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Planting for drier conditions

October 1, 2017 - 12:05am

West Hawaii’s water restrictions brought to mind Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It is the lament that there is “water, water everywhere and all the boards did shrink. Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

Since no one on our island is known to have killed any albatross lately, the Department of Water Supply has some great news. It looks like two Kona wells will be on line soon and another by the end of October, so there will be relief from the current water restrictions as West Hawaii goes in to the dry season.

In the meantime, we should consider growing shrubs, trees and ground covers that require little water. There are a number of resources available to help choose the right plants for drought-tolerant landscapes. The University of Hawaii College of Tropical and Human Resources (CTAHR) has lists that include salt tolerance, as well. You may contact the office in Kona by calling 322-4892. Also, local bookshops and nurseries have books that can help.

Consider growing your own fruiting plants like pineapple, dragon fruit and papaya.

Papaya is a natural for almost any garden. They are prolific and nutritious, as well. Probably no other plant supplies the home gardener so much for so little effort. This tropical American herbaceous tree-like plant will grow and produce fruit year-round with minimal care.

Green, unripe papayas are high in papain, which helps with digestion. The leaves are also high in papain and used in cooking. Ripe fruits are high in calcium, vitamin A and C.

Your garden can supply an abundance of these delicious fruits. By following modern methods, you may grow many other tropical fruits, as well, but one of the best is papaya.

Start out right with good plants, proper attention to fertilizer and moisture control. Papaya plants do not tolerate soggy or poorly drained soil. Even if they tolerate dry conditions, they produce more fruit when given sufficient water. You will harvest some very good fruit that will repay you for your trouble.

There are several varieties, from the big watermelon fruit to the small Solo types. Most folks prefer the bisexual or Solo strain of papaya. This type produces a high percentage of top-quality fruit. Seeds from the large watermelon types produce male, female and bisexual trees. Most of the male trees must be eliminated as soon as they are detected. They are identified by means of their bloom stems. These are sometimes up to more than a foot in length and have many flowers. Female blooms are produced close to the stem but have no pollen bearing stamen. Bisexual flowers have both ovary and stamen, thus can self-pollinate.

Occasionally, garden shops and nurseries offer Solo papaya plants for sale, and the gardener who needs a few plants will do well by buying plants, rather than attempting to grow them from seed. For larger numbers of plants, you may grow seed from selected fruit. Seed order forms are available from the CTAHR Cooperative Extension Service.

The papaya is a relatively short-lived plant, reaching a height of 12-20 feet in five years. A top-quality plant can produce more than 150 pounds in a two-year period. But commercial growers often harvest up to 300 pounds from a plant during a two-year period. After that, the plant becomes so tall it is difficult to pick the fruit and production drops rapidly.

Here are some tips for successful papaya production:

Select seeds from a fruit that you like or purchase UH seed. Plant three of four seeds in individual containers, preferably those from which the plants and soil can be removed without injury to roots. Paper potting cups are OK for planting, as long as they have good drainage.

When seeds begin to sprout, fertilize with a soluble fertilizer once a week, mixing according to the manufacturer’s direction. It takes six to eight weeks to raise plants large enough to set out in permanent locations.

Set plants in permanent locations at least 8 feet apart. The area should receive as much sun as possible. Put about three plants to a hill, 1 foot apart in the hill. Keep them there until you determine the sex and then remove the males and weak females.

If the soil in which you are to set young papaya plants is poor, prepare it two weeks ahead of planting by spreading complete garden fertilizer such as 8-8-8, 16-16-16, or 10-30-10 over a 4-square-foot area about the site of each hill and dig the fertilizer into the soil. Wet it down so that the fertilizer will dissolve and mix well with the soil.

Fertilize newly set out plants once a week with soluble fertilizer for the first month. Then begin fertilizing with a regular dry garden fertilizer, applying once a month.

The papaya requires large amounts of fertilizer for best production. Spread the fertilizer out over an area roughly covered by the leaves.

A papaya plant will not thrive in soil that is too dry. Young plants must be kept watered until they are established, then watered every four or five days during the dry season. Mulching will help to conserve moisture. In wetter areas of the island, irrigation will only be necessary during drought periods.

Pests can give papaya growers trouble. The worst are aphids, mites and fruit flies.

There has been no insecticide that will give satisfactory control of the fruit fly in dooryard plantings. Harvesting fruit before it becomes over ripe keeps insect damage to a minimum.

Mites, which are almost microscopic spider-like creatures, sometimes cause visual damage. This does not usually affect the taste of the fruit.

Nematodes, microscopic worms that feed on papaya roots are also a problem. Good fertilization practices and mulching will minimize nematode damage.

Occasional diseases may cause fruit blemish. Fungicides applied according to manufacturer’s directions usually clear up this problem.

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