Movie Event: A Man Named Pearl


by Susan
An event it truly was – the Washington premiere of the critically acclaimed  documentary about topiary artist Pearl Fryar of Bishopville, South Carolina.  Brought to us by the nonprofitPearl_2 neighborhood-saved Avalon Theater, which tried to raise enough money to bring Fryar himself here for the premiere but that didn’t happen and Kathy Jentz was called on at the last minute to provide a substitute event of some sort.  That turned out to be Kathy, myself and garden tour organizer Cheval Force Opp as panelists reviewing the movie and answering questions (fun!) Here’s my review.

The movie is aptly named because it’s about one man and it’s mainly interviews with his family, neighbors, minister, mayor, the Chamber of Commerce (Fryar’s quite a boon to his depressed little town), and tourists who’ve come to visit his famous garden.  Fryar ISPearlfryar lovable and admirable for working hard, loving his wife, inspiring children, and wowing middle-aged women of all races with his hot body.  (For real – I agree totally with the tourist who blushingly confessed that she sure liked watching him move.  Trim and muscular at 66, Fryar scrambles up ladders and wields his electric hedgers with amazing agility.)

And he created a big topiary sign across the front of his garden that reads "Love, Peace, and Goodwill."  Amen to that.

His leafy creations are very cool, mainly abstracts, and the movie includes good interviews with artsy types admiring his talent and conversing about negative spaDcp_0117ce and all that.  As out of fashion as this type of gardening may be, even the most naturalistic of gardeners will appreciate  that creating beauty with living things that are lovingly tended is pretty awesome stuff.

While the movie teaches us that growing a 3-acre topiary garden is a helluva lot of work and not for the low-maintenance crowd, it has nothing to say about the 40 different species that Fryar grows, information that’s available only on his website.  And while we’re told that he teaches the art of topiary, we don’t see him do it or find out how this self-taught pruning genius does what he does.  No mention of the different growth patterns of all those plants and and how Fryar learned to harness them so skillfully.  Instead of teaching us a thing or two about working with plants, the movie simply labels him a "Plant Whisperer" and leaves it at that. 

So gardeners, be prepared to be a little frustrated by this movie and its lost opportunities.

We do learn one incredible piece of gardening information – that Fryar uses no pesticides at all.  Of course he mulches like all organic gardeners do, but how can thick shrubs sheered to form impenetrable casings through which no light or air can penetrate possibly look so healthy?  Isn’t that what arborists and pruning teachers all say NOT to do?  You’re better believe I said exactly that to the audience, and I believe I concluded that remark with my fist in the air giving a little cheer:  "Go, pruning!".  (I’m afraid it’s true.)

Still and all, I was charmed and inspired by the man named Pearl and suggest you put the movie about him in your Netflix queue.

Seeing the movie made me lament, once again, the loss of my all-time favorite gardening show, which highlighted Fryar years before moviemakers and "CBS Sunday Morning" discovered him.  "A Gardener’s Diary" was hosted by actual horticulturist Erica Glasener, who found passionate, sometimes quirky gardeners all over the U.S. to interview in depth while strolling through their gardens at a leisurely pace.  You know, the total opposite of those frenetic weekend make-over shows we all rant about.  But guess what she’s back! Thursday mornings at 7 a.m.  Program your Tivo or VCR and enjoy!

Photo credit.


  1. I’ll never figure out why HGTV constantly repeats lame shows in prime time and then relegates the good stuff to once a week in off-time hours!
    Thanks for the post, Susan, and also for being part of the last-minute panel.
    My take on the movie is that while you don’t get Pearl’s gardening “how to” tips, you sure get a lot of eye-candy and inspiration. Seeing it twice now, I think my take-home message is it is not the medium (plant topiary) that he uses – the art is in himself.

  2. I am surprised to hear you say that topiary is out of fashion in the States. Topiaried trees are available at nurseries here and featured regually in magazines. In Britain, topiaried trees have long been a feature of gardens from the Prince of Wales’ garden to cottage and urban gardens. Not every garden, but enough that they are not uncommon. I suppose that trimmed privet and boxwood hedges are in the same category of care, rectangles rather than interesting shapes, as are parterres. Perhaps it is because they are part of a history of formal gardens which fits both large and very small gardens rather well, and Americans tend to more informal and less care-intensive gardens.
    Now that last remark should set the topiary cat among the topiary pigeons!

  3. I also saw this gentleman on A Gardener’s Diary. It kills me that they’ve put that show on at 7am. If I’m up, I’m watching Curious George with my son. I wonder if he’d watch a gardening show with mommy. I remember when it came on last year, I’d call my mom and we’d ooh and ahh and “did you see that?!” all the way through the episode.

  4. Much of what Pearl Fryar is about has little to do with gardening, it’s more about taking some small and making something quite grand out of it – that’s really his message. If you want to learn how he does it, well, on most afternoons you can find him in his garden – working (like many gardeners do) – and he’ll talk your ear off. He teaches topiary to young kids, and routinely has local people apprenticing with him. He has single-handedly put a small southern town on the map and inspired it’s residents – and as a fellow South Carolinian, amen to that (I mean – think about it – he did it with a GARDEN in the middle of nowhere!). ‘Plant Whisperer’ or no – he’s done a remarkable thing – and it took alot to get this documentary made (and it’s goal wasn’t to be a description on how to prune a yew into something Seusian). When it premiered in South Carolina, in Charleston, I went – and I’ve never seen a man and a man’s family any prouder.

  5. Pearl Fryar’s episode of “A Gardener’s Diary” was one of the most memorable. I still recall being amazed to see him make a topiary with a chainsaw. He’s truly a talented sculptor of plants. I’ve given up trying to watch any gardening programs on TV – the network keeps jerking me around on them.

  6. Thank you for highlighting this amazing man and his garden. I explored his site and enjoyed all the delights there. I especially love his metal art there in amongst his plants – he is truly an artist. I don’t know if I’ll get to see the movie, but next time we’re down south, I’d really like to visit his garden in person.

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