Harold White of Durham has worked all year cultivating roses for the Flower and Garden Show at the N.C. State Fair, and an hour before deadline for the final show Thursday afternoon, his work was not yet done.
White, 83, pulled crate after crate of roses from the back of his car, plucking cotton from between the petals.
"They bruise so easily," White said as he pulled the cotton with a tweezer. Every speck of cotton must be removed from the flowers before entry or they will be disqualified. He gives one last check over blooms and tags before lugging the crates from the parking lot into the flower show building. It takes at least five trips from his car to bring all the roses inside.
White has been entering his roses in the N.C. State Fair Flower and Garden Show contests for 15 years, and estimates he's won between 500 and 600 ribbons. Over the last 15 years, he has won the Award of Merit, which is like Best in Show, at least 25 times.
The Flower and Garden Show holds three separate flower shows at each fair, and White entered roses in each one.
At this year's fair, White won 85 ribbons total, and 10 out of a possible 12 Award of Merit ribbons. He won all four Award of Merit ribbons in Thursday's show.
White's roses arrive for display at the fairgrounds in wine or beer bottles. The bottles are packed inside plastic crates and held upright with foam cut-outs. Some of the roses White cut the night before, others the morning of the show.
"Once they reach peak form, they can change quickly," says White.
He works swiftly and must avoid distractions in order to get everything submitted before the deadline, for which there is no wiggle room. A fellow grower, Vicky Thompson of Raleigh, hints that delaying White a little might benefit the other competitors. "Take him to lunch!" she joked. "So the rest of us will have a chance."
Erv Evans, superintendent of the flower and garden exhibits at the fair, says the competition is serious, but not cut-throat. "It's a friendly crowd," he said. "Everyone's always helping each other out some."
White agrees, calling the atmosphere "friendly, but competitive."
And White is the first to admit that he owes much of his expertise to tricks learned from other rose gardeners. As a child, White helped his mother in the garden and learned a lot from her, and says the best way to learn about roses is from "reading, studying and talking."
"In growing roses, you learn from other contestants and growers," he said. "You get more experience over the years and learn as you go on."
"He really does know how to grow roses," Evans said after Thursday's show. "He always does very well and he did well again this year. To say the least!"
White says he first became interested in growing roses competitively after attending a show.
"People were so friendly and helpful, so I got interested in the competitive aspect," he said. "Then I got hooked."
His dedication has paid off away from the state fair, too. Last summer, White won Best in Show at the American Rose Society's national Spring Conference and Rose Show for his Jens Munk rose, a classic shrub rose developed in Canada and named for the Norwegian explorer.