Squash, Vining Vegetables

How To Grow Chayote, Mirliton, or Choko


How to grow chayote

Cultivating chayote plants is a great lesson in trellising because they’re great in vertical gardens. Once you learn how to grow chayote, chances are, you’ll make it a part of your warm-season garden every year. 

There are many chayote squash varieties out there. Imported chayote is common. That’s because this summer squash has been around for a while. Each type produces plentiful leaves and grasping tendrils, along with a ton of fruit that you can eat or save for future plantings.

It’s a conundrum why chayote fruit hasn’t become popular among North American growers. Not only is the chayote vine lovely, but its vegetable pears are also versatile, fitting into different cuisines. Especially if you’re in tropical and subtropical regions, growing them is a worthwhile venture. 

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Quick Care Guide

How to grow chayote
Learning how to grow chayote will keep you very well supplied with produce. Source: daniela.magallon
Common Name(s)Chayote, mirliton, choko, christophene, chou chou, chow chow
Scientific NameSechium edule
Days to Harvest30 days from flowering
LightFull sun
Water1 inch per week
SoilSandy, loamy, well-draining
FertilizerSlow release, high phosphorus and potassium
PestsLeaf-footed bugs, squash vine borer, root-knot nematode
DiseasesPowdery mildew, root or crown rot

All About Chayote

Chayote farm
If not trellised, chayote creeps everywhere as shown at this chayote farm. Source: rica1786

Chayote plants (Sechium edule) are also known as mirliton, chou chou, chow chow, christophene, and choko. It was cultivated as a staple crop by Mesoamerican peoples and made its way to North America in the late 1700s and early 1800s when Haitian immigrants moved to Louisiana in the wake of the Haitian Revolution. Chayote squash was and is a staple of the Haitian diet. It was touted for its prolific nature among colonists, admired only as ornamental. It wasn’t until after someone tipped them off that the plant donned the moniker, “vegetable pear”. 

The chayote squash sprouts to form a large, sweeping vine that can reach up to 10 to 12 meters tall. That’s why chayote plants need to grow along fences and arched trellises. Chayote enjoys tropical and subtropical regions, grows as a tender perennial year-round in optimal conditions. In cool seasons, chayote dies back and remains dormant until it warms again. One plant produces 60 to 100 pounds of fruit annually. 

The chayote plant is a member of the cucurbit family and grows up to 8 years in a row. The vine grows 40 foot-long branches that emit slender tendrils. They are covered in heart-shaped leaves, covered in trichomes. In late summer to early fall, light green to white male and female flowers bloom on the same plant. When the flowers are pollinated by insects, wind, or by hand successfully, they produce pear-shaped fruit that is puckered at the ends. The fruit has a short shelf-life and sprouts within 30 days as the center seed feeds on moisture and nutrients from the fruit itself. That’s why cultivators plant the entire fruit to propagate it. 

All parts of chayote are edible. A staple crop of chayote squash is excellent raw, cooked into dishes, or grilled. The leaves are perfect for stir-fries. And the tuberous chayote roots are consumed much like a potato. The flesh of the chayote fruit yields to the flavor of the dish it’s in. Raw it tastes like an apple. The fruit is highly nutritious and assists with heart and blood sugar issues, providing minerals and vitamins in the process. The leaves have been used as a prophylactic in teas for centuries, especially by Mesoamerican peoples. Mashed fruit has been used to treat skin rashes as well. 

Planting Chayote

Plant a sprouted fruit, or transplants started from sprouted fruit in spring in a frost-free time and space. If you live in a cool region, grow chayote squash first indoors and then transplant when it’s warm. If you live somewhere that doesn’t have many days above 55 degrees Fahrenheit, avoid cultivating this summer squash outdoors. Select a site with loamy, well-draining soil in full sun. Give your chayote squash at least a 12-foot diameter if you want to grow on an arched trellis, and at least 3 by 12 feet if you’re growing on a vertical trellis or fence. Chayote plants are too prolific to grow in most containers, though you might have success growing them in a 30-gallon plastic container with multiple drainage holes. When you grow chayote squash in the ground, plant the fruit or transplant into the middle of the prepared bed. This allows the roots of the chayote vines to sprawl out without obstruction. Mulch heavily around the base of the plant to regulate the soil temperature and moisture levels. Consider incorporating companion plants into your chayote garden. Peppers, pumpkin, and corn are excellent companions.

Care

Newly-forming chayote
Baby chayotes start out very tiny, not much wider than their nearest stem. Source: UnconventionalEmma

Planting chayote squash is a cinch as long as you do so well after the last average frost date! Let’s cover the basic care needs for these plentiful garden squashes. 

Sun and Temperature

The chayote is a tropical plant, which has an extended growing season in warm areas. It prefers full sun, with at least 6 hours of direct light per day. It withstands even more than that and prefers high heat and intense sunlight. Growing chayote in partial shade is possible, though this reduces fruit production. It’s hardy in USDA zones 8 through 11.

Zones outside this range are suited for climate-controlled greenhouse growing if the space allows. Heat is no problem for growing chayote, though cold winter regions aren’t great. Not only does the plant need to be frost-free for at least 120 to 150 days, but it also should not be in an area that dips below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point, immature fruit drops from the plant. Chayote won’t produce fruit in cold at all. Freezing temperatures will kill this fast-growing vine.

Water and Humidity

Water your chayote squash weekly at a rate of 1 inch per week. Keep water consistent with drip irrigation, which provides a steady supply, and prevents backsplash on leaves preventing fungal diseases. Test the soil beneath the chayote squash to your second knuckle. If you find the soil dry there, add water. The soil moisture should be damp, but not waterlogged. In hotter seasons, water the plant daily. If chayote wilts in the intensely hot summer afternoon, know that’s this is normal. Don’t overwater, especially when it’s been rainy. 

Soil

Chayote squash prefers loamy, sandy soil that is well-draining. Chayote grows naturally in Central America and other tropical regions. It’s here that the soil is often claylike or volcanic in nature. In home gardens, chayote requires a little bit of amendment with rich organic compost, and potentially some agricultural sand. Sand, or even perlite, is useful in areas where the soil needs more drainage. Peat moss is a great addition for soils that need moisture retention. If you plant the chayote in poor soils, it will still grow, but maybe not as prolifically. The optimal pH for growing chayote is 6.0 to 6.8.

Fertilizing

Provide a fertilizer that is low in nitrogen and high in phosphorus and potassium, assuming your soil already has sufficient nitrogen. Incorporate well-composted chicken manure to provide a nitrogen boost early in the growing season. Otherwise, applications of slow-release 8-24-24 or 3-4-4 fertilizers a few times to every two months of the growing season keep chayote producing as long as it can. If you want to be completely organic, growing chayote with liquid manure gives your chayote squash a nutrient boost. 

Pruning/Training

When you grow chayote squash, train the plant onto a trellis. Not only does this produce more chayote (one chayote plant produces on average 60 pounds of pear-shaped fruit), it keeps the plant safe from diseases and pests. That being said, you will need a sturdy trellis or fence for this very heavy plant. Plant chayote in a bed with a trellis that has a base at a 45-degree angle. This allows the plant to move up the trellis as it grows. Growing chayote on an arched trellis is a great option too. 

Remove damaged or diseased leaves as they appear. After the fruiting phase, chayote squash benefits from pruning to 3 to 4 short shoots. If you live somewhere that gets cold, prune the shoots down close to the ground. Mature tubers will send up sprouts in spring when the air and soil are warm. 

Propagation

Because propagation by cutting is not something that has been accomplished easily outside of horticultural expertise, we recommend propagation by seed. Plant the chayote squash (the whole fruit) either in the ground in spring in frost-free weather, or a container in a warm area in anticipation of transplant. The chayote seed is contained within the chayote squash and should remain so because it draws essential moisture and nutrients for germination from the flesh. It’s easier to propagate from sprouted chayote which contains fertile chayote seeds. They sprout within 30 days after you harvest chayote squash. Use the planting section of this piece to determine in what conditions to plant the entire fruit.

Harvesting and Storing

Chayotes
Chayotes are very mild in flavor but can be eaten raw or cooked. Source: Thiago Gama Oliveira

Fresh chayote is delicious when eaten raw, or stir-fried. Let’s talk about the harvest process for this delicious pear-shaped fruit, with a mild taste. 

Harvesting

Harvest chayote squash about 30 days from successful pollination. The ripe chayote should have tough skin, and won’t yield to a thumb pressed into it. If it does yield, give it some more time. If it stays on the vine too long, the flesh will get hard and stringy, making it difficult to eat. Remove the chayote from the vine with a sharp knife or hand pruners. Save some to eat, and use the remaining fruits for another staple crop. Harvest leaves by clipping the tips of vines, up to a foot or two. Remove tubers at the end of the growing season. Remember to leave some behind to enjoy another crop next year. To overwinter the tubers, make certain to put a thick layer of mulch over the soil to protect them from cold.

Storing

Store fresh chayote in an open plastic bag at room temperature to increase its shelf life. Even in these conditions, though, they’ll sprout within 4 to 6 weeks. It’s not recommended you freeze or refrigerate raw or diced chayote. Instead, can, pickle, or process chayote into a jelly that will last in the refrigerator for 5 to 6 months. Try storing chayote in dehydrated format – like chips – for a couple of weeks in an airtight container at room temperature.

Troubleshooting

Chayote hiding in the vines
A chayote is barely visible amongst its vines. Source: WinstonWong

Chayote is so prolific, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of associated issues. Here are a few to look out for, though. 

Growing Problems

Attempt to grow chayote in cold weather, and you’ll have difficulty getting started. Cold is not something this squash can withstand. Similarly, if you grow in an area that doesn’t have good drainage, it can weaken the plant and produce optimal conditions for diseases. The same goes for overwatered chayote. If you’re growing more than one variety and want to maintain genetic purity, cover the plant to keep cross-pollination by insects at bay. A lack of nitrogen will cause yellowing on the leaves at the base of the plant. Simply incorporate some composted chicken manure, or nitrogen fertilizer to correct this. Too much nitrogen prevents flowering and fruiting, though. If you’re having issues there, higher amounts of potassium and phosphorus may help. 

Pests

Leaf-footed stink bugs feed on flowers and squash, causing bruising in the process. Chickens are an excellent way to control insects in your garden. If that doesn’t work, try applications of neem oil under 85-degree temperatures. Pyrethrins are a more intensive control that work in the same conditions as neem oil.  

Squash vine borers are either larvae or adult moths. The moths lay eggs in the soil and on the base of the vines. As the larvae hatch, they bore into the vine and eat the center making their way up to emerge fully grown. Most garden squashes contend with the SVB at some point. Thankfully, chayote makes up for SVB damage with abundance. The adult moths look like a wasp with a red body, and evidence of larval feeding comes in the form of sawdust-like frass on vines. To control them, wrap the base of vines in foil. Check daily for small disc-like brown eggs, and remove them. Permethrin or pyrethrin are insecticides that can be sprayed on vines, though its effectiveness is limited to the adult moth if the larvae has bored into the vine. BT spray can be used as well.

Root-knot nematode is a pest that feeds on the roots of chayote, causing nutrient and moisture deficiency over time. They don’t kill a plant immediately, making them hard to identify. Rotate chayote every three years, and plant again in an area that has been adequately solarized to prevent deficiencies. Because beneficial nematodes have a hard time in warm soils, they aren’t the best control for these pests in very hot climates.

Diseases

Powdery mildew is common among chayote due to the number of leaves on a plant at one time. Remove affected leaves as soon as the powdery appearance appears. To stop an infection, use potassium bicarbonate sprays applied every 7 to 10 days from the time infection appears until it stops. Liquid copper fungicides are also effective.

Crown rot is a fungal rot that occurs when seasons are unusually wet, or where the soil doesn’t drain well. To prevent rot, mound up the soil at the base of your plant, and incorporate agricultural sand. Then keep a watchful eye out for browning and spongy plant matter at the plant’s base. Unfortunately, there’s no control for this fungal disease. Remove affected plants and dispose of them in the trash.

Frequently Asked Questions

Immature chayote fruit
Some heirloom chayotes have small spines, as seen on this immature fruit. Source: UnconventionalEmma

Q: How long does it take for chayote to bear fruit?

A: Just 30 days from flowering!

Q: Is chayote easy to grow?

A: Yes, it’s a very easy-going and abundant plant. 

Q: How long does it take for chayote to sprout?

A: The seed will sprout from the buried squash within 4 to 6 weeks.

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