Nicholas Gitts Jr., owner of Swan Island Dahlias, loves to stand outside his daughers’ house on North Fir Street and watch the reactions of trick-or-treaters as they approach.
The draw is not an elaborate haunted house display or Halloween-themed prank, but a sprawling, enchanted pumpkin patch across Brendon and Heather Schloe’s front yard.
The true surprise comes for visitors when they realize the 2-to-4-foot-tall gourds are not plastic, mass-produced decorations purchased from Home Depot or Amazon — but real, hand-carved jack-o’-lanterns — each sporting a unique design.
“It is really fun to sit out there on Halloween and hear what people say,” Gitts said with a laugh. “Most of the time, people think they’re plastic; then they get up close and they say, ‘Oh my God, they’re real!’ We’re just like, ‘Yep, they’re all real.'”
You can understand their confusion. The Canby area remains a place where folks more often than not prefer real pumpkins and Christmas trees for their holiday decorations over factory-made alternatives — and the Willamette Valley is one of the state and country’s top producers of both crops.
But even here, the pumpkins people carve on don’t typically tip the scales at 400 pounds or more.
Growing and gathering to slice up the monstrous gourds has become a unique and beloved tradition for Gitts and his children and grandchildren going back 15 years or more.
Gitts raises the pumpkins himself on the north Canby farm that is, for obvious reasons, far more readily associated with the dahlia that has become a Canby trademark.
“Most of them average in the 300 to 400-pound range,” Gitts explains. “I use the giant pumpkin seeds, but I don’t baby them or use extra feed or anything like that. I’m not trying to set a record or win a contest like the thousand-pound ones you see. We just want giants for carving.”
The family will usually gather the week of or weekend before Halloween for the carving (giant pumpkins hold a lot more water and — as a direct result — rot much faster than the commercial version, so the giant slayers have to be careful about slicing into them too early).
Giant pumpkins’ skin is also much thicker, which the family addresses by using power tools like jigsaws (with 8-to-10-inch blades), reciprocating saws and drills along with traditional hand tools.
The carving happened Friday this year, with 18 members of Gitts’ extended family gathering at the Schloe carport for the annual tradition.
Gitts explained that Swan Island’s hard-working crew is able to move most of the behemoths by hand using a tarp and four men at once — but two 500-pounders this year had to be loaded by tractor.
The display usually includes 20 to 25 gourds, but this year, there were over 40.
“I grew them in a different location this year, and they did really really well,” Gitts explained. “We had extras.”
Though some of the younger grandkids aren’t old enough for power tools or strong enough to cut through the giants’ flesh on their own, they still get a kick out of working on pumpkins that are, in many cases, as big or bigger than they are.
“We put one of the grandkids inside of one of them last night,” Gitts said with a chuckle Saturday.
It’s a lot of work for a display that lasts only a few days — but for the Gitts family, it’s more than worth it.
“It’s become a pretty good tradition,” Gitts said. “It’s so nice to see the family get involved. It’s really become a family tradition of its own, like Thanksgiving. It’s very rewarding.”
The giant pumpkin patch will be on display through Halloween at the Schloe home, 1287 North Fir Street.
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