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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

More Than Just Topiaries

In mid-July, I had an opportunity to attend the National Association of County Agricultural Agents (NACAA) Annual Meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. It was a very busy week of meeting Extension staff from across the U.S. and learning about their programs. As part of the meeting, the last day is traditionally one of tours. One of the stops on my tour was valuable to me not only because of the beauty of the garden, but because of the man that created it.

The garden I was so excited to visit was that of Pearl Fryar– in 2006 there was documentary made about his garden called "A Man Named Pearl". Back in 1980, Pearl, his wife Metra and 12 year old son Patrick moved to Bishopville, South Carolina because of Pearl's job at a can factory. They purchased three acres of a corn field on which to build their home. Pearl, an African-American, became very motivated to start gardening when he learned of the local opinion that African-Americans "didn't keep up their yards". He set out to prove the locals wrong and win the "Yard of the Month" Award from the local garden club.

During a visit to a local garden center, Pearl spied a carefully trimmed topiary. The shop owner discouraged Pearl from buying a topiary plant because of the maintenance involved. However, a pile of discarded plants in back of the store attracted Pearl's attention, and he took a neglected holly bush home with him that day.

Inspired by the topiary he had seen at the local garden center, Pearl began to experiment with "cutting up bushes" as he calls it. He returned to the garden center regularly and the staff provided him with all the discarded trees and shrubs he wanted. Slowly, a transformation began in the Fryar's three acre yard. Abstract elaborately trimmed trees and shrubs grew up from where there once had been a corn field.

Pearl worked full-time while nurturing his garden. Most days he put in a 12 hour shift at his job and then came home to work on the garden, often with the aid of spotlights once the sun set. Five years into his project, he received the coveted "Yard of the Month" award. But that was not the end of Pearl's gardening. It was only the beginning. Today his topiaries are described by many as living works of art and several specimens are part of museum collections.

Pearl credits his success with his lack of knowledge. He has had dozens of horticulture experts tour his garden and tell him his techniques "shouldn't work"–yet there his successful topiaries stand before them. He told our group that because he didn't have any preconceived notions in his mind, he was free to experiment without worrying about what the "rules" were.

Most of the techniques in Pearl's garden involve selectively trimming and guiding branches into the desired shapes. One large example of this is his creeping juniper, usually used as a ground cover that is creeping upward along a telephone pole instead of along the ground. He tied a couple of branches to the pole to start with, and guided the branches upward as the plant grew. It towers at least 20 feet tall today, and has survived hurricane-force winds.

Another large example is his live oak that is trimmed to form a cube. Other live oaks on his property are trimmed into round shapes. The "square tree" as Pearl called it, was once a round tree. He decided one day to see if he could shape a square tree. It took four and a half years, but he did it.

Another major technique used in Pearl's garden is tying or braiding small branches together and allowing them to grow together. This has allowed Pearl to sculpt plants into all sorts of abstract designs. Some of the most striking of these sculptures are towering junipers that many describe as resembling sailing ships. After seeing them myself I would have to agree.

Seeing the topiary garden in person was amazing. But our group was lucky enough to meet the man behind the garden, Pearl Fryar himself. It was a hot, humid South Carolina summer day, but I can confidently say that once Pearl started talking, none of us wanted to leave. The people in charge had to practically drag us back to the bus!

Pearl had more than just a beautiful garden in mind when he started his topiary creations over 30 years ago. He wanted his garden to have a positive message and to evoke an emotional response in people far deeper than just saying it was beautiful. Messages of peace and love are scattered throughout the garden both in the topiaries and various sculptures Pearl has created from odds and ends. One expanse of garden actually has the words "Peace, Love and Goodwill" carved into the turf.

Another larger message Pearl wants us all to hear and take to heart is the power of the individual and the potential in each and every one of us. This message has grown into a scholarship program that Pearl describes as intended for "the kid in the back of the classroom that struggles in school". His dream is for these children to recognize that academics are only one measure of success, and that they have potential within them just waiting to be realized.

I've struggled with how to describe my visit with Pearl Fryar– his garden drew us in, but as he spoke the garden took on less significance. We started the tour expecting to meet a gardener and see a great garden, but we all left there feeling that maybe "Peace, Love and Goodwill" really can change the world.

To learn more about Pearl Fryar, visit and watch the documentary "A Man Named Pearl". His garden is open to visitors Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. year-round.


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