Meet the self-taught topiary artist who, for nearly four decades, has planted and pruned, nurtured and shaped nursery castoffs into living sculptures, inspiring thousands from around the globe to visit his fantastical garden wonderland in rural Bishopville, South Carolina
About 130 miles from Charleston, signs for the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden point the way to a residential street in Bishopville (population 3,238). Visitors to this strange landscape might think of Seussian “truffula” trees, but these are living sculptures—thousands of dwarf yaupon hollies, Hollywood junipers, Leyland cypresses, and pines twisting and bending, arcing and soaring into a verdant wonderland of imagination.
We meet Fryar one morning in this three-acre garden that he’s created over nearly four decades. Born the son of sharecroppers in rural North Carolina, he served in the military in Korea and moved to Queens when he returned. “I was in New York in the hippie generation and got a job a mile from Woodstock,” he says. “After growing up in the South, and then being exposed to different cultures, you’re going to grow.”
Words of Wisdom: Over the years, Fryar has added more fabricated sculptures as counterparts to shrubs and trees. He uses metal pieces, pottery, bottles, and other found objects. Sometimes he adds lettering, such as for the metal sign with “Hate hurts” and an arrow pointing downward (bottom left). The other side reads “Love and Unity,” with an arrow pointing upward. He designs the sculptures to be portable so he can store them during hurricanes, and portions are often interchangeable.
Fryar worked as an engineer for a soda can manufacturer first in New York and then in South Carolina. He and his wife, Metra, moved to Bishopville in the late 1970s, and his yard improvements began when he built a curved driveway of brick, stone, and hand-mixed concrete. He then started experimenting with a hedge trimmer on salvaged, “throwaway” plants given to him by friends and local nurseries. By 1985, he’d earned Yard of the Month.
Over the years, Fryar and his garden have become famous. In the 1990s, the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia commissioned him; a juniper deemed “Heart within a Heart,” grows on the grounds to this day. A decade later, film directors Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson created the documentary, A Man Named Pearl. Crews from CBS Sunday Morning to National Geographic, and many more, followed suit.
Because of Fryar, or as visitors call him “Mr. Pearl,” Bishopville has become an international destination. “Last month it was a group from China,” he says. At 79, he stands strong and trim waiting for them in a polo shirt and blue jeans, with his clippers in hand. Fryar talks with visitors—this day from Camden, Knoxville, and Kansas City—with a consistent modesty. “People call me an artist,” he says. “I’m a guy who cuts up bushes.”
With Love & Purpose: “Life is about love,” says Fryar, who has been married to his wife, Metra, for 52 years. He is proud to have created something that people haven’t seen before. “I want people to find more here than they expected,” he says.
Fryar is a man of daily rhythms. Most mornings he goes for breakfast at the nearby Waffle House, and he’s so consistent with his egg, toast, and “dot of grits” order that the manager named the “Pearl Special” after him. Then he minds the garden through the early afternoon, often talking with visitors and joining them for a photograph.
They come to see the dazzling display, but often leave with something much more than amazement at his ability to transform foliage. Fryar’s garden inspires visitors and evokes emotion and deeper meanings. “Life is about choices,” he says. “You can choose negative thinking or positive thinking. I choose positive thinking.”
ACCOMPLISHMENTS & ACCOLADES: Commissioned to create a permanent piece for the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia (1990s); collaborated with Philip Simmons for “The Heart Garden” for Spoleto Festival USA’s “Human/Nature” installations (1997); recognized by the S.C. General Assembly with Pearl Fryar Day, June 27, for his “humanitarian ideals and artistic influence” (1998); received the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Award for the Arts (2013) and the Award of Excellence from National Garden Clubs Inc. (2017)
STANDING ORDER: One egg sunny side up, wheat toast, and “a dot of grits,” on the menu as the “Pearl Special,” at the nearby Waffle House
TRANSPORTATION: John Deere “Gator” in the garden; a Smart Car on the road
HOBBY (Besides Gardening): Collecting rare coins
SCHOLARSHIP: A proponent of education, Fryar has awarded scholarships to local students to attend community colleges and technical schools.
VISIT: Fryar’s evergreen garden is located at his home, 145 Broad Acres Rd., Bishopville; pearlfryar.com. Visitors are welcome Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged.
Meet Pearl and tour his garden with South Carolina ETV: