Pearl Fryar's Topiary Garden: A Cut Above Average

This self-taught topiary artist has created more than a collection of living sculptures. DIY Network takes you through the landscaping in this topiary garden.
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The skyline around Pearl Fryar's home is anything but typical suburban garden.

Tops in Topiary

It's not your average neighborhood landscaping. The 3-1/2-acre yard in Bishopville, S.C., is filled with topiary work representing broad ranges of artistic expression — the grand, the mystical and the whimsical — all rolled into one. And it's the creation of one man with no horticultural training, a shift job and little free time. Now retired from his factory job, Pearl is free to spend long hours shaping his living art pieces.

A Cut Above Average

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Self-taught topiary artist Pearl Fryar uses a power trimmer to fine-tune a high-level sculpture. Many of the abstract sculptures in his yard are 20 to 30 feet tall.

It all started with a yearning to have his three acres picked as "yard of the month" by the local garden club. Pearl Fryar took out his clippers and started shaping his shrubs. Pretty soon his work was nothing like the conventional little meatballs — or even animal shapes — that you see in most topiaries. That was in the mid 1980s. Several years later, the Bishopville, S.C., resident "got serious. A cut-above-average for me is in shapes," says Pearl.

Practicing Art in the Yard

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Pearl spends up to 70 hours a week maintaining his topiaries. Carrying his pruning tools around his 3-1/2-acre property requires the assistance of his lawn tractor.

Today the lawn surrounding his home is packed with an assortment of art forms that astound the eye. And this now-retired factory worker is teaching an art class at Coker College and is internationally known as both an artist and a gardener.

From Sharecropping to Sculpturing

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The son of a sharecropper, Pearl began his garden with near-dead shrubs, salvaged from the scrap heap of a local wholesale nursery.

Pearl's only training in topiary work was a three-minute lesson in maintaining a throw-away shrub he bought for $2 back when he wanted to win the yard of the month title. Horticulturists are usually astounded at what he has managed to do with plants. "They say, 'You shouldn't be able to do that,'" Pearl says, "and I say, 'I didn't know that.'"

"Any Plant That Grows"

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"Pearl has been able to take plants that we thought were junk and turn them into works of art," says Tom Drayton, whose scrap heap was Pearl's plant source.

Before Pearl's plot became a topiary garden, it was a combination of cow pasture, corn field and lover's lane. "Everything that's here I put here," he says. And, in doing so, he went way beyond the usual sort of garden sculpture. Filled with inspiring abstract forms, Pearl strives to create a garden where visitors leave feeling better than they did when they entered.

Work in Progress

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It takes Pearl about three to five years to achieve a shape that he's happy with. "It's a matter of perfecting it till I'm really comfortable with it," he says.

Pearl's garden consists of more than the hollies, junipers and boxwoods typically found in topiary gardens. Plants include Fraser fir, dogwood, wintergreen barberry, Norway spruce, firethorn and deodar cedar. "I can topiary anything that grows," he says.

A Feel-Good Garden

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Pearl isn't afraid to jump right in and begin making something new," says Tom Stanley, chairman of the fine arts department at Winthrop University.

Visitors to Pearl's garden often speak not of the topiaries themselves but of the sense of peace they feel in the garden. "You can just feel some kind of spirit within it. He's not doing this for show but it's something within," says one.
Says Pearl, "I don't think you can substitute the physical side of life for the spiritual side of life. We can call it whatever we want, but that belief in something bigger than I am makes life interesting to live."

"Be Somebody"

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Pearl's topiary sculptures have been featured in dozens of newspapers, magazines and websites. His garden is open to the public: from class trips to church groups to individuals who want to experience the special place.

Bishopville, a small town that once depended on agriculture and cotton farming, has been on the decline. Now the town is a destination for visitors from all over who want to see the extraordinary topiaries. Say many local residents, "Pearl has put Bishopville on the map." Pearl grew up in a rural town in North Carolina and attributes his work ethic to his father, a sharecropper. "He always said, 'I want you to be somebody,' and I did," Pearl says.

Love, Peace and Goodwill

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"It wasn't important to me to create a garden," Pearl says. "I wanted to create a feeling that when you walk through, you feel differently than you did when you started."

Visitors often wander his garden somewhat awestruck, but all Pearl really wants is for them to enjoy the experience.

"Pearl loves to have those who visit his garden leave feeling better than they did when they first arrived," says Rev. Jerome McCray, minister of Bethel AME Church.

Sculpting at Night

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Dark is no deterrent for Pearl's work. Neighbors – and his wife – report that it's commonplace to see Pearl hard at work into the wee hours of the night.

Pearl used to work a shift job at a local can factory — 12 hours a day, four days on and four days off. After his 12 hours on the job, he'd come home, get out his tools and start working on his yard. It was common practice for him to trim till 1 a.m.

"I'd come home at seven, eight or nine at night and you'd see a little headlight on [Pearl's] lawnmower, and you'd wake up the next morning and the whole property would have a haircut," says Raymond Bradley, a neighbor who watched the Fryar garden mature and grow.

A Few Rules

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Pearl uses no chemicals in his garden and has to supply little irrigation.

Pearl has a few rules for himself: Use a lot of mulch, just like nature does; trim often ("if you have to rake the cuttings, you've waited too long"); and use no chemical sprays or fertilizers. He also digs a shallow trench around each planting bed to keep turfgrass from stealing nutrients away from the beds and to prevent shallow-rooted trees from taking over his lawn. The cut line, he says, adds a new dimension to the garden.

"Garden for Yourself"

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It took Pearl four to five years to turn a mushroom-shaped tree into a square one.

Pearl offers this advice to other gardeners:

Garden for yourself. "A lot of people don't garden for themselves. They garden for other people. I want something unique, and I don't worry what people say about it. A garden may be the best garden in the world, and people may still criticize it, so why not do what you want to do?"

Do your own thing. "If you're going to create your own garden, it's best not to copy [the plan] out of a magazine," says Fryar, "because you're not going to get credit for it."

And, by the way, Fryar did earn that yard-of-the-month award.

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