Barefoot Gardener: Perfect Papayas

March 30, 2020, 6:30 AM HST (Updated September 8, 2020, 10:50 AM)
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Planting papayas now will give you a burgeoning crop within a year. This group of young papayas has been thinned down to the two strongest plants. Photo: J.M. Buck

There’s more to papayas than meets the eye. Aside from a steady supply of delectable fruit year-round, the latex sap of the papaya tree (Carica papaya) produces papain, an enzyme that has been used for millennia as a meat tenderizer. It is a primary ingredient in commercial meat tenderizers such as Adolph’s and, mixed into a paste from its powdered form, is also an age-old home remedy for bee and jellyfish stings as well as mosquito bites. It is also used on stingray wounds, as papain has the capacity to break down the toxins in the venom.

Native to South America, papaya is best known for its abundant fruit. There are a number of varieties with fruits ranging in size from five or six inches to football-size Mexican giants. Papaya can be eaten green or ripe, raw or cooked. One popular Thai dish is green papaya salad, a delicious blend of shredded raw green papaya, sweet vinegar, chilis, garlic, peanuts and seasonings.

Much can be said about papayas. In fact, entire books have been devoted to the subject. However, for our purposes, we’re going to focus on successfully growing organic papayas.

Papayas are best started from seed. You can purchase papaya starts from a nursery, though these plants are often pot-bound and, as such, may be stunted. They are a bit fussy in the beginning and do not do well if their roots are disturbed. This is why I say that it is best to start from seed.

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First, go to the health food store and find good organic papaya. There are a few different varieties to choose from: Solo papayas have orange flesh and a mildly sweet flavor; Sunrise, Strawberry and Sunset papayas have deep pink to red flesh and are very sweet and juicy. The Kapoho variety is good for very rainy locales. A caveat when buying papayas — make sure they are not GMO (genetically modified organism) papayas. There has been hot controversy regarding GMO contaminated organic papaya crops on the Big Island, Kaua’i and O’ahu. Two GMO papaya varieties are Rainbow and Sunup, so don’t confuse Sunup with the non-GMO Sunrise and Sunset cultivars.

Papayas like a well-drained, sunny location below 2,200 feet in elevation. A south-facing gentle slope is ideal. A good windbreak is important, as windy conditions will stunt the plant. Good drainage is absolutely essential. Make the planting hole a minimum of two feet wide and two feet across, the bigger the better. Put about three to five inches of cinders at the bottom.

Now I’m gonna give you a little local secret you probably won’t find in the gardening books, as I learned it from a Native Hawaiian farmer friend of mine in Hana, Maui. Put a whole fish on top of the cinders at the bottom of the hole. ‘Ahi, mahimahi, ʻōpelu — whatevahs — so long as it’s a decent size fish (over four inches long). As it decomposes, the fish slowly feeds the plant. It also attracts earthworms and the decomposition action helps build beneficial bacteria in the soil.

Next, take the soil you extracted from the hole and mix it in approximately this ratio: 50% existing soil, 25% chicken manure, 10% greensand, a handful of Neem seed meal, 10% peat moss and 5% perlite. Mix together thoroughly. Once you’ve done that, add about 50% organic compost to the mixture. Fill the hole halfway with the soil mixture then deeply water the soil in the hole. Allow the water to drain from the hole then fill it the rest of the way, bringing the soil mixture level with ground. Now it’s time to plant your seeds.

Plant fresh papaya seeds approximately one inch below the soil in groups of four or five, spacing the seeds about one inch apart. Tamp the soil gently and water well. I like to use a watering can with a drop or two of Superthrive in it just to give the seeds a jump-start. Keep the soil well dampened, but not totally wet, until the seedlings are at least eight inches high. Papayas abhor “wet feet,” so you can back off on the watering a little once they reach about two feet tall.

When the young trees are about a foot tall, it is good to put cinders on the exposed soil around them. The cinders will retain the heat of the sun and help keep the soil warm. It also deters cats from using the soil as a litter box. At this point, cut the weakest plants in each cluster to the ground, leaving one or two of the strongest.

Papayas reach maturity and begin fruiting in eight months to a year. The males produce only flowers and the females produce fruit. It is recommended to have one male plant per 20 females for pollination, so cut down any extra male trees. Pretty soon you will literally be enjoying the fruits of your labor.

Happy gardening!

J.M. Buck
J.M. Buck has been a Hawai‘i news writer and columnist since 2003. She has extensive writing experience and has served the media industry in a variety of capacities, including news editor, investigative reporter, online publisher, columnist, web content writer, graphic designer and photographer. She has lived in the Hawaiian Islands for most of her life and is a graduate of University of Hawai‘i.

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