It can be difficult to escape the noise at the N.C. State Fair. Music is blaring and carnies are calling out to you. Someone wants you to ride this or eat that. They implore you to try your luck throwing a dart at a balloon or stumping someone who wants to guess how much you weigh or how old you are.
But there is a place of quiet retreat at the fair, a place where the sounds are of cascading waterfalls and the sights are of dahlias, mums and other flowers. It is a place where nature steps to the forefront, one where visitors can be amazed at the creativity of gardeners and landscape designers.
It is a place created by a whirling dervish of a man named Erv Evans. With a cigarette in one hand and a Diet Dr. Pepper in the other, Evans patrols the grounds of the Flower and Garden Show at the fairgrounds looking for ways to make the oasis he has created a bit more enticing for people looking for a break from the hustle-and-bustle of the midway.
“This is a place where people can walk and relax from the crowds of the fair,” Evans said last week during a brief break from his frantic last-minute preparations for the opening of the fair. “Some people just want to get away. This is a unique part of the fair.”
Evans, a 1974 graduate of NC State, is in his fifth year as superintendent of the Flower and Garden Show. It’s a part-time job, one that he took after retiring from a 30-year career with Cooperative Extension that included a long stint as a consumer horticulturalist and state master gardener coordinator at NC State.
But spend just a few minutes with Evans, and it’s hard to imagine he does anything on a part-time basis. In the weeks leading up the fair, Evans worked seven days a week, starting early in the morning and not stopping until late in the evening. Getting him to stop for a few minutes to talk about his vision for the show is no easy task.
“My goal was to have it looking decent in five years,” he says. “We’re close.”
What Evans wants is to create a space that is appealing to gardeners of all stripes – from novices to what he calls “die-hard plant nerds.” But he also wants it to be intriguing to children, hence the giant Adirondack chair perfect for photo opportunities, the garden with miniature trains running through it and the dinner bell within reach of visitors with short arms and legs.
“I don’t want a kid to be bored here,” he says.
In that vein, nothing makes Evans happier than hearing a child yell out, “Mom, Mom, the tree’s alive!” upon seeing a tree with a face applied to its trunk. “I want people to know that gardening can be fun, that kids might be inspired to garden,” says Evans, adding that he was inspired as a child by a great aunt who would share her love of plants with him.
“When I see a little kid who is not nagging his parents to go eat or ride the rides, that’s a great compliment,” he says.
Evans says that gardening can give people the opportunity to think, to relax and to be creative. It can even give some people, he says, “a reason to get up the next day.”
Under Evans’ watch, the number of entries in the gardening contests hosted by the fair has exploded. There were more than 10,000 entries this year, more than doubling the 4,900 entries from last year.
Evans attributes the increase to a new willingness to listen to what people want. When he heard people say they wished there was a contest for dahlias, Evans created one. There were 273 dahlias entered in fair contests this year.
“It’s not our fair,” Evans says, “it’s the people’s fair. We are helping people feel welcome.”
Evans has three primary goals for the piece of the fair that he oversees. He wants it to be entertaining. (“It’s the fair,” he says.) He wants it to be educational, making sure to bring in plants that people may not be familiar with and having a different mix of plants and flowers each year. And he wants it to be a place where people can make connections, such as a homeowner being inspired by the work of a landscape designer that is on display.
Asked what advice he has for gardeners and would-be gardeners, Evans is quick to respond. “People need to be willing to ask questions,” he says. “Most gardeners are flattered by it.”
That is, of course, if you can pin Evans down long enough to get him to answer your questions. Chances are, he’s on the move again.