There are giant pumpkins and then there are the mother-of-all-pumpkins. Ask Steve Daletas which ones he prefers.
He’ll tell you about a pumpkin that weighed nearly 2,000 pounds and won him almost $12,000 in competition. In fact, Daletas, a commercial pilot, has been growing pumpkins as a hobby for more than 30 years, and entering competitions for many of those years.
Two years ago, his hobby reaped an impressive win at the Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off in Half Moon Bay, California. With first prize getting $6 a pound, Daletas’s victory pumpkin weighed 1,969 pounds and won him $11,814.
It sounds like quite a bit of money, but does it actually cover the cost of his investment? Daletas just smiles.
His operation is a capital investment — irrigation, feeding systems, greenhouses, fans, thermostats, and more. It’s a system that can be used year after year.
“It costs as much as you want it to cost,” he says. “Money isn’t going to grow you a big pumpkin. You gotta put in the work.”
Truly, the biggest investment is the time this hobby requires. For Daletas, the competitive motivation to put in that kind of time rests not just in beating other growers, but in the challenge of besting himself year after year.
It’s because of this time factor that Daletas doesn’t grow competitively consecutive years. He takes off every second or third season. He’s found that there are segments of the growing season when he spends more time in the field than he would in a 40-hour work week.
Because of his work as a commercial pilot, Daletas can have an erratic work schedule and may be gone for a few days at a time. That’s when his family helps out with the pumpkins. When his children were younger, they helped out dad. Now, his wife and his parents contribute to the effort.
“So, my folks come to the patch in the morning and will sit down and have coffee by the river and then do some work,” Daletas says. “They love helping, and so it’s really kind of a family thing.”
He’s also used timers and thermostats to monitor weather conditions when he’s out of town and to take care of his pumpkins.
While many of us start thinking about a garden in the early spring, Daletas has made this a full-time commitment.
“It’s almost a year-round hobby,” he says. “You acquire a seed and a lot of people think that’s where the hobby starts, but there’s a whole lot of prep that goes into the ground.”
As soon as the pumpkins are harvested and removed in the fall, Daletas tills the ground. Then he completes a soil test and makes any necessary pH and nutrient adjustments. After that, he plants a cover crop, something that will benefit the soil composition for the coming season.
“So really (the next growing) season starts the day we pick the (current season’s) pumpkins,” he says.
Following ground preparation, giant vegetable growers in western Oregon hope for a dry and early spring. To provide a good start, Daletas has built four portable greenhouses to help begin drying out and warming up the soil.
Without the greenhouses, Daletas says our local climate will not provide the growing season required to grow pumpkins large enough for competition. Inside the greenhouses, he plants the seeds at just the right time. The greenhouses are removed in early June.
“As plants grow, then comes the micromanagement,” Daletas says, “choosing which vines get to grow, which pumpkins get pollinated, which ones don’t.”
Every vine he chooses to keep then gets buried beneath the rich soil — and for each giant pumpkin, countless vines spread out for yards and yards.
“Everywhere a leaf comes up, it will send a couple roots out, if you bury the vine,” he says. “So, all those vines have been trenched and special nutrients, or biologicals, are placed where those new roots will come down. To get something that size, you need thousands of root systems, not just the main one. So, by doing this we create many, many root systems.”
There’s even more science behind growing healthy pumpkins, including watching out for insects and disease.
“Anything can take the plant out and then your work’s done,” Daletas says of the risks involved in working with nature.
Every giant pumpkin is protected during the night with a large comforter, and then removed in the morning. It’s a great idea, but Daletas has to be careful — covering the pumpkins also increases the chances of too much moisture on the stem.
The health of the stem, it turns out, is crucial. So Daletas strategically attaches a small fan to each stem and applies a special treatment once each week.
“If the stem rots, the pumpkin’s done,” he says. “So, it’s just one of those things that we work really hard to try to keep healthy.”
As the summer days pass by, the excitement for giant pumpkins builds, especially when a pumpkin grows 40 to 45 pounds a day.
“To see something grow that fast is just fascinating,” says Daletas, a member of the Pacific Giant Vegetable Growers (PGVG).
“I like just watching them grow 40-50 pounds a day, to really see them take off, that’s exciting,” says Scott Holub of Eugene, also a PGVG member. “Add a little competition into it and it keeps you motivated to get out there and do the work you need to do.”
He began his first competitive year growing giant vegetables in 2009, and says his motivation and hard work paid off when he broke the world record for a green squash last fall.
PGVG hosts two events in Oregon — the one at Bauman Farm and Garden, where Holub took home a top prize; and The Terminator Weigh-Off and West Coast Giant Pumpkin Regatta in Tualatin.
“We weigh pumpkins in the morning,” Daletas says of the Bauman Farm event. “Then there’s a big crane that comes in and we drop a few pumpkins on a car.”
The Terminator Weigh-Off has earned quite a reputation, earning numerous awards in itself.
“People from everywhere come to watch,” Daletas says. “It’s in downtown Tualatin at the Lake of the Commons. We put all the pumpkins in the lake. We’ve carved a hole in them and we race them. It’s a good way for us to end the season.”
What is the attraction to growing giant vegetables?
“Some people are extremely competitive and that’s what they do it for; but I think the hobby is bigger than that,” Daletas says. “It’s really so much more than growing pumpkins once you’ve done it for a while. I’m competitive, I want to grow something big, but it’s all the other things.”
He’s referring to meeting growers from around the world, all because of pumpkins. There’s value in the friendships he’s formed.
“There’s a yearly get-together seminar,” he says. “Two years ago, it was in England. We flew out to England and half the people there, we knew. We maybe hadn’t met them, but we knew them, they knew us, from trading seeds, from corresponding throughout the years.”
This coming year the seminar is in Portland and growers worldwide will be coming to Oregon.
Daletas first discovered the pleasure found in gardening as a young boy. When he outgrew their small backyard, his parents rented him a 40-foot-by-80-foot plot in a community garden near Alton Baker Park.
“Just coming out here and getting dirty is half the fun,” he says. “It’s a lot of work but it isn’t just competing, the weigh-off, it’s other things you get with this.”
Beyond the competition and social aspects of this hobby, he’s found another valuable reason for gardening.
“You get away from the phone, the computer, the news and all the other stuff – just get away from it for a while,” he says. “It’s peaceful out here.
Photo by Deb Allen