Dave Foreman stood on his deck last summer holding a glossy green 'Carolina Reaper' pepper freshly picked from the garden. His wife Kelly stood ready with a camera as Mr. Foreman, 55, bit into one of the hottest peppers in the world.
He took one big bite and threw the stem into the yard, fearing his dogs might try to eat it if he passed out from the fire in his mouth. The face he made was priceless and captured for eternity by his wife.
"It was about 20 minutes of pain," he said, laughing. "I was happy I did it. I just had to know what it was like to eat the hottest pepper. I couldn't grow a pepper like that and then not eat it."
'Carolina Reaper' is rated anywhere from 1.4 million to 3 million Scovilles, depending on who you ask. To put it in perspective, a jalapeno runs about 2,500-8,000 Scoville units.
Mr. Foreman's passion for heat began as a child. His mother would never let him touch the hot sauce his father enjoyed. So when he got out on his own, he began trying hot sauces and was captivated by them.
In the late 1970s, he began growing his own hot peppers. "I was becoming obsessed with hot sauce, and you really couldn't buy good hot sauce back then."
Mr. Foreman started growing the relatively mild jalapenos, then moved on to cayenne, Thai peppers, and eventually Habaneros and Scotch bonnets. He finally found the heat he had been searching for when he discovered India's Bhut Jolokia, also known as the Ghost Pepper. Rated at 1 million Scovilles, it was the hottest pepper in the world at the time.
Last season, Mr. Foreman grew the even hotter 'Carolina Reaper,' using nine peppers to make three gallons of his famous homemade salsa. After the first tasting, "it was already up there," he said of the heat. His wife and his brother will enjoy it with him until this summer's harvest comes in. He also makes a sweet hot mustard with the peppers.
His pepper seeds are started toward the end of February or early March. They take about 10 days or so to germinate using an Aero Grow unit, a small growing system with lights. The heat of the lights is enough to get the peppers going until it's time to transplant them into the garden. Because they love warm soil, Mr. Foreman waits until mid-June to plant them outside.
Each season, he plants only the hottest peppers he can find. He grew a dozen 'Reaper' plants last year, but only four went into his garden and provided way more than he needed. He gave the other seedlings to friends. Mr. Foreman says one plant would suit his needs, but he grows extras just in case the deer get to them before they fruit. He left a few plants in the garden over the winter, and the deer never touched them.
"I know people think I'm crazy, but I've developed this tolerance [to the heat] because I keep eating them. People think there's just heat there, but there's flavor, too. They have unique flavors, but you get the heat along with it."
In one part of Chapon's Greenhouse in Baldwin Borough, there are "handle with caution" warning signs over the seedlings alerting gardeners interested in super-hot peppers. Greenhouse manager and grower Matthew Hirsh started to see an interest in extremely hot peppers about two seasons ago. It was the Ghost Pepper that really seemed to get gardeners talking.
When he and his crew plant the seeds, they use a plastic seeder to avoid getting the spicy oils on their hands. It can wreak havoc if it gets into the eyes.
He's growing a wide range of hot peppers from jalapenos all the way up to the 'Carolina Reaper.' Mr. Hirsh has learned a few lessons over the past two years about growing them.
He starts some seeds as early as Christmas because many can be stubborn to germinate even when using heat benches to warm the moist planting mix in the seed trays. Others are started later, but he says home gardeners should start seeds as soon as possible.
"You definitely want to get a head start on them. They aren't hard, but you need to be patient with them because they are slow."
Many take nearly 90 days to reach maturity and should be planted outside when all chance of frost has passed. At Chapon's, all vegetables and herbs are grown organically.
Some growers will use landscape fabric on their beds to heat the soil; others will tent the planting area with floating row covers or plastic to create a greenhouse effect on the bed. Wall O' Waters are season extenders that are filled with water and surround each plant. Gardeners will put them out a couple of weeks before planting to warm the soil.
Mr. Hirsh overheard a couple looking at the Ghost Peppers. When the wife was surprised that her husband was interested, he said, "Oh, they're not for eating. They're for giving to your friends." That could provide quite a surprise for "friends."
Mr. Hirsh enjoys hot peppers such as 'Super Chili'(50,000 Scovilles) and has even used dried Ghost Peppers in the kitchen. "But I'm a bit of a chicken when it comes to eating them raw," he said with a smile.
In Jefferson Hills, 76-year-old gardener Steve Peckyno has grown Ghost Peppers for years. "It was the hottest pepper in the world, and I don't even eat peppers but that fascinated me," he said.
He bought his seeds the first year they became popular. Back then the only way to get them was from the University of New Mexico at 50 cents per seed. He bought 10. He starts his seeds in early March under fluorescent shop lights, which hang from his homemade PVC light rack. Mr. Peckyno cautions fellow gardeners to always start the seeds in a sterile planting mix to avoid damping off. It's a fungal condition that causes seedlings to rot at the base and collapse.
Once the seeds sprout and get a few inches tall, putting on true leaves, he pots them up into bigger cups filled with his homemade potting soil. To make it, he combines his compost made from leaves and grass clippings with perlite.
His gardening friends have had dismal results trying to bring the pepper to fruition. To succeed, he puts three plants into one 8-inch pot filled with his potting soil. The peppers grow on the heat of the driveway in front of a low brick wall.
Conventional wisdom dictates one plant should be put in each pot, but Mr. Peckyno gets tall, healthy-looking plants loaded with peppers. He fertilizes regularly with Miracle-Gro.
Once while standing outside with his wife, Evelyn, they watched a squirrel grab a Ghost Pepper and run away. "He stopped after about 10 feet, spit it out and kept going. I think he was hurting for a while," he said, laughing.
Mr. Peckyno has gardened for more than 40 years and now gives most of his plants away.
"I like the satisfaction, to see them grow. When you think about it, you take a tiny, tiny seed. It grows into a full-sized plant. That's phenomenal, it's God's work."
Doug Oster: email@example.com or 412-779-5861. Visit his garden blog at www.post-gazette.com/gardeningwithdoug. Twitter: @dougoster1.