Q. We include kitchen waste in the compost we use to feed our small garden. Last Spring I noticed some strange "weeds" popping up and decided to let them grow to see what they might be. By the Fall they were over six feet tall, and an internet search revealed that they were papaya plants. We had enjoyed a box of papayas that Spring, which solved the mystery of where they had come from. I potted one up and took it inside for the winter, keeping it in a small sun room in our house—where it has grown all the way to the top of the curved glass ceiling. I am writing this in May, as I get ready to put it back out in the garden to see what happens, and thought this experiment might be of interest to you. (I certainly did not know that papayas could be grown around here!) Thanks for any advice you may have; maybe I'll invite you over for some fresh papaya this Summer!
---Vincent in Hammonton, NJ
A. Well, my first thought was that Vincent probably only had a cool garden oddity. The photos he included showed the giant tropical tree to look healthy enough, but, as he notes, it was already hitting the glass ceiling. It was going to be difficult just to get it back outside—where I expect it would grow quite a bit more over the summer and then not be able to fit inside the house. And since most trees take quite a while to bear significant fruit, I doubted a papaya-tini was in my future.
But the papaya entry in my fruity friend Lee Reich's newest book "Grow Fruit Naturally" (The Taunton Press; 2012) gave me more than a little bit of hope. As expected, the trees' needs are totally tropical, and it will continue to grow rapidly, achieving—at least in a frost-free climate—a final height of 30 feet. But Lee also explained that papayas are among the few fruit trees that can be grown successfully from seed, are often self-pollinating and—the kicker—are short-lived and often bear fruit their second year.
So I excitedly emailed our renowned fruit-growing expert and asked, "is it possible this guy might get some papayas this summer?"
Lee responds: "It's not at all impossible to get fruit from that tree. As I noted in Grow Fruit Naturally, it's something that I dream about doing myself someday. The fact that fruiting begins within a year from seeding makes me hopeful that someday breeders will develop a papaya that could be sown indoors in late winter, grown in a sun room through early spring, transplanted outside into the garden once warm weather settles in, and harvested late in summer. Just like tomatoes."
But Lee also cautioned that a papaya grown in New Jersey—or anywhere else that's not super-warm—will likely take longer to bear fruit than one in the tropics. And I have to add that this summer of 2013, the Northeast has had some very cool temps for extended periods of time. In my part of Pennsylvania, for instance, much of August was five to ten degrees cooler than normal, noticeably slowing the growth and ripening of many people's tomatoes. So while those lower than normal temps won't hurt the papaya, they certainly won't trick it into thinking it's in Hawaii, where it WOULD definitely fruit. So the plan may well have been sound, but the summer a bit too cool.
Still, our listener obviously has the right kind of winter enclosure to give this project a serious try. So if this tree doesn't pan out, I'd get some fresh fruit and follow Lee's 'dream suggestion': plant one seed in each of several big pots (filled with a nice light, loose soil-free mix and compost) in that sun room right at the end of summer. Make sure that the soil drains exceptionally well (in other words, don't be tempted to use outdoor dirt) and that the initial pot is big enough—papayas don't transplant well. Temperatures of 70 to 90° F. are ideal, so keep the room it's in nice and warm, especially the floor, as papayas like warm SOIL as well as air. Keep it away from drafts and cold, give it plenty of water (but don't let any water sit in the pot after watering) and don't move it outside until nighttime temps are at least in the 60s.
Once outside, give it as much sun as possible, protect it from winds, and if you're lucky, you might get some big papayas by the end of that summer.
AND if you've got a nice big sunroom and the idea tantalizes you, the section on papayas in Lee's "Grow Fruit Naturally" notes that a number of different varieties are available that fruit while still a very manageable size, like "Sunrise" and "Waimanalo"—which can each produce fruit when the trees are a mere three feet in height!
UPDATE: As we go to press (8/21—plenty of time left in the growing season!), we have received an update from Vincent! He writes: "Mike, I took a look at the papaya plant this morning and found what appear to be some small papaya fruits beginning to grow. I have attached a couple of pictures and will keep you posted."
Listeners and readers: We'll update this article as Vincent's quest continues!