Tag Archives: topiary

gonzo topiary


I posted a couple months ago about the presence here in town of an extreme topiary garden. At that point I hadn’t had a chance to visit it, but last week I finally made it.


The house responsible for the garden perches high above the street. The owner could have chosen to plant groundcover on the long slope, or to terrace it and garden the different levels. Instead they opted to populate the slope with several dozen crazy little topiaries. Some of them are geometric, but most are fanciful little figures. Bunnies, sea monsters, Texas gunslingers, you name it.



The plants making up all the figures appeared to be cape honeysuckle, Tecomaria capensis, a plant that isn’t one of the classic topiary selections. But it accepts shaping really well, and seems to be a good choice for topiary if you don’t mind a little bumpiness here and there. The plant can have spectacular tubular orange flowers, though don’t expect to see many if you’re sculpting a giant bunny out of it.


A spectacle like this doesn’t just happen, so it was no surprise that I found a gardener maintaining it. I was hoping to see someone shaping the topiaries. But instead he was using an electric hedge trimmer to keep the plants off the stairs that led up (and up and up) to the house. But I guess that’s gardening for you. There’s a certain amount of the really gratifying work of putting in new plants or admiring the flowers, but there’s a lot of basic maintenance that goes into it as well…

Speaking of things topiary, I finally had a chance to see A Man Named Pearl, the 2006 documentary on Pearl Fryar’s amazing topiary garden in Bishopville, South Carolina. The basic story is inspiring: a sharecropper’s son moves into a white neighborhood where his presence isn’t appreciated at first; over time he makes a garden that is awarded “Yard of the Month”; and then he goes on to shape a collection of some of the most original topiaries ever clipped. Some of you have seen the documentary already–particularly now that HGTV has broadcast it. But if you haven’t, it’s definitely worth a look.

autopiary–in pink!

Earlier I’d shared my neighbor’s car-shaped hedge with you. A couple weeks ago John mentioned that the hedge was in bloom.


I hadn’t paid much attention to what the clipped plant was. But now that it’s blooming, it’s clear that the plant is Raphiolepis indica, the Indian hawthorn that’s turning every third yard in this part of town either pink or white with its flowers. There’s definitely something to be said for growing plants that nobody else grows, but there’s also something cool about having your plants participate in a city-wide explosion of color.

Well, there may be a few million of these plants blooming in town, but no one has one that’s shaped quite like my neighbor’s…

a man named pearl

Opening last Friday in theaters in Los Angeles (and just a few other places) was A Man Named Pearl. The Pearl of the film is South Carolina master topiarist Pearl Fryar. The documentary doesn’t open here in San Diego until August 22 but the film is on my list. How often is it that you have a film about a gardener? (Let’s see…there was Peter Sellers in Being There…and then…any others? Would The Constant Gardener or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil really qualify beyond having gardens and gardeners in their titles?)

The film’s site has show dates and a trailer that gives you the best overview of his work. That trailer forms the opening part of the first of the clips below, and afterwards it goes into a forum featuring Fryar talking about his work in front of an audience. The second clip is a more extended talk and includes a demonstration with him firing up his electric hedge clippers…

extreme "bonsai"

Here’s a project that I’ve been thinking about doing for a while, something that I see combines classical bonsai, European topiary traditions, and 60s minimalist art. About a month ago I finally took those thoughts out into the garden. It’s so much a work in progress at this point, but I think you can see where it’s headed.

This is the front:
front view of orchard

And here it is from a slight angle:
sliced orchard view

The “finished” piece is similar to a bonsai grove in most respects, except than I’ve taken a slice out of the center of it. Conceptually I see this closely related to my Destructive Testing photographs, one of which I’ve posted here. And just as the photographs obsess a bit about the human-culture dynamic and issues of control, I see this piece as dealing with similar issues, only in living form.

I started with some sheet steel that I welded into this sculpture/pot (top view):

bonsai pot

Angle view:

bonsai pot alternate view

Then I used standard bonsai techniques to root- and top-prune seven Japanese boxwood plants, and then planted them in a casual orchard formation. Several clumps of elfin thyme complete the composition.

Similar to bonsai, I see this as a multi-year commitment. I intend to pinch the growths frequently to encourage finer branch structure, the quality bonsai people call “ramification.” I want the thyme to fill in more, and I plan to eventually thin the canopy so that you can better see the structure of the “trees.” With time the container will weather to a nicely variegated patina of oxidized steel, and the leaves will diminish in size to heighten the sensation of miniaturization.

Though elevated to a supreme level of “naturalness,” bonsai is heavily about control. People look at the little plants, and quickly see that there’s a human presence under the surface of what they’re viewing. The aims of the art, however, combine the miniaturization with an effort to make the plants even more “natural” than they really are–if that’s possible–and to create a sense of perfect balance and harmony.

The aims of classical European topiary are radically different from bonsai’s. But when people view the shaping, sculpting and meticulous pruning that are so much a part of topiary, they also register that these are all acts of imposing human desires on the natural world.

Whenever this piece is exhibited I’ll do a meticulous trimming of the slice that’s been taken out of the center so that the slicing of the rectangle into two portions is mirrored in the planting above.

Will this combination of an elevated naturalism from bonsai with the blatant geometry of the pot and the shearing and shaping from topiary make the viewer think a bit about how their actions relate to the natural world? I hope so.

I’ll post more in this series once they get to a point worth sharing…

extreme gardening

In the late 90s I was fortunate to be part of a show of photography at San Francisco Camerawork, entitled Feed, that centered on our relationship with food. One of the artists in the show was one of my photographic heroes, John Pfahl, who in the 1970s produced his funny and quirkily beautiful Altered Landscapes series. In that San Francisco show he was represented by images of compost, Very Rich Hours of a Compost Pile.

The work that I’d to say a few things about are his documents of over-the-top gardenscapes, his Extreme Horticulture series.

Dr. Wadsworth's Tree

John Pfahl: Dr. Wadsworth’s Tree, Chatauqua, N.Y.

These are all beautiful, color-soaked images, most of them of the sort of gardens where “natural” isn’t a word that would immediately spring to mind. The raw plant materials are often gorgeous, but they’re sheared, arranged and manipulated in ways where the hand of the gardener or designer is in-your-face obvious. Often gardens like that give me the creeps. They and talk to a culture where a country’s President is often shown on his Crawford, Texas ranch, clearing brush, like he’s some sort of representative of good humanity battling the evil forces of nature that want to overrun our boundaries. Most of Pfahl’s gardens are testosterone gardens, gardens all about control, gardens all about domination. But at the same time, they’re often beautiful or funny in their overmanicured way.

Bare Trees and Topiary

John Pfahl: Bare Trees and Topiary, Longwood Gardens, Kensett Square, PA

Espalier Demonstration

John Pfahl: Espalier Demonstration, Longwood Gardens, Kensett Square, PA

Pfahl Getty Garden

John Pfahl: Cactus Garden, J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, California

Maybe I’m overgeneralizing, but the East Coast gardens pictured seem heavy into shaping plants into topiaried sculptures. It’s a heavily European thing–Just think of the immaculately-worked gardens at Versailles. The Western gardens seem to show a little more interest in and respect for the materials. Plants are placed where the designer wants them, but they seem to be chosen more for what they can do in that location, rather than what can be done to them. The arrangements of cactus and succulents at the Getty, for instance, show clear thought about where the plants were placed. But the plants are allowed more to be themselves. (And I wonder if that freedom somehow also translates into freedoms that people are allowed to have…) Besides, have you ever tried to prune a cactus?

The tension of natural tendencies versus control is one that’s always interesting to me. Nature often isn’t convenient, and it’s often never where we want it to be. Scraping a hillside to put in suburban housing and pulling up an errant weed are part of the same continuum. But where do you draw the line about what’s good and what’s bad? Is keeping a garden inherently better than bulldozing native scrub to build more mcmansions? I think the answer is yes, but the question is a complicated one. There’s economics, notions of justice, respect for living things, and all sorts of other things that have to be considered. It’s an intriguing question that resides not far below the surface of John Pfahl’s photographs.