprentice came roaring out from behind the grown-up hedges on a humongous crane-like vehicle. So, where did that come from? Well, he explained, some visitors appreciating his art, age and philosophy of life couldn't bear the thought that he might fall off that old ladder, so they pitched in and bought him a new platform.

Apparently, Mr. Pearl is a regular customer at the nearby Waffle House. We noticed their toparies on the way into Bishopville. Well, the Waffle House in Bishopville, SC has paid to publish a calendar featuring the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden. The profits benefit Mr. Pearl's local scholarship program. He had a small stack of calendars in his vehicle. I bought one and contributed more.

Pearl Fryar recently celebrated his 75th birthday. Naturally, we asked who will continue his work. Apparently his family is not that interested, but the Garden Conservancy is, ensuring that the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden will be preserved for many years to come.

Mr. Pearl Fryar's neighborhood.
Enthusiasm is infectious. Inspired by Mr. Pearl's work, several of his neighbors have begun cutting their own shrubs and trees into fantastic topiaries. (Actually, Mr. Pearl helps prune their shrubs, too.)

Isn't that the way it works? No matter where you're from or where you hope to go, if you have a creative spirit and gumption, aspire to do well, will climb the ladder, meet and greet, share your passion, get a little help from friends and family, and have fun along the way, you should succeed. Why not?

His Garden

This is what happens when you really want to win "Yard of the Month" contest.
As mentioned before, Mr. Pearl began cuttin' bushes because he wanted to win the "Yard of the Month" contest. A driveway that looks like the one above doesn't give others much of a chance.


Juniperus chinensis 'Hetzi Columnaris'
Some plants' growth habits lend themselves to particular forms, such as these upright Green Columnar junipers (Juniperus chinensis 'Hetzii Columnaris'). The arch in the foreground was formed over curved PVC pipe.

Hollywood juniper (Juniperus chinensis 'Torulosa'), foreground.
The naturally twisted shape of Hollywood Juniper, aka Kaizuka, as seen above, is another example that lends itself to sculpting.

Water Oak (Quercus nigra)
The native Water Oak (Quercus nigra), above, appeared as a seedling volunteer. Neither it nor the native Live Oak (Quercus virginiana), below, are typical subjects for topiary. But Mr. Pearl will work with just about anything that suits his fancy.

Live Oak (Quercus virginiana)
Grafting detail. Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden, Bishopville, SC


In the grafting detail (shown immediately above), you can see how Mr. Pearl has taken branches on either side, bent them, wrapped each one with wire and lashed them against the main trunk. As they grew, the branches and trunk self-grafted. At which point, he removed the wire forms. As you can see on the the left branch, he left that wire on a bit too long resulting in scar-like marks. He uses the same basic technique with other plants on which he forms arches, loops and twists.

Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) pollarded. Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden, Bishopville, SC
This gnarly Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) is pollarded, a pruning technique often used in European cities to control the size of street trees. Mr. Pearl said the reason he prunes it so is simply because he doesn't like raking leaves from deciduous trees. One good trimming each fall enables him to dispense with the leaves and trimmings in one fell swoop.

Still Life Snag with Inverted Clay Pots. Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden.
If a plant subject dies, he could yank it out, or trim and adorn it. Pearl Fryar doesn't worry about failures, but sees them as opportunities.

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