How One Man's Simple Hobby Evolved Into a Topiary Wonderland

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One of the primary missions of botanical gardens is to educate visitors about plants and habitats.

The Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden in Bishopville, South Carolina, has a different mission. Then again, Pearl Fryar doesn't take the same approach to gardening that most plant enthusiasts do, and his botanical garden is far different than any you've visited.

Fryar's mission is to help people understand the keys to success in life through his topiaries. Fryar sees those keys as education, the power of positive thinking and the resolve to help those less fortunate. "My message is built around that theme. My garden is built around that theme," said Fryar, who lives with his wife in a modest ranch-style home at the unfenced inspirational garden.

He fulfills that mission by shaping bushes and trees — 300-plus on two of his three acres — and what he calls "junk" into abstract art forms. In Fryar's mind, the message of his garden is simple. It's all about love. "As you walk through the garden, there is always something about love because of the way I make these pieces. And the garden is set up so that the last thing you see before you leave my garden is 'love, peace & goodwill' etched into large letters on the ground."

Love, peace and goodwill

Fryar's goal is for garden visitors to literally "feel the love" — to feel differently when they leave than when they entered. He knows he's succeeding in getting that message across because he often sees people leaving the garden with tears in their eyes. He contends that his message of love is a simple concept. The garden moves people, he said, because visitors "have never seen someone do something that is so simple that made them feel so good. It's so simple that people make it complex. And it's the same thing about life. If you really want to enjoy life, keep it simple.” The moment you complicate things is “the moment you are not going to enjoy life."

The people who Fryar especially wants to reach with this message are youths, particularly the ones on the margins he calls the "C students."

"Everyone has a God-given talent, but everyone can't afford their talent," he said. What happens, he believes, is that children who are not gifted academically become stigmatized by test scores. "And these are the kids we are losing for the lack of financial resources." Those resources, from his point of view, go to academically higher-achieving students in the form of scholarships. Meanwhile, the kids who aren't successful in school get labeled as “not supposed to make it.”Fryar has a special place in his heart for those students.

"I'm one of those kids that wasn't supposed to make it," he said. He recalled the time in 1962 when he was in the Army and walked into a department store to eat at the lunch counter with four GI friends. "I was the only Black GI, and they wouldn't serve me. That could have changed my life. But I didn't allow myself to feel angry about it and let that dictate what I was going to accomplish in life. But not everybody has the ability to make that type of adjustment."

But Fryar did, and now he's in a position to help kids make similar adjustments in their lives. And everybody, Fryar insists, has a God-given talent. Because he believes the way for C students to excel in life is through education, the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden contributes to scholarship funds at community and technical colleges in South Carolina. Fryar and the people whose lives he has touched talk about his mission and the scholarship funds in a video on his website.

Pearl Fryar topiary trees
Fryar has more than 300 topiaries on two acres of land. Marion Brenner

The result, he said, is that, "My garden is the biggest ministry in this state. I see at least 10,000 people a year. I don't have a building. I don't have anything. I give scholarships. I have fundraisers for the Red Cross. And there's not a church in the county that's doing that. How many churches give scholarships from the bottom? How many churches give scholarships to students to go to junior college, community college and technical schools? But, then, these are kids from the bottom, and these are the kids who need help."

He desperately wants these kids to succeed. That's why he wants them to get an education and to use that education to excel at whatever their special skill is. "By crossing what you do well with your education, you become a master of what you do," he said. Then he softly adds, "I cut up bushes."

Yard of the month

Pearl Fryar trimming bush
When Fryar first began shaping bushes on his property, he didn't even know what topiary was. Courtesy of the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden

When Fryar began cutting up bushes, as he puts it, he didn't even know there was a name for this type of gardening. A sharecropper's son and a Korean War veteran, he just wanted to be accepted in his community. He knew there was a general feeling in the community that Black folks don't keep up their yards, and he thought the way to gain the community's acceptance was to win the yard of the month award from the local garden club. He set out to win that award by going to a local nursery and convincing them to give him plants they were discarding.

He brought those throwaway plants home and, with no horticultural training but a boundless creative urge, shaped them into abstract forms. Remarkably, at the time he didn't even know there was a term for this type of garden art. He discovered the term topiary almost by accident. After he won his coveted yard of the month sign, a garden writer for Veranda magazine was visiting his mother in Bishopville. She told him about Fryar's garden, and showed him an article about Fryar's award in a local newspaper.

"He comes out to me," Fryar said of the Veranda writer, "and he says, 'Do you really know what you have accomplished?' I said, 'No, not really. All I do is cut up bushes.' He said, 'No, this is called topiary, and when I go back to England' — because he took groups to England — 'I am going to bring back some books for you.' I always considered topiary as being in Disney World, animals or whatever. But, then I did a little research about topiary and discovered that it is the art of shaping plants. And, so, when he brought me the books, I said I was going to start doing teapots and all that stuff they are doing in England. And then I said, 'Nah. I think I will stay with what I am doing.' And that was the first time that I realized what I was doing was considered topiary. And I moved on from there."

Where Fryar moved to was recognition that he never could have imagined when he brought home his first orphan plant. He's won numerous awards, including the 2017 National Garden Clubs' Award of Excellence; Bishopville named a Pearl Fryar Day in his honor; he has been presented the key to several cities; and has even seen a few pieces of his work moved to museums and botanical gardens.

Pearl Fryar Bishopville South Carolina garden
Fryar's topiary garden is open to the public for tours. Dustin Shores

In 2006, two filmmakers made a documentary, "A Man Named Pearl," about his life and achievements. The award-winning documentary has been screened throughout the country and shown on multiple cable television channels. It is only available as a DVD and can be rented on, a Netflix company. There is also a free trailer on the Fryar garden's website.

Not surprisingly, a variety of groups have invited Fryar to give motivational talks. Whenever he speaks, whether it's to groups in the garden or at distant venues, his message is always the same. "In the final analysis, success is about three things: Work, passion and marketing." An important part of that message is to go a step beyond combining those ingredients with a special talent. Fryar urges young people to do something totally different than what anyone else is doing. He got that drive from a quote he heard while serving in the military in Korea: "He or she who does no more than the average will never rise above the average." His topiary garden is anything but average.

"I'm the only person in the world who does what I do. And I taught myself. I do what I do from a lack of knowledge because I didn't know you shouldn't be cutting bushes the way I cut them. The people from the horticultural world, they can't believe it. So that's my success. I don't do what everyone else is doing. I do something different, and people come from all over the world to see it because it makes them feel good. They come a long way to see things that make them feel good for a moment."

topiary bushes
Fryar's topiaries come in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on the type of tree or shrub. Marion Brenner

Fryar turns 79 this year and said he doesn't know what is going to happen to the garden when the time comes that he can no longer put in the long hours required to maintain it. "At some point, I am going to have to call it quits. Somebody is going to have to come in here and take it over. If that happens, it happens. But, if it doesn't, I'm a positive-thinking person. I have made my contribution. I have done what I was supposed to do in my lifetime."

The Garden Conservancy, which is based in Garrison, New York, with a mission to save and share outstanding American gardens for the education and inspiration of the public, has been assisting the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden for more than a decade to help him find a solution. "Since 2007, the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden, Inc. has been a preservation garden of the Garden Conservancy," said James Brayton Hall, president and CEO of the group. "We have provided assistance over the years including strategic planning, administrative, communications and horticulture support. During that time, we have funded an intern and capital equipment and worked to raise (the) visibility of the garden."

"Our preservation work focuses on helping gardens transition from private ownership to become locally managed, public resources. To that end, we have worked with the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden, Inc. for over a decade, with the hope that that organization would be able to maintain the garden going forward."

Regardless of what happens to the garden, Fryar said what he wants to be remembered for is that, "I was one of those people who came through life and tried to make a difference in the lives of people who were less fortunate than I am, and that I did that with what I could afford. I am not a rich man. But if everyone in this country would do one thing for someone who is less fortunate than they are, then we could solve the homeless and a lot of other problems. That's all I want to be remembered for. I used what I have, my God-Given talent, to make a difference in other people's lives. I cut up bushes."

Pearl Fryar Garden hours and directions to the garden can be found here.

topiary tree
Fryar's garden is located in Bishopville, South Carolina. Courtesy of the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden