Pearl Fryar, Unlikely Titan of Topiary

by jdroth on 25 April 2011

To some people, a shrub is just a shrub; to Pearl Fryar, a shrub is a canvas. Fryar is an artist with plants. But he didn’t start out that way.

When he bought his home in 1981, Fryar didn’t know anything about gardening. Still, he wanted to win Yard of the Month from the local garden club. At a local nursery, he spied a potted topiary plant and asked to buy it. But the nursery owner wouldn’t sell it to him, especially after learning that Fryar didn’t know how to garden. Instead, the owner gave him a crash course in pruning.

Fryar went home and set to work. He taught himself topiary. Using cast-off plants from nearby nurseries, he began to spend long hours in his yard. He’d work twelve-hour shifts at his job, then come home and sculpt his plants until the wee hours of the morning. This pattern continues today. “I’m only at one of two places,” Fryar says. “At work or in my garden.”

After five years of planning and pruning, Fryar’s garden finally won Yard of the Month. Over the past 25 years, it’s grown into something more. It’s actually become a tourist destination, and has served as a launching pad for a scholarship fund.

The 2008 film A Man Named Pearl delves more into Fryar’s background. Here’s a trailer:

“If you can do something well and have some kind of influence — and that influence is positive — then you have really accomplished something in life that even a financial reward cannot replace.” — Pearl Fryar

Jackie Robinson was Fryar’s role model. He saw what Robinson was able to accomplish by using his talent, and so looked for something he could do well too. That “something” happened to be sculpting plants. But Fryar recognizes that for other people, that “something” could be completely different. One of his goals is to help others discover what they’re good at.

Here’s a four-minute documentary about Fryar made by students from UCLA in the spring of 2010:

This video highlights The Pearl Fryar Scholarship Fund, a foundation Fryar started to help average students have a chance at success.

Fryar wasn’t a stellar student. He didn’t achieve academically. Yet, he managed to find a path to success anyhow. Now that he’s received some attention, Fryar has made it his goal to help others with a background similar to his. There are many scholarships out there for top students, but he wants to help those who are average.

When he was stationed in Korea, Fryar saw a quotation that inspired him: “He or she who does no more than the average will never rise above the average.” Now his goal is to help those who are average to rise above, to work at the fullest of their potential.

“Success is about work,” Fryar says. “You show me anyone who works at anything with a passion, and I’ll show you somebody who’s going to succeed. But what determines that success from what you are given is the environment. If you vary the environment, you can vary the thinking of that kid.”

From Fryar’s website, here’s more about the scholarship fund:

Pearl Fryar believes strongly in the role higher education can play in breaking the cycle of poverty in rural communities. He tells visitors to the garden that he believes a student’s academic performance does not always reflect potential for success. To realize Pearl’s objective of helping the average student to succeed, the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden, Inc. contributes to scholarship funds at Central Carolina Technical College in Bishopville, South Carolina and at Clinton Junior College in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Scholarships are awarded to students who might not have done well in high school but who nevertheless show “potential.”

Tip: At Fryar’s website, you can download a garden brochure [PDF] that includes a map and more info about the topiaries.

To learn more about Pearl Fryar and his work:

Fryar’s story is a great reminder that sometimes the most awesome people are those who live next door.

[This story idea submitted by Ray from Tip Hero.]

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 MoneyCone April 27, 2011 at 14:23

“He or she who does no more than the average will never rise above the average”

That’s a lovely quote! If you can keep yourself occupied in the pursuit of a passion, I think most evil in this world would just disappear!


2 Lis April 27, 2011 at 16:30

This is captivating! What amazing work. Good for him – LOVE that he was willing to listen and learn, and not just throw a fit when the nursery owner wouldn’t sell him the topiary! What a great lesson


3 STL Mom April 27, 2011 at 17:11

I loved the movie “A Man Named Pearl”. Definitely worth a look.


4 Janel May 2, 2011 at 07:19

I loved this post. I need to see this more often. To see people who are doing the things that they are most passionate about. Imagine turning on the news every single day and seeing nothing but stories on “Awesome People”!!!! This post inspires me to continue my journey as mentor for teenagers in underserved communities. Thank you!


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