Kehoe, 14, who lives with his family in New Castle and is a freshman at Glenwood Springs High School, set out this year to grow exotic hot peppers as a hobby.
“I just thought it would be cool to say I could grow the hottest peppers in the world,” Kehoe said during a recent interview in his backyard where his dad, Dan Kehoe, built a greenhouse and terraced garden area to support his son’s budding interest in horticulture.
This past week marked the peak in ripeness when the peppers are at their hottest, and the father-son team was busy harvesting 12 different species of some of the hottest peppers found in the world.
The project began last December when Joey Kehoe found an online source for pepper seeds that were billed as “the hottest pepper seeds in the world.”
He and his dad set up a soil-free hydroponics grow room in the house to start the plants. When the plants got to be too big for the house, his dad proposed building a greenhouse.
A construction worker in Aspen, Dan Kehoe was able to salvage most of the materials from his job sites, and built the greenhouse for less than $1,000.
Instead of traditional gardening soil, their growing system both inside and outside the greenhouse uses a sawdust and blood meal mixture, which Kehoe explained has better moisture retention.
“It was a good investment and kept us away from the grocery store produce section, which can get expensive,” Dan Kehoe said. “It’s just made dinner so much more fun, with all the lettuce, tomatoes and everything.”
A row of potatoes is also just about ready to harvest.
As for Joey’s peppers, among them is one called the “Carolina Reaper,” as in grim reaper. It’s aptly named, as it has been known to register between 1.5 million and 2 million units on the Scoville scale, which is the measurement of a pepper’s pungency, or spicy heat.
By comparison, the jalapeño pepper ranges between 3,500 and 8,000 Scoville units, and the super-hot habanero chili pepper registers between 100,000 and 350,000 units.
Joey Kehoe said he learned that this was the last year his seed source planned to sell the Carolina Reaper, so his small crop could be among the last for a while.
His interest in horticulture led him to take a summer job at Dwyer Greens, a greenhouse and nursery outside of New Castle.
It all started, though, with an “eco-bottles” science project he did as a student in Cami Duty’s seventh-grade science class at Riverside Middle School two years ago.
In the class, students create mini-ecosystems using 2-liter pop bottles stacked on top of each other, Duty explained.
“The idea is that the aquarium on the bottom provides water for the terrarium on top,” she said. “Students are provided with snails, guppies, and elodea water plants for the aquarium and grow grass and beans from seeds on the top.
“The over-arching concept is interdependence of animals and plants,” Duty said. “Students learn that the elodea is providing oxygen for the snail and fish, while the snail and fish provide carbon dioxide to the plant.”
Duty said she cried when she heard from Joey’s dad that her former student had taken such an interest in horticulture as a result of that science class project.
She has invited them to come and consult with her class this year to incorporate some of their ideas about alternative soils and use of hydroponics.
“I give his dad a lot of kudos for being so supportive of his son,” Duty said. “While the interest was sparked in school, his dad’s support, enthusiasm and interest is what has really allowed Joey to create something so meaningful and of such high quality.
“I am inspired by parents who take such an interest in their kids and their passions,” she said.
The Kehoes said they will probably make some hot sauces with the peppers they grew this year. Someday, though, Joey said he would like to grow and market his peppers on a larger scale, and maybe sell them to local restaurants.
For information about the pepper project and the Kehoes’ homemade greenhouse construction and growing techniques, email Dan Kehoe at email@example.com.