As the price of food goes up, more and more people are wanting to grow their own produce. Which is fine if you want Tomatoes, Lettuce, Strawberries,Corn, Okra or any of the other common fruits and vegetables. What if you have a hankering for some kind of exotic fruit, like Papaya, but don't live in the tropics? Well, you too can grow it, in a container!!
Carica papaya is a short lived perennial that can attain heights of 10-15 feet tall and produce fruit within a year because of its rapid rate of growth. Originally from southern Mexico and neighboring Central America, though the exact area of origin is unknown, it is now present in pretty much every tropical and subtropical country. There is also a small commercial crop in Florida. It has a hollow, herbaceous stem that does not branch out, however, if a papaya loses the growing tip or is cut back it can develop multiple trunks. It is usually grown from seed which works out great because it is readily available and fairly cheap. You can get some from the Papaya that you buy at your local grocery store. There will be enough seeds in one fruit to plant an entire plantation! Generally speaking, germination may take from 3-5 weeks.
If you find a really tasty fruit, save the seeds from it, they generally come true to type. Dry the seeds by placing them in a brown paper bag and storing in a warm place until the seeds become slightly wrinkled, then they are ready to plant.
The Papaya tree needs lots of water and has rather shallow roots, which make it great for growing in containers.
Papaya thrives best under warm, humid conditions.It must remain warm throughout the year, though mine have dropped to 35 degrees for short periods of time in my greenhouse with no ill effects. In the Winter time the plant should be allowed to stay on the drier side, especially if it will get down around the 40 degree range, root rot is the prime problem.
You will want to start with a trade 30 gallon container or something similar to a half whiskey barrel. The potting mix should be a good, soiless mix that has an ample amount of organic matter in it. Like I said, the Papaya likes lots of water, but it does not like standing in that water, so drainage is also a must.
You can plant the seeds directly in the big pot, they supposedly don't like to be transplanted. I have done so numerous times and they didn't seem to mind.
You will also want to plant and grow at least 4 or 5 because each plant can be either Male, Female or Hermaphrodite. The Female and Hermaphrodite will produce fruit, the Male will not. When it comes to flower types, you might need a score card to keep track. The flowers have five trumpet shaped petals and appear in the leaf axils of the tree during the Summer. They are fleshy, waxy and slightly fragrant. Some plants bear only short-stalked female flowers, or bisexual flowers (considered perfect) which are also on short stalks, while others may bear only male flowers. Some plants may have both male and female flowers. Others during certain seasons produce short-stalked male flowers, and at other times perfect flowers. I found this picture that might give you a better idea of what you might have:
Photo courtesy of gardeningwithwilson.com
If you want to know which sex you have before they flower, you can get an idea by being very observant and looking very closely at your plants. The Males tend to grow faster and have a wider berth between the branches, the other two will be closer together. Only one Male is needed for every 15-20 Females. Pollination is done by honeybees, moths and light breezes. Hand pollination may be needed to set more fruit.
There are two types of papayas, Hawaiian and Mexican. The Hawaiian varieties are the papayas commonly found in supermarkets. 'Solo' is the most common and it produces perfect flowers. This variety will not produce any male trees so each plant will provide fruit.
When it comes to sun, give it all you can. Reflective heat and light is also a bonus. They can be grown in some shade,but the fruit is rarely sweet. They dislike a lot of wind, so if you have a place that is inhospitable for other plants that is secluded the Papaya will be happy.
Feeding is somewhat up to the individual plant. Being that they are so fast growing they require regular applications of nitrogen fertilizers. Again, how much is up to the personality of your plant. Feed it once a month the applicable rates on the package and then adjust according to how the plant reacts. Remember that nitrogen leaches through the soil quickly, so you may not be feeding it as much as you think.
The only real major pests that you might encounter will be Whitefly and Spider Mites, both of which can be taken care of with insecticidal soap or a horticultural oil.
When it comes to diseases, chances are you will not have to worry. The shrub is a short lived plant and will probably die before any diseases really get a hold of yours. Most Papayas reach their peak of production after 3-4 years, then they tend to decline. What to do? Just plant more.
Okay, so what good would growing these tropical beauties be if you didn't want to harvest the fruit? Papayas are ready to harvest when most of the skin is yellow-green. In Hawaii the fruit is considered at the peak of perfection when the skin is 80% colored. After several days of ripening at room temperature, they will be almost fully yellow and slightly soft to the touch. Dark green fruit will not ripen properly off the tree, even though it may turn yellow on the outside.
The fruit is usually eaten fresh, peeled, cut in chunks or shaped into balls and served. The juice or nectar is also highly valued.
So you can see, if you have someplace that can stay warm, given either abundant sunlight or grow lights and will allow the tree to grow up to 15 feet, you too can grow your own Papaya.
My first attempt at this was very rewarding, this is a close up of my very first crop, which is also seen above from a distance: