You never know where you’re going to find an extraordinary garden. I certainly didn’t expect to find one in the used-window department of a demolition yard in Kaitaia. Searching for French doors for a house extension, I noticed a small vegetable garden squashed in between rows of aluminium windows and a corrugated iron fence.
Beautiful it wasn’t – at least not in the traditional sense – but it was certainly productive and full of the sort of things I wouldn’t expect to see in an outdoor vegetable garden in the middle of winter: basil, tomatoes and tropical pawpaw. I dearly love pawpaw.
Whenever I luck into a tropical island holiday, it’s the first thing I seek out – well before the ubiquitous cocktail with the umbrella – and I buy enough from some quaint roadside stall to last me the rest of my stay. The cost of one pawpaw in our local supermarket at the moment is enough to buy a week’s worth in the islands – and since I’m not slotted in for a trip to Fiji or the Cooks anytime soon, it’s very clear I am going to have to grow my own.
The gardener at the Kaitaia demolition yard gave me some of her seeds. Seeds from the supermarket pawpaw don’t grow, according to her. I asked for growing instructions.“Chuck ‘em on the ground,” she told me. “Dry them out first,” advised another customer in the shop. Sadly, the dog ate a few of them on the way home when we left her unattended in the car for a millisecond, but was foiled by the cling wrap and left the rest.
I’ve decided to try several methods to get them going. Obviously, the reflected heat from hundreds of second-hand windows in the demolition yard provided the ideal environment. Since I don’t have that, I’ve scattered some – still fresh and wet – in a tray of vegetable raising mix, and put them in front of the French doors, beside the log burner. They’ll have to be covered at night – both to protect them from cold air coming off the windows and from our 19-year-old cat, who thinks anything with dirt is a litter box.
More of the seeds are drying out on a plate on the kitchen windowsill and, according to my conversation with the customer in the demolition yard and some internet research, they should be ready to plant in a fortnight. I can’t wait to get seedlings because I found a website with the following very bizarre instructions on how to plant them (see Make a Hole for the detailed instructions.)
Make a hole Dig a 30cm square hole, 30cm in depth. Put rotten animal waste and scraps in the middle of the hole, and cover with a 15cm square tile. Fill the hole with waste and fertilised soil. Plant small pawpaw trees in the middle hole. Make sure the roots grow on the tile’s slice that has been put in the middle soil. After planting in the hole, water the trees until they root. Start to pound the soil around the base of the pawpaw and cover with rotten straw or dead leaves around the bases.
How to know which seed is male or female Take the ripe pawpaw fruit you have just picked from the tree and let the seeds soak in water. If some of the seeds float, they are male; if some of the seeds sink, they are female. You must sow those seeds immediately so that they grow well. If you clean with water and expose to the wind, they won’t germinate and will be late to seed.
Mountain pawpaw Where it’s too cold to grow tropical pawpaw, there’s an alternative – mountain pawpaw (Carica pubescens). It’s a hardier soul from South America and although it’s a different kettle of fish from Carica papaya – not nearly as sweet – it’s worth growing It’s not a huge tree and tends to grow straight up, so if you have a smaller garden, this is your baby. It’ll be speedy too, and might even flower in its first year, producing blooms from spring until autumn.
The fruit is smaller than tropical papaya, only about 10 to 12cm long, but if the tree is nurtured, it could produce as many as 50 pawpaw in a season. Another good trick is that like the tropical pawpaw, it’s a tenderiser for meat, as it contains an enzyme that breaks down connective tissues in meat.
The fruit, which develops over several months, is eaten fresh or cooked, in savoury or sweet dishes. You can use the unripe fruit and when boiled or baked it can even be eaten like a vegetable. Since it’s also an ingredient for face masks, let’s hope it doesn’t do the same for skin.