The Q&A Archives: Planting a papaya seed

Question: I need information on planting a papaya seed. Everything you can tell me with regard to season, indoor/outdoor, germination, growing region, soil, fertilizer, maturity, transplanting, etc. Thanks

Answer: Papayas are normally propagated by seed. To start a plant, extract the seeds from ripe papayas and wash them to remove the gelatinous covering. Then allow to dry, dust with a fungicide and plant as soon as possible (the seeds lose their viability rapidly in storage). Plant the seeds in warm (80? F), sterile potting mix. Seeds should be planted in sterile soil as young papaya seedlings have a high mortality rate from damping off. Potting soil can be sterilized by mixing 50-50 with vermiculite and placing in an oven at 200? F for one hour. Under ideal conditions the seeds may germinate in about two weeks, but may take three to five weeks. Seedlings usually begin flowering 9 - 12 months after they germinate.

Seedling papayas do not transplant well. Plant them in large containers so the seedlings will have to be transplanted only once, when they go into the ground. Transplant carefully, making sure not to damage the root ball. Set the plants a little high to allow for settling. A plastic mulch will help keep the soil warm and dry in wet winter areas, but remove it as soon as the weather becomes warm. Plant at least three or four plants to insure yourself of having females or plant hermaphroditic plants.

The five-petalled flowers are fleshy, waxy and slightly fragrant. Some plants bear only short-stalked female flowers, or bisexual (perfect) flowers also on short stalks, while others may bear only male flowers, clustered on panicles 5 or 6 feet long. Some plants may have both male and female flowers. Others at certain seasons produce short-stalked male flowers, at other times perfect flowers. This change of sex may occur temporarily during high temperatures in midsummer. Certain varieties have a propensity for producing certain types of flowers. For example, the Solo variety has flowers of both sexes 66% of the time, so two out of three plants will produce fruit, even if planted singly. How pollination takes place in papayas is not known with certainty. Wind is probably the main agent, as the pollen is light and abundant, but thrips and moths may assist. Hand pollination is sometimes necessary to get a proper fruit set.

Papayas like to be warm with both sunshine and reflected heat, so the hottest place against the house where nothing else seems happy is an ideal location. They also like to be as free from wind as possible, although this is not as critical as their need for sun. Papayas can be grown successfully in shade, but the fruit is rarely sweet. They are best planted in mounds or against the foundation of a building where water can be controlled.

Papayas need a light, well-drained soil. They are easily killed by excess moisture. The soil needs to be moist in hot weather and dry in cold weather. Since this is the opposite of California's rain pattern, in addition to good drainage, plastic coverings to prevent over-wetting in winter may also be worthwhile. Papayas do not tolerate salty water or soil.

Watering is the most critical aspect in raising papayas. The plants should be kept on the dry side to avoid root rot, but also need enough water to support their large leaves. In winter the plant prefers to remain as dry as possible. A plant that has been injured by frost is particularly susceptible to root rot.

The fast-growing papaya requires regular applications of nitrogen fertilizer. Feed monthly and adjust according to the plant's response. They can take fairly hot organic fertilizing such as chicken manure if used with deep irrigation after warm weather has started. Phosphorus deficiency causes dark green foliage with a reddish-purple discoloration of leaf veins and stalks.

Papayas do not need to be pruned, but some growers pinch the seedlings or cut back established plants to encourage multiple trunks.

Papayas need warmth and a frost-free environment, but can often withstand light freezes with some overhead protection. This can be provided by building a frame around the plants and covering it with bedding, plastic sheeting, etc. when frost threatens. Electric light bulbs can also be used for added warmth. Potted specimens can be moved to a frost-secure area. Prolonged cold, even if it does not freeze, may adversely affect the plants and the fruit.

Hope this answers all your questions about growing papayas.

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