Taking the Art of Topiary to New Heights
Meet Pearl Fryar At The Sugar Land Home & Garden Show Jan. 28-29
By Cheryl Alexander
Photography by Dustin Shores
Some days you’ll find him in the seat of his John Deere tractor mowing grass. Other days he’s pruning shrubs and trees. And often he’s sharing the life lessons he’s learned through his passion for gardening to crowds of people gathered around hanging on his every word. How did this quiet, unassuming 77-year-old man garner such an attentive audience? The answer may surprise you…
Pearl Fryar has taken the art of topiary to new levels, and from a very humble beginning, his garden is now known world-wide, attracting over 10,000 visitors annually. Fryar’s garden has been named a Preservation Project by the Garden Conservancy, a designation only awarded to exceptional private gardens. He was also the subject of a documentary, “A Man Named Pearl.”
Born outside Clinton, North Carolina, in 1939, Fryar and his family settled in Bishopville, South Carolina, in the late 1970s. He purchased property and built his home on what had formerly been an old corn field. In the early ‘80s, when he originally planted his home’s landscape, his motivation was simply to win a local “Yard of the Month” contest. Unfortunately, he lived just outside the city limits, so was told he was not eligible.
Undeterred, he kept working on his new garden. On one trip to a local nursery, Fryar admired some topiary and asked the owner of the nursery how they were created. After a brief, three-minute lesson and loaded up with inspiration, he went back home and began creating what has now become a horticultural phenomenon.
The award-winning garden, The Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden, now includes about 400 species of plants and 150 of his own topiaries, many of which began as salvaged seedlings from that same local nursery, and some over 20 years in the making. Today, a garden pamphlet outlines nine stops around the three acres, detailing highlights such as the “Fishbone Tree,” a fishbone-shaped Leyland cypress planted just after Hurricane Hugo came through in 1989 — a topiary that took seven years to create.
Trees in dozens of other shapes and sizes —short and stumpy, a “birdhouse tree,” mushroom shapes, squares, some arched, some spindly — fill the yard. Each brings its own whimsy. The plants are complemented by what Fryar calls “junk art” — pieces of scrap metal and other goods he fished out of recycling bins and junkyards and used to create sculptures.
“What is so moving and so important about his work is that it is organic, it is non-representational, and that it took time to accomplish,” said Jean Grosser, Chair, Department of Art at Coker College in South Carolina. “The thing that is astounding also about the way Pearl works, is the amount of time it takes him to do something. Many of the kids coming to college are so accustomed to having things instantly, but I want them to meet Pearl so he can say to them, ‘I have this idea, and I invest this time in it. I can see it in my mind, and in five years what I imagined will come to life.’ ”
Perseverance is one of the life lessons Fryar can speak about from personal experience.
“If you said to me, ‘wash your car,’ ” Fryar said, “I don’t have the patience to wash my car. But I have the patience to work on a plant for five to 10 years. And most images take at least that long.”
He points to a square tree, “It took me four-and-a-half years to take this tree from a mushroom to a square. But the pleasure is really when you can accomplish something that you’ve been working on for five years, and it comes out pretty good. And you get compliments. That’s pretty rewarding.”
The garden’s beauty gets plenty of attention, but recently the focus has expanded to its mission. Fryar was an ordinary student, he says, but he’s used his skills to inspire thousands of visitors from around the globe. About 10 years ago, he started a scholarship fund to show students that they, too, can use their talents to make a contribution.
“We are losing too many students from the bottom,” he says, “because we educate from the top down.” Some of the donations and sales from garden calendars go toward the scholarship fund, which provides two students from Lee County, South Carolina, tuition for either a community college or a technical school.
“When people walk through my garden – especially young people – what I really want is for them to see what can be accomplished by using what you have,” Fryar said. “Everyone is not gifted academically, but everyone has a talent. Everyone has a gift, and cuttin’ up bushes has been pretty good for me.” Find him online at pearlfryar.com.