There’s a new garden on my must-see list: the gardens of Pearl Fryar, in Bishopville, South Carolina, where he creates such unlikely and beautiful topiaries as those above—and below.
I should mention that I’d never heard of Pearl Fryar until the Garden Monkey linked to GardenHistoryGirl’s post about him a month back. And she’s not the only garden blogger to write about him, either; Tales of the Microbial Laboratory included a post over a year ago, around when the documentary, A Man Named Pearl came out. (You can see the trailer here.)
Pam of the Lab not only saw the movie’s premier, she got to meet the man himself. She says he’s “about as contagious a person as I have met in my life,” a phrase that makes me smile every time I read it (I love that blog), and she reports that he was right there in the garden and as eager to talk with her as his website had said he would be. No false advertising there.
When Fryar, who is black, moved into his mostly white neighborhood in Bishopville, some people worried that he wouldn't keep up his yard. This happened not in the 1950s, nor even the 60s, but the not so distant 80s. He responded by setting out to win the local Yard of the Month award. But of course.
Source: Human Flower Project
Even better, though, is how he went about it. He didn’t just set out for a neat, pretty, conventional look—weed-free, carefully edged lawn, neatly trimmed hedges, carefully set out flower-beds—no, he struck out in a totally unique direction, even for him: he started carving up his shrubs into remarkable and striking topiary sculptures. (With no training save a 15 minute video, according to one source.) Apparently people were variously horrified and befuddled, until they gradually caught on that something rather remarkable was going on in Mr. Fryar’s yard. Eventually, they adopted him wholesale, as this photo of the town’s main street makes clear:
Source: Tales from the Microbial Laboratory, 27 May 2007.
And he did win the Yard of the Month award, three times. An article about him on the South Carolina Information Highway (SCIway.net) site–their tourism site, I gather–aptly called garnering these awards "a feat," seeing as how his house isn't even inside the city limits.
This is such a marvelously creative response to the “you can’t join our club” attitude that he met. He could have edged his lawn within an inch of its life, or let it go to demonstrate that he just didn’t care about the neighbor’s opinions anyway. Instead, he did this:
Yews, privets, and arborvitae are plants frequently used for topiaries, and these appear in Fryar’s garden, but he saw did not restrict himself to these, nor to mere shrubs, nor even to evergreens. He has worked with Common or American Boxwood (Buxus americana), with various shrubby junipers (Juniperus conferta, J. davurica ‘Parsoni’, J. horizontalis and/or Juniperus sabina ‘Tamariscifolia’), with pollarded silver maple (Acer saccharinum), with Baby’s-breath Spiraea (Spiraea thunbergii), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), with Norway Spruce (Picea abies), and with over a dozen others. You can see the full list on his website.
Outdoing the suspicious neighbors in neatness seems tame by comparison, and letting the yard go would have been defiant but childish. As for trying to blend, to disappear into the background, to disappear—good luck. Besides, that’s so cowardly; what he did took courage. It also combines the best of both the other approaches. It’s exquisitely neat, but it’s also bold, even in-your-face, yet in the most whimsical, graceful way.
So instead of trying to outdo his white neighbors at their own game, or refusing to play, he reinvented the game entirely—and so beautifully! Topiary usually strikes me as incredibly restricted, anal, and fundamentally misdirected. (Why would anyone want to do that to a plant?) But this stuff—this stuff is different. It’s expressive, not repressive. Like the original idea, the individual pieces have such whimsy and grace
The whole thing makes me want to cheer. There’s such joy here, and even seeing the pictures spreads that joy. Oh, if we could all respond to rejection with such creative resourcefulness, think what a generous world it would be.
The SCIway.net article mentioned above, posted last June, bore the title "Pearl Fryar's Topiary Gardens: Yard of the Century." This seems a fitting tribute to the man who set out to have his property named Yard of the Month.
SCIway has an extensive list of resources about Fryar at this site.
You can also watch him at work on YouTube.
For the secret of his name, see the New York Times article from 2005.
You may be interested to know that since that article was written, the Nature Conservancy has designated Fryar's garden one of its Preservation Projects. More about that, too, on his website.
Note: When I first posted this article, I didn't even mention that Fryar had won the Yard of the Month award. That seemed too important to omit, so I've added it.