Saturday, March 26, 2011

An Evening with Pearl Fryar

Where has Floraphile been? you ask.
She’s been busy getting an education through the Master Gardener program offered by University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension.  And she’s been grieving the loss of her cousin/friend/inspiration Karen Hart (a.k.a. li'l hateful).  
Karen (on the right): You are daily missed.
But Floraphile is back with you, revived by a good friend who took her to see Pearl Fryar speak at the Georgia State Botanical Garden a week ago.  Let me tell you, Pearl Fryar is exactly the person to shore up a soul forlorn and broken-down by grief. 
So who is this Pearl Fryar?  Well, he’s an artist, humanitarian, and gardener who for nearly 30 years has been making abstract topiary in his yard in Bishopville, South Carolina.
Now, I don’t want to say too much here because there is a very fine documentary called A Man Named Pearl that you really should see, especially if you are in need of spiritual uplift.  What I will tell you is that nearly all the topiary in his garden started as plants Mr. Fryar retrieved from a local nursery’s rubbish heap, where plants too sickly or misshapen or otherwise unprofitable were discarded.  He took home these “throw-away plants,” generally no larger than one gallon, grew them and trained them in to the fantastic shapes that now make up his three-acre garden.  His only training in topiary was a brief demonstration at a nursery.  
 “Everything here I’ve done with my gas-powered hedge trimmer.  I can do miracles with my hedge trimmer.”
That might sound like boasting, except that it’s true. Actually, this claim, made largely in jest, falls short of the miracles manifest in Mr. Fryar’s garden.  From a horticultural standpoint, a number of plant species thriving in the garden shouldn’t be able to grow there at all, or at least not in the forms into which they’ve been trained.  For example, because the family’s Christmas trees were added to the garden, you’ll find Frasier fir and Norway spruce, neither of which is supposed to grow down in South Carolina.  You’ll also find live oaks in the most improbable shapes:  dense cubes and mushroom caps, graceful trunks and branches adorned with leafy tufts.  And all of this is done without chemicals and with little watering beyond what it took for the plants to initially establish themselves.  

“Sometimes you gotta substitute for what you don’t have.”
Mr. Fryar now has a cherry-picker to carry him to the tops of his larger creations, but that was not always the case.  In his presentation, he showed us some slides of himself atop a ladder stretching obliquely from where it rested on the bumper of his truck or wedged between the truck’s cab and camper shell.  “If OSHA came by and saw what did, I’d probably be under the jail,” he quipped.  
Despite some really heart-stopping acrobatics, Mr. Fryar has never fallen.
Mr. Fryar generally used what was to hand.  For instance, to train plants into arches he uses PVC pipe.  To create an espalier against his house, he used nails and pantyhose (although he recommends getting permission first, as his wife was none too pleased when it was time to dress for church and her hose had disappeared).  He joked that he used to use string to train plants, but now that he wants to “look professional” he uses zip ties instead.  “If you took away Yaupon holly, PVC pipe, and coat hangers,” he reflected, “I wouldn’t have a garden.”
Once the shrubs have grown together and the arch is complete, you can remove the PVC.
Art and repurposing aren’t limited to topiary for Mr. Fryar.  He’s also a junk-metal artist.  Like his plants, these pieces are whimsical, elegant studies in form.  He showed us slides of his metal art and paused at one slide to remark, “I don’t own this piece anymore.  A woman caught me at the right moment.  I think I needed a new tractor.”  But he wasn’t bitter about it.  In fact, shortly there after he advised, “If you want to be successful, create something the ladies like.”
Fountain: An example of Mr. Fryar's "junk art."
Mr. Fryar finished his talk with a demonstration.  He applied his hedge trimmer to two Leyland cypresses, turning them into handsome spirals.  He also gave advice to those of us who wanted to try our hands at topiary:
Start small.  Fryar recommends starting with one-gallon plants, because you cannot adequately control the growth of larger plants.
Dig a trench.  Once you have your plant in the ground, encircle it with a trench.  According to Mr. Fryar, “Once the surface roots go in the trench, they don’t come back up.  That way I don’t have to water.”  He also mulches around the plant with pine straw. 
Don’t skimp on hedge trimmers.  With cheap hedge trimmers, you have to repeat your cuts:  “If you have to go through 2 or 3 times, you are damaging the plant.”  Fryar realizes that “most people don’t want to spend $400 dollars for a hedge trimmer” like his, but he urged the audience to spend no less than $100.
Cut new growth every 4-6 weeks.  “If you have to rake clippings, you’ve waited too long.”  With a frequency of 4-6 weeks, you can control the plant’s growth.
Choose a style.  “My style is abstract free-form.  I want to see the structure of the plant.”  This style has its benefits as you can “make a mistake into art.”  (Well, Mr. Fryar can, anyhow.)
Avoid disease-prone plants.  Mr. Fryar no longer uses boxwood, a shrub traditionally used in topiary, because it is prone to spider mites and diseases that require the application of chemicals.  If you want the boxwood look without the problems, he recommends Yaupon holly.
Make left-handed friends.  If you, like most people, are right-handed and want spirals that mirror one another to place on either side of a pathway, you are going to have to find someone left-handed to make the opposing spiral.  He recommends taking your left-handed friend out to lunch, and then teaching him or her to use your hedge trimmer.  
An artist at work.
Looking at Mr. Fryar's creations can be intimidating.  That is always the case when regarding an extraordinary artistic achievement, and then setting about to make something of your own.  Nevertheless, Mr. Fryar has inspired many of his neighbors in Bishopville to practice topiary, and the influence of his style is evident in their creations.
Apparently topiarius, Latin for "ornamental landscape gardener," means creator of places, topia being the Greek word for place.  Into his lawn Mr. Fryar has carved in words and spelled out in flowers Love Peace + Goodwill.  I have no doubt that a visit to his topia awakens those sentiments, as does being in the presence of the man for an evening. 
Pearl Fryar signing after his talk.  That's his wife Metra.
Again, I highly recommend seeing A Man Named Pearl.  But until you get your hands on a copy, watch this John Deer spot featuring Mr. Fryar.  It's worth it to hear his remarkable voice and see more of the garden. 
Floraphile extends a special thanks to Jenny Cruse-Sanders.