Friday, 6 January 2017

Pearl Fryar

A new year is here. So why not start it off right by visiting a new garden? I did just that yesterday. I had the opportunity to visit The Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden in Bishopville, South Carolina. He and his garden had been on my radar for some time now, but it had never really been convenient until I was "in the neighborhood" yesterday. 

                      How about that for an entrance?                    
Honestly I didn't fully know what to expect since I had only ever seen pictures, which rarely provide a proper context. So when I pulled into Bishopville, the first thing I noticed was topiary trained on a couple of road signs, indicating I was getting close! Then I saw a sign for his garden at the corner of a neighborhood road. As I pulled down this small residential street, I noticed some of the neighboring houses had nice topiary pieces, which made me smile.  Then I saw it, a rather ordinary house surrounded by unordinary topiary specimens- it was quite the sight. 

The Car Park

The mailperson must smile everyday!

Across the street from his home was a vacant grass lot where visitors could park. Then there's a little welcome stand where you can get a brochure and leave a donation. It all seemed so relaxed and simple, and welcoming. As I started walking around, I could feel a sense of pride in the air, an artist's work wanting and deserving to be seen. 

Lovely pink Camelia

Lichen-covered bark of Hollywood Juniper

Pearl has also introduced different bits of garden art throughout the landscape, creating a heightened whimsical feel and some comedy relief. There's no shortage of fun here.

Love it: rather 'Alice in Wonderland'-esque 

Pearl's influence in the neighborhood...

...and his work at the local Waffle House

Pearl's story is one that you can't help but applaud and appreciate. His passion and knowledge are evident and despite a circuitous route to horticulture, he has proven that where there's a will, there's a way. Like some of us, he started his garden by rescuing throw-away plants from the dump or compost heap. Over the last twenty plus years he has created a topiary masterpiece with little training or prior experience.  The following quote from his website sums it up:

I didn’t have any limitations because I really didn’t know anything about horticulture. I just figured I could do whatever I wanted to with any plant I had.” Pearl Fryar

I was inspired not only by his story, but also by his work, and I highly recommend you visit his garden if you haven't already.  

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

This and that: final thoughts from Sweden

Finally for the challenging task of recapping the happenings from my time in Sweden...

It was very busy and went by quickly. So if this blog entry seems hectic or scattered, it's because I'm trying to touch on a little of everything without writing a book. Unfortunately, I couldn't stay longer this time, but hopefully I'll be back one day to see the garden really come alive in summer.

View of the house from the rock garden 

Although Peter has been gardening for longer, he started creating his masterpiece in Eskilsby, just east of Gothenburg (the second largest city in Sweden) in 2002. This once densely wooded and mostly Ericaceous property, is tucked just out of sight and sound of the everyday buzz of an otherwise busy area. Aside from the occasional plane crossing the western sky, departing the nearby airport, I felt as though I was gardening out in some alpine and steppe wilderness- it was an experience unlike any I've had. I lived at Peter's house, on the property, with Peter and his only full-time gardener, Sipke, from Holland. It was really nice to get to know them and learn from their deep knowledge of gardening and plants. 

One of the major ongoing tasks while I was there was helping to get the nursery ready for opening the first of April. The nursery has been and still is considered a specialty nursery, once dedicated to true species and mostly alpine and rock garden plants. Peter, however, has begun to offer more and more garden-worthy perennials (cultivars included) over the years in order to better learn a wider range of plants himself, while providing more selection to customers. Plus, by growing more of these cultivars and varieties, he has a larger inventory to pull from for some of his landscape jobs he does on the side. All this being said, Peter only grows plants he likes or wants to try to like, and isn't too bothered growing plants because "he should."

The nursery

Saxifrages flowering in sales area

They make their own 3 part soil mix (grit, peat and sand), which all new plants and those left over from the previous season are potted into. It's a really nice balanced, free-draining mix, much better than the rubbish you find in most garden center pots. The plants don't dry out too fast as they do in super peaty mixes, nor do they rot as in overly composted mixes. This is a lot of work, especially for just a couple people, but we did what we could (including late night sessions in the potting shed after dinner), while alternating with garden clean up and cut-backs, the other main task while I was there. As long as the nursery and plants are ready and the most intensive areas in the garden are cleaned up, then the rest of the clean up can continue to be done as the season progresses. Again, as it's mostly just Peter and Sipke during the year, it takes quite some time to get all this work done. Plus there are always new plantings and improvement projects going on around the garden. 

Fresh soil mix

Beautifully designed potting shed looks into the garden

Lots of potting up! 

Cut-backs begin 

I would say my main interest in going to visit and work with Peter, besides being interested in seeing his garden and studying his vast plant collection, was his unique work with sand. When I heard him talk about planting in sand last autumn at a lecture in New York, I was immediately intrigued, as I've never heard of anyone else doing exactly what he's doing. In a nutshell, he's planting everything in at least 10" of sand. This isn't your average sandbox sand, but a coarser builder's sand.  After laying out the beds, he bareroots all the plants before planting, which enables the roots to immediately adapt to the sand. If you were to plant a rootball with soil and peat into the sand, the root growth would be altered as the roots would most likely stay in a tight zone around the soil, but equally detrimental would be the water leaching away from the soil, and therefore the roots, down into and through the free-draining sand. But if you plant bareroot plants into the sand and thoroughly soak after planting so that all the air pockets are gone and there is good contact between the roots and the sand, then you will experience less future watering needs and strong root growth early on, which is essential for plant health and longevity. This is due to there being a cool moist zone lower down in the sand, similar to what you might find digging at the beach, which the roots will grow down towards, again encouraging stronger root growth and less frequent watering. 

Most people would look at these early plantings and think they're not looking too good as there isn't much growth above the surface.  Peter showed me examples of plants they planted last fall, by lifting a couple plants out of the ground, and they looked really small on the surface, but the root growth was twice as much as the surface growth! That's just it, and Peter emphasizes this point, "it's the roots you should grow" (as it says inside the first page of his book). The other big reason Peter uses sand is because it does make for lower maintenance, and less weeding. As the desirable plants grow downwards toward the moisture, most of the weed seed can't germinate and grow, because the surface of the sand is too hot and dried out. This is necessary around his garden with a small staff, but it also has major benefits for his landscape jobs where he's also using sand, and where there isn't much time or money allotted for maintenance.  

Hospital roof garden Peter designed and installed last fall

Peter's limestone Rock Garden at the Lund Botanic Garden

It was really special for me to get to see a handful of the projects that Peter is working on throughout Sweden. He has a wide range of diverse jobs he's designing and installing. He is using alot of plants that nobody else is using in commercial jobs, which is refreshing and exciting. Peter's incredible attention to plant needs and natural growth habits guides him in his plantings. By studying and knowing the needs of each plant, Peter is ensuring a high rate of success, while creating more sustainable and efficient spaces.  Not only does he have a great eye and intuition for planting design, but Peter also has a keen sense for space and garden scaping with stone and earth formation. The practice ground for all this, his home garden, really is a manifestation of Peter's attention to nature, his vision and determination.

    Hard to believe this Rock Garden was made by hand

At the end of my stay I was honored to have the privilege to speak at his "Kunskapsdag", or "Knowledge Day" symposium. I talked about my journey in horticulture and how fortunate I've been to have had some incredible opportunities and experiences, and the special people, plants and places that have helped me along the way. I ended my talk by encouraging everyone to never stop learning. There is always more to learn, which is exciting to me, but equally exciting is the opportunity to teach what we've learned to the next person. Like I said, this trip was very quick, but I stilled learned a lot and came away invigorated and excited to explore some of this information deeper on my own, but also to talk about it with others. I don't know about you all, but I feel very blessed to get to do what I do, and eager to keep studying and learning as I keep pursuing my passion! 

I know this is a rough summary, but if you want to know more I do highly recommend his book, available on his website (, or better yet go visit his garden or go to one of his symposiums and buy a copy while you're there!

         (Photo by: Sipke Terpstra)

Sunday, 17 April 2016

2016 Great Dixter Spring Plant Fair

You know that feeling you get when you go back home (or any special place for that matter) for the first time after a couple years?... Well, I recently experienced that when I returned to Great Dixter for the first time since my year there in 2013-14. 

I was able to return the first weekend in April for the spring plant fair. The plant fair is a really fun event to be part of. There are so many great nurseries present and fun people to talk to and of course plants to peruse. It's a wonderful garden festival, and when the weather is nice, as it was this year, even better! 

Returning to Dixter really is like going home- It's one big family. When you're there you become part of the team again and get right to work wherever needed. In this case I helped set up for the fair on Friday, the day before it started. Then Saturday and Sunday I helped mostly with car parking, a seemingly irrelevant and boring job, but actually one of the most important jobs of the event. While you would think people could figure it out themselves, it's not so straightforward and requires a multi-person chain from the entrance to the bottom field to maintain order in what would otherwise turn into a manic free-for-all. All this to say, no job at Dixter is unimportant. Afterall, you can always find Fergus right in the thick of the parking from year to year- that should tell you something. 

Setting up the evening before

Great Dixter's stall at the fair 

It was a very quick "long weekend". Although I arrived Thursday and left Monday, it was such a full schedule that it felt much shorter. It was so special to return to one of the most influential places in my life. Not only is it a great garden with great plants, but it's the people and the energetic atmosphere that also make it an incredible place. 

Some of the people that make Dixter GREAT

Of course I took a couple laps around the garden. While the garden was a few weeks further along than us in Sweden, it still wasn't as far along as I might of thought. There weren't too many Tulips blooming yet, but the Daffodils were in full swing. Also Fritillaria, Magnolia, and Euphorbia were blooming. Overall everything was still looking quite good with perfect spring weather to take it all in! 

Euphorbia characias and Tulipa 'Combat' in the top stock bed

Maybe most exciting, look at the giant fennels!

Myosotis and Corylopsis flower by Lutyen's Steps

A road much traveled

Until next time... more great memories!

Monday, 28 March 2016


I do like crocus, but I'll be the first to admit my knoweldge and experience growing them is pretty shallow. However, after seeing the diversity and beauty here in the garden, species and cultivars that I haven't seen before, I'm inspired to grow more in my garden. There are so many good ones available for purchase if you're willing to look a bit, and then the more specialized or collector ones...well, you just have to appreciate them when you see them in someone else's garden! 

Crocus sieberi in the greenhouse

Peter's favorite, Crocus baytopiorum, is a lovely light blue

Crocus vernus ssp vernus bask in the sun

The classic Crocus tommasinianus 'Barr's Purple' 

Thursday, 24 March 2016

The best experiences are often unplanned

When I finally heard Peter Korn speak for the first time at a lecture to a NARGS group at the New York Botanic Garden last fall, I thought I must add this garden to my ever-growing list of must-see gardens. But upon talking to Peter after his lecture, I actually thought this really is a garden worth working at for a little while. You don't need to listen to Peter very long before realizing that he is of a special breed, the sort of gardener that doesn't come around too often. I've been fortunate enough to work with and learn from some very talented gardeners, and I've learned when the opportunities present themselves, to, when possible, take full advantage of them. This was one such instance. 

Going to Sweden in March to garden isn't really ideal, but you do what you have to when you get to. So as can easily be expected, I arrived to snow and cold. 

View back to house from across the garden

The winter garden is not something to dismiss. To the contrary, it is an opportunity and a privilege to see the garden this time of year. Not only is the garden closed to the public now, but it's also a great time to see the winter bones and skeleton of the garden- really an opportunity to see the who's who of winter survivors and which plants might be worth growing for their durability and fortitude (surviving a Swedish winter and still standing strong is a nice accomplishment afterall). Some examples that stood out to me when walking the garden are: 

Miscanthus sinensis 'Nishidake' 

Molinia caerulea 'Edith Dudszus' 

Thalictrum 'Elin'

Calamagrostis epigejos

Eryngium giganteum 'Miss Willmott's Ghost'

Just to note a few...