Thinking outside the boxwood

| 06 Mar 2012 | 03:51

It’s been extolled as folk art and celebrated as a living sculpture museum. But Pearl Fryar doesn’t think of his yard as anything that decorous. “I just started cutting up bushes,” he shrugs.

It’s been nearly 30 years now since Fryar, 71, began planting shrubs that had been thrown away by the local nursery. After working 12 hours at a soda can factory, he’d come home and work until midnight by the light of his lawnmower’s headlights. Using crude tools like a chainsaw, PVC piping, and plastic twists, he sculpted, shaped, and braided every shrub and tree in his three-acre yard. He doesn’t water, spray or fertilize, but digs trenches around plants and mulches with pine needles.

His neighbors in small town Bishopville, South Carolina, assumed he was unhinged. Even his wife thought he might be losing it. But over the years his pin oaks and loblolly pines, maples, Fraser firs, Leyland Cyprus, weeping hollies and Savannah hollies and dogwoods began to defy the rules of horticulture and grow into the shapes into which he’d painstakingly trained them. His vision – abstract, freeform, but complementing each plant’s structure – emerged in startling glory.

“If I could put it on canvas, I would, but I can’t paint,” he shrugs again.

In topiary’s long history, certain things had never been done until Pearl started pruning. “My success is because of my lack of horticultural knowledge,” said Pearl. “The book would say you can’t prune dogwood. That tree is over 20 years old,” he said, nodding toward a mushroom-shaped tree in full white bloom. Knowledge wasn’t important.

I was going to make the plant do what I wanted it to do.”

Pearl started getting major attention in the mid-90s and his reputation has grown like a healthy holly. Today, the garden hosts weddings and concerts. Coca-Cola is putting in restrooms and John Deere donated a tractor. Pearl has a scholarship fund for “c” students and is in high demand as a speaker at universities. Master gardeners trek from all over the country to hear Pearl say, “I’m not a horticulturalist,” then turn their education upside-down.

And Pearl, who has begun to think about his legacy, has an intern. On an April morning, 20-year-old Hal May is hard at work mulching the “P” of Pearl’s giant inscription, “Love Peace + Goodwill.”

Hal saw a 60 Minutes segment about Pearl when he was 10. Hal, a South Carolina native, is now a student at the Botanical Gardens horticulture school in New York, with a particular interest in the art of training trees to grow in minimized space. He was pondering where to apply for his required internship when he saw the documentary, “A Man Named Pearl.” He drove south, toured the topiary garden, and when Pearl asked if there were questions, Hal’s hand popped up: Can I intern for you?

“Because he was self-taught, he’s really the only person who knows his technique,” said Hal. “This is so new, so fresh… We’ve really never considered these topiary plants. But he’s found a way to make it work. There’s wisdom to be taken away.”

What has he learned so far? Well, says Hal, “it’s only my second day.”