Gardening

How to grow papayas in pots in non-tropical climate zones

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We’ve successfully grown potted papayas for multiple years in Greenville, SC (Ag Zone 7b). In this article, you’ll find out how you can grow papaya trees in pots in non-tropical regions, too! 


First a qualification: we know that papayas are more botanically akin to an herb than an actual tree since they lack true woody tissue. However, we still reference them as “trees” throughout this article since most people commonly refer to them as trees rather than herbs, shrubs, or other terms.   

My birthday papaya 

When birthdays or holidays come up, The Tyrant and I tend to get each other some combination of plants, garden supplies, or food. Anniversary wheel barrow? Pure romance.  

Case in point on my birthday a few years back: The Tyrant got me a dwarf papaya tree to be grown alongside our fleet of potted citrus, bananas, and guavas. (This was a good way for her to put my back to good use to procure her own tree-ripened papayas – I love you, honey.)  

Nope, we don’t live in the tropics. We live at the base of the Appalachian Mountains in Ag Zone 7b on the outskirts of Greenville, SC. Our winter temperatures are often well below freezing.

Ergo growing tropical and other cold-sensitive perennials requires a good bit of work and a way to keep plants from freezing to death in the winter. (More on that below.)

Why grow papayas in pots? 

Now, the first question you might be wondering is whether it’s worth the effort to grow papayas in cooler climates if you can just buy the fruit at the grocery store? In our opinion: yes.

That’s because our papayas are better flavored than anything we’ve ever bought at a store. They have a wonderful floral flavor with virtually no bitter finishing notes, unlike typical commercial papayas. They’re also grown organically. 

Over the past few years, we’ve learned a lot about how to grow papayas in pots in non-tropical climates, and we’re going to share what we’ve learned below so you can grow your own potted papayas, too!  

We grow the best papaya fruit in Greenville, SC. However, if anyone else decides to grow papaya here, we might slip to #2 best.

We proudly grow the best papaya fruit in Greenville, SC. However, if anyone else decides to grow papayas here, we might slip to #2.

How to grow papayas in pots in non-tropical climates 

Here are our top tips for growing papayas in pots in cooler climates (Ag Zone 8 or lower): 

1. Have a winter plan (and setup) BEFORE you get growing. 

Before you decide to get papayas, you should know a bit more about the temperatures they require and what you’ll need to plan for during the fall and winter. 

What’s the coldest temperature a papaya tree tolerates? 

Papaya trees will die if exposed to temperatures in the low 30s°F (1°C). Papayas’ “goldilocks” zone is 70-85°F (21°-29°C) for rapid growth and fruit production. 

It’s also worth noting that papayas start getting unhappy when temperatures fall below 59°F (15°C). The lower the temps, the slower they’ll grow and the more stressed the trees become. 

Sustained temperatures below 59°F can also cause papaya flowers to drop. We’ve gone into the cool months with immature fruit on our papaya tree, and the colder weather causes fruit maturation to come to a standstill. The fruit hangs on and eventually ripens in the spring.  

What do you do with potted papaya trees in the fall and winter? 

If you plan to grow potted papayas in Ag Zones 8 or lower, you’ll need to plan on protecting your papaya trees from cold weather in the fall and winter. Options:

  1. overwinter them indoors in a sunny south-facing window, sunroom, etc;
  2. put them in a heated greenhouse; or
  3. wheel them in and out of a climate-controlled shelter as weather permits. 

We use option 3 because we don’t have a greenhouse or an adequate indoor spot to put papaya trees. Instead, we use a specialized pot moving device to wheel our papaya into a heated garage on cold nights or any time daytime temperatures are below 45°F (7°C). 

Getting ready to move our papaya tree into our heated garage for the night on a November day.

Getting ready to move our papaya tree into our heated garage for the night on a November day.

Nope, our papaya is not happy outdoors on a sunny 46°F fall or winter day, but it’s still able to photosynthesize and stay alive. On cold days, we also wrap the pot with a blanket to keep the roots warmer.  

Given our setup, our aim is to simply have our papaya survive the cold months. Rapid growth and fruit production happens in the warm months. 

On the opposite temperature extreme, papayas tend not to produce flowers or fruit when temperatures regularly reach over 90°F (32°C). However, at these temps, set fruit will continue to ripen – and quickly. 

2. Don’t grow papayas from seed. 

Can you just get a papaya fruit from the grocery store and start your own papaya plants from seed? Not so fast…

Papaya trees will only grow in-ground in Ag Zones 9+. If you live in the tropics and you want to grow papaya trees in-ground, then sure, you can try growing them from seed.  

Will papayas grow true to seed? Will your grocery store papaya seeds grow into a fruit-bearing tree with similar fruit to the original? It depends…

If you don’t know the sex of the parent plant(s) and conditions under which the papaya seed was produced (sexually produced or self-fertilized), you won’t know for certain whether the plant grown from seed will be exactly like the parent tree/fruit from which it came. 

In short: if you live in Ag Zone 8 or colder, you probably don’t want to waste your time growing papayas from seeds from grocery store fruit. That’s because the resulting plant will likely have the genetics of a large 20-30′ tall tree typical of commercial papaya farms.

Successfully growing a standard, full-sized papaya tree to fruit-bearing age in a pot/container is going to be all but impossible. (You could possibly do it if you have a tall, heated greenhouse.) 

What to do instead? Purchase a dwarf papaya cultivar bred to grow in pots… 

3. Select a dwarf cultivar(s)

Now that you’ve read #2 above, you know why you should get a dwarf papaya cultivar. Which one(s) should you get? 

The Tyrant got us a ‘TR Hovey’ papaya from Logee’s. We have nothing but praise to offer for this cultivar. Our ‘TR Hovey’ papaya is now 3 years old and about 6′ tall, measured from soil to tip. Like most other papayas, TR Hovey can also produce fruit within the first year. 

Other good dwarf papaya cultivars to consider are:

  • Dwarf Red Lady
  • Caribbean Red
  • Solo
  • Sunrise

They can be purchased from online nurseries and shipped from spring- early fall.

How tall are dwarf papayas? 

Any papaya tree under 10′ is considered dwarf, but dwarf cultivars grown in pots (which helps further stunt growth) typically max out at 6-7′ tall after a few years.

Fun fact: the world’s tallest papaya tree was grown in India and measured 46.16′ tall. Nope, that wasn’t grown in a pot! 

How long will a papaya tree live and continue to bear fruit? 

In-ground in the tropics, a papaya tree can live to be over 20 years old in ideal conditions. However, when growing potted dwarf papayas for fruit production outside the tropics, you may find that your papaya tree begins to produce less fruit after 3-5 years, in which case it may be easier to start with a new plant. 

As long as your plant(s) are alive and continuing to produce fruit when temperatures allow, keep growing them!  

Are papayas self-fertile or do you need more than one papaya tree to get fruit? 

Papaya trees come in three sexual forms: male, female, and hermaphrodite. For commercial growers and home gardeners, the most desirable tree is hermaphroditic, since it is self-fertile. With a hermaphroditic papaya, you only need one tree to produce fruit. 

When purchasing a papaya tree, make sure you get a dwarf cultivar that is self-fertile/hermaphroditic. This is especially important if you only have one papaya tree.    

We should mention that there are more advanced methods of growing dwarf papayas from otherwise full-sized female plants, but more work is required. For most people, the simplest solution is to purchase a dwarf hermaphrodite papaya.    

A closer look at papaya flowers - in the top center you can see a young fruit that has set, with the flower petals still on.

A closer look at papaya flowers… In the top center you can see a young fruit that has just set, with the flower petals still on – just above the larger, green papaya.

How big are dwarf papaya fruit? 

Fruit on dwarf papayas are considerably smaller than fruit on full-sized papaya trees. The average papaya on our dwarf ‘TR Hovey’ papaya weighs 1-2 pounds.

An average sized fruit from our 'TR Hovey' papaya - the perfect size for our family of three.

An average sized fruit from our ‘TR Hovey’ papaya – the perfect size for our family of three.

4. Use appropriately sized pots. 

Your papaya seedling will be very small and likely ship in a 4-6″ pot. You’ll want to pot up your growing papaya plant immediately into a 1+ gallon pot and continue to pot up the plant every two months or so for optimal growth.

By around 6 months, you could transplant your papaya into its large, final pot. Our papaya tree has been in its final 25 gallon pot (20″ wide x 20″ tall) for 2.5 years thus far. We may have to root prune it next spring to keep it from getting rootbound

When potting up your papaya plant, be sure to use organic potting soil, NOT soil from your garden. Our favorite potting soil is FoxFarm’s. Papaya plants grow quickly and can start producing flowers and fruit within 7 months under ideal conditions.    

5. Feed, water, and care for your papayas.

A. Fertilizing potted papayas

We top-dress the soil in our papaya pot with a 2″ layer of mulch. Mulching helps maintain optimal soil moisture, reduce soil temperature fluctuations, improve soil fertility/microbial life, and inhibit weed seed germination.

Since there’s only so much nutrition that a papaya tree’s roots can access inside a pot, you’ll also need to fertilize them periodically. In the warm months, they’ll grow much more rapidly and therefore need more regular feedings than in the cooler months.  

In the spring and summer, we feed our papaya tree about once per month using some combination of the following:

In the fall and winter when our papaya isn’t growing rapidly, we may only feed it once every 2-3 months

Unripe papayas teasing their human caretakers.

Unripe papayas teasing their human caretakers.

B. Watering potted papayas

First, a warning: in the cool months, watering your papayas too much can cause their roots to rot or become diseased, killing the plants. 

Ideally, you want to maintain even soil moisture, year round, with a consistency of a wrung out sponge. This keeps the plant happy and productive.  

In our hot summers when daytime high temperatures stay above 90 degrees for weeks/months, we’ve found drip irrigation to be a huge help and time saver. (See our detailed article all about how to set up your own drip irrigation system for potted plants.) 

An automated drip line set up in our papaya pot means we don't have to spend a minute of our time keeping our papaya watered during the warm months.

An automated drip line set up in our papaya pot means we don’t have to spend a minute of our time keeping our papaya watered during the warm months.

How much do we water our mature potted papaya tree?

  • Spring – If it’s under 90°F, we water every 6 hours for 10 minutes each, about *1 gallon per day.
  • Summer – When it’s over 90°F, we set our system to water every 6 hours for 15 minutes each.
  • Fall & Winter – Since we’re hauling our papaya in and out of a heated garage, we disconnect our drip irrigation and hand water once per day in the afternoon, or as-needed. The total amount of water the plant receives per day in the cold months is probably 0.5 gallons. 

*With our drip irrigation system and water pressure, a 15 minute irrigation session = 0.375 gallons of water, which means our papaya tree receives about 1.5 gallons of water over a 24 hour period on a hot, 90°F+ summer day.

C. Papaya pests and diseases

While there may be tropical pest insects and diseases that can harm papaya trees or eat the fruit, nothing in our temperate climate region seems to affect papayas. In three years, we have had zero pest or disease pressure on our papaya. 

A Carolina anole on an unsuccessful hunting excursion atop one of our papaya fruits.

A Carolina anole on an unsuccessful hunting excursion atop one of our papaya fruits.

D. Pruning 

Another nice thing about papaya trees: you don’t have to prune them! They shed older, lower leaves and produce new leaves from the top, no intervention required.  

7. Learn when to harvest your papaya fruit. 

Now comes the fun part: eating your papayas!

When is a papaya fruit ripe? 

All unripe papayas start off with green skin. As they ripen, the skin begins to turn shades of yellow, orange, or red, depending on the cultivar. The color change begins on the tip of the fruit and works its way back towards the stem along the fruit ridges. 

When should you harvest a papaya fruit? The longer you can wait, the sweeter and better the fruit will be. You can technically harvest a papaya when at least half the skin surface has turned to its ripe color (typical for commercial papayas which have to survive shipping), then let it continue to ripen inside. However, we prefer to leave our papaya fruit on the tree until the skin is almost completely orange.

Our toddler reaching for a ripe papaya (the orange one on the left). The orange-green one on the right side will be ready to harvest in another couple weeks.

Our toddler reaching for a ripe papaya (the orange one on the left). The orange-green one on the right side will be ready to harvest in another couple weeks.

We then bring our fruit inside to soften a bit and eat them within a week. We remove the skin, chop it into pieces, and give it a squirt of lime juice (ideally from our limequat fruit).        

To harvest, you can use garden snips to cut the stem or simply twist the fruit off, snapping the stem. 

How long does it take a papaya fruit to ripen? 

After fruit set, expect 3-4 months for your papaya fruit to ripen (in the warm months). As mentioned above, temperatures below 59°F (15°C) can slow fruit ripening to a crawl. 

Can you eat papaya seeds? 

Yes, papaya seeds are edible, but treat them like a spice, not a food. If you want an interesting alternative to black pepper, dry your papaya seeds and put them in a pepper grinder. 

Interestingly, the papaya fruit on the left and right came off of the same tree. One is seedless the other contains seeds. We're not certain what the cause of this phenomenon is. Our tree seems to produce male, female, and perhaps hermaphroditic flowers. We're wondering if the seedless fruit matured from an unpollinated flower or if exposure to cooler temperatures caused seeds not to form. Maybe a papaya scientist can chime in!

Interestingly, the papaya fruit on the left and right came off of the same tree. One is seedless; the other contains seeds. We’re not certain what the cause of this phenomenon is. Our tree seems to produce male, female, and perhaps hermaphroditic flowers. We’re wondering if the seedless fruit matured from an unpollinated female or hermaphroditic flower or if exposure to cooler temperatures caused seeds not to form in the fruit. Maybe a papaya scientist can chime in! Both fruits tasted wonderful. 


We hope the information in this article helps you figure out whether or not you want to give papaya growing a shot even if you live in a non-tropical climate zone. (Or whether you want your spouse to grow them for you.) Happy growing and let us know if you have any questions!  

KIGI,

Tyrantfarms

More helpful potted fruit articles: 

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