Monday, April 11, 2011

The Featured Gardener- Pearl Fryar

Almost every year my good gardening friend, and optometrist, Michael Gordon, does a wonderful thing and takes a trip to Haiti for a week long eye mission.  This year, in addition to providing eye care to many Haitians who live in poverty, he returned with a terrific photo of a proud Haitian gardener who had created a very beautiful small garden right smack dab in the middle of one of the most impoverished areas of Haiti (you can see this photo on Michael's great gardening blog, The Gardener's Eye, by clicking here).

The photo got me thinking about what gardens really represent.  The best gardens don't come from a fat wallet, or a team of skilled manor-house gardeners, or from emulating the latest design craze seen in gardening magazines.  The best gardens are born of passion; they are an artistic expression of the gardener's desire to create their own little piece of paradise, no matter where they live, and they have little to do with preconceived notions or what the rest of the world thinks a garden should be.  There are few individuals who better illustrate this type of passionate gardening than Pearl Fryar.

photo courtesy of HGTV
For those who don't know him (yes, Pearl is a him), Pearl Fryar is a working class African-American, living in the small town of Bishopville, South Carolina who, against all odds in 1984, decided he would make a garden.  He never really had lofty aspirations.  When he and his wife tried to purchase their first house, they had the experience that many other African-Americans in the rural south shared; they were spurned by a predominantly white neighborhood and were told that the residents felt that a Black couple wouldn't keep up their yard.  So, when they were finally able to build their own ranch-style house, on a cleared out cornfield in economically depressed Bishopville, Pearl wanted to prove people wrong.  He made it his goal to be the first African-American recipient of the local garden club's "Yard of The Month" award.  As they say...the rest is history.  Today, people come from all over the world to see Pearl's 3-acre "yard of the month."  He has singlehandedly put tiny little Bishopville, and that part of South Carolina on the map.

With absolutely no spare income to begin a garden, Pearl rescued discarded plants from the compost heap at the local dump.  He worked at a can factory by day and so he did much of his gardening at night, in the dark, under sets of lights that he would move around the yard. Growing up as the son of a sharecropper, he had no formal training in either horticulture or art.  But clearly there was a passionate artist inside him that couldn't be contained. He started sculpting his plants into fantastic topiary shapes and as they grew, he simply bought taller and taller ladders.  To watch him work was like watching a performer from Cirque du Soleil; a very tall and muscular performer wielding huge gas-powered hedge shears, often at twenty feet in the air, engaged in a curious ballet and balancing act.

But Pearl's interests and passions always extended way beyond the garden. As unpretentious today as the day he was awarded the "yard of the month" by the Bishopville Iris Garden Club, his idea of gardening has as much to do with shaping the lives of children as it does with shaping plants.  He is passionate about kids at risk and, whenever possible, uses the lessons he has learned from his own garden to try to reach and inspire children of all ages.

photo courtesy of Southern Living

In 2006, the Garden Conservancy, in partnership with the Friends of Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden, agreed to preserve the garden as a way of furthering the message of hope and inspiration that is Pearl Fryar's enduring legacy.  

This year Pearl Fryar turned seventy one.  He still maintains his garden, but recently hired his first-ever assistant so he could pass on some of his skills.  And today, to the great delight of his wife, Metra, he works at 20 feet in the air on a "cherry-picker" instead of a rickety ladder.  His balancing act may be less unpredictable but his ballet is still mesmerizing.  

I don't know if Bob Dylan does any gardening.  But, if he does he's probably singing "the times they are a changin" a lot these days while he's weeding (no pun intended).  There seems to be a movement afoot and It is truly refreshing to see the attention of the gardening world shift more and more toward the acceptance and recognition of unique, artful, and personal gardens, like Pearl Fryar's, regardless of the wealth, social status, or cultural heritage of the gardener.  This is a wonderful departure from the stilted, narrow view of gardening just a few short years ago, where color was a dimension that was both expected and encouraged in the garden but not so much in the gardener.  Furthering this new awareness are recent books by authors like Jill Nokes, who has profiled the "dirt gardeners" of rural Texas and Richard Westmacott and photographer Vaughn Sills who have both written about and photographed African-American gardens.

image courtesy of New Video Group
If you have not yet seen the documentary, "A Man Named Pearl," you should get ahold of a copy tomorrow.  You do not have to be a gardener to find it inspiring and you will be amazed at what a single individual can accomplish when perseverance, determination and sweat are combined with an equal measure of artistry and creativity.  For a little preview, click on the video trailer below.  

For other Featured Gardeners, click here.


  1. Joe,
    This was a great post. I have read a lot about Pearl Fryar. I need to add his garden on my bucket-list of gardens to visit!

  2. Thanks, Michael! Yes, me too. Would love to meet Pearl. He's certainly an inspiration to us all!--Joe

  3. What a great article, Joe, and I loved the video. I will certainly check out Pearl Fryar and his amazing garden. But your sentence beginning "The best gardens are born of passion" - that's going in my gardening journal.

  4. So glad you enjoyed the post, Hilda! And I don't think you'll regret checking out the video.--Joe


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