It’s now a good time to start planting new avocado trees, as the danger of any serious arctic air blowing down our way has passed. I just planted the one in the photo above, on February 10, 2017. It’s a Hass from a five-gallon container. How long can I expect to wait for an avocado tree like this to bear fruit? Three to four years. That’s in the year 2020 or 2021.
I get such an expectation from the fact that the last Hass tree I planted was in July 2013, and we are currently eating its first fruit here in 2017. So, four years of waiting and we now have 73 Hass avocados on that tree.
But I planted some other avocado trees in July 2013 as well, and we ate the first fruit from two of them last year. That’s three years from planting to eating the first fruit — although we did only get from them a combined 15 avocados. This year, they have a more respectable 63. Here they are, the early birds, the Reed and Lamb:
Four-year old Reed and Lamb trees today with their second crops of 35 and 28 avocados, respectively.
My trees seem to be average. A couple of people with much more avocado experience than me, Mary Lu Arpaia and Ben Faber, also say that new trees start to bear fruit in three or four years. (This linked page contains a great list of other frequently asked questions about avocados, by the way.)
While trees typically bear in three to four years, you may get fruit earlier or later for a few reasons. On one hand, if you buy a bigger tree — 15-gallon size — you’re likely to get fruit earlier. That’s because the bigger tree will produce more flowers (and therefore potential fruit). Also, if you have an excellent environment for pollination, with many other avocado trees around and many pollinators like honeybees visiting the flowers, you’re likely to get fruit earlier. Avocado trees of the five-gallon size will often set fruit at nurseries each spring for this reason.
On the other hand, your tree might take longer than four years to give you fruit if you prune it hard or if a winter freeze kills many branches or if it is otherwise damaged — for example, by poor irrigation. In July 2013, I also planted a Sir-Prize avocado tree, but the Sir-Prize has yet to give us fruit and I’m pretty sure it’s because I’ve pruned it hard the last couple years in order to shape it. Every spring it has flowered lightly, but only next year will it have the large canopy size to flower heavily and, hopefully, set its first crop.
Another reason an avocado tree might take more than four years to bear fruit is if it is grown from seed and not grafted. In general, seedlings take longer to bear fruit than grafted trees. A seedling in my mom’s backyard took about six years before it produced fruit.
Does waiting the typical three to four years for an avocado tree to bear fruit seem like a short or long time to you? It seemed like forever when I planted those trees back in 2013. But forever has arrived, and it tastes amazing. As it has been said, “Patience is bitter but its fruit is sweet.”
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Opinions on how to prune deciduous fruit trees are innumerable. I have just one: Keep your tree small.
I believe it’s the single best thing you can do if you want your tree to produce fruit and you want to pick and eat that fruit.
A small tree’s fruit is easy to pick. In fact, by “small” I mean within reach, which is different for everyone but is usually six to ten feet tall. The fruit on such a tree is in your face — you just reach out and grab it. Some of the fruit on my trees are even low enough to be in the face of my two-year old son, so he also just reaches out and grabs it. (That’s good and bad. He has a hard time not grabbing it before it’s ripe.)
But if you let a tree get tall, then the fruit is borne primarily high up, out of reach. Trees generally fruit most in the part of their canopy that gets the most sunlight, and that’s toward the outer and upper part of their canopy. I once had a plum that was 15 feet tall, and while a bit of the fruit was within reach, most of it was out of sight and only accessible by ladder or pole, or squirrels and birds. In the end, most of that fruit was lost to the critters. My current plum is about eight feet tall and I have never lost a single piece of fruit to animals, and despite its smaller size it is still big enough to produce more fruit than we can eat.
A small tree can be protected if necessary. My aunt has a small peach tree which she easily covered with a net once the birds discovered her fruit and started pecking it this last summer. Try covering a 15-foot tall peach with a net!
Yet I haven’t even found the need to net my own small trees. My Blenheim apricots attract scrub jays as soon as the fruit begins to sweeten. The birds peck some of the ripe fruit but don’t ruin it. That fruit is at head height on my tree, so I immediately notice it and pick it. I take their peckings as a sign of ripeness. “Eat this fruit, Greg. It’s ready.” There’s still so much more fruit on that little tree that the birds never touch.
I don’t like the idea of telling you how you should grow your fruit trees. Truly, do whatever you want. But after having many trees both big and small, I’ve found that small is better. I’m in good company, by the way. I don’t know of many people with a lot of experience with deciduous fruit trees who let their own trees get big anymore.
So, how to achieve this goal of a small tree? The topic of pruning can be studied for a lifetime, but the achievement of a small and productive fruit tree can be had with very little knowledge and little work. For each one of my trees, I prune them once in the winter (just finished my pruning yesterday) and once or twice in the summer. The total time involved is around an hour per year per tree.
Pruned the Blenheim apricot to the height of my reach in July
What do you need to know in order to do the pruning? Tough question because obviously the more you know the better your pruning is likely to be. On the other hand, you could literally shear your fruit tree as though it were a shrub and still get decent results. Shearing a fruit tree is actually a thing, the “fruit bush” style it is called sometimes. Try it, or dive deeper into the resources below, which are the best ones I know of.
The Home Orchard published by the University of California (this is an Amazon link, but your local library might have it too — I borrowed this book from the library many times before I bought my own copy)
Chuck Ingels, a University of California Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor, presents on growing deciduous fruit trees to a group of Master Gardeners in this video called “The Home Orchard Part 1.” The pruning section starts at 36 minutes. This video is great because Ingels explains things clearly, shows many photos that illustrate his points, and relates his own experiences in his own yard. He talks about the “fruit bush” style just after 52 minutes. Also, continue into “The Home Orchard Part 2.”
Tom Spellman of Dave Wilson Nursery prunes fruit trees plus gives some of his reasoning in this video titled “Winter Pruning.” Perhaps the best thing about this video is that you can watch Spellman make the cuts; then you can go out to your tree and imitate if you like. I’m sure you’ll find it useful to watch some of the many other videos Spellman has done on pruning too.
Fruit Trees: Training and Pruning Deciduous Trees by Chuck Ingels (again), Pam Geisel, and Carolyn Unruh. The information is dense, but it’s all there, and it’s freely available as a pdf. It’s kind of like the condensed version of the book The Home Orchard.
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My grandpa once asked me when to start picking fruit from his Hass avocado tree. I said February. But it’s true that I’ve been picking one every now and then from my Hass tree since November. They’ve tasted acceptable, but I know that from February they’ll taste good, so I said February. Further, from March or April they’ll taste wonderful. There is no simple or correct answer to my grandpa’s question.
If you know the variety
That said, if you know which kind of avocado tree you have, then there are reference charts you can use to give you a general sense of a variety’s harvest season.
One such chart is this one by Julie Frink, based on observations in Irvine, Orange County, California. It shows the eating seasons of 27 avocado varieties.
Below is a chart that I made based on experiences with trees in my own yard in San Diego County, other trees in other parts of Southern California, as well as the experiences of other people, including Mrs. Frink. The chart shows only the varieties I grow in my yard (which, of course, are some of the tastiest in the world!):
Fuerte and Sir-Prize are the fastest avocados on the chart to mature, about nine months after flowering, so I wrote *Start here. Holiday is the slowest. After flowering, Holiday fruits take almost a year and a half of growing time until they’re mature and ready for picking, so I wrote “Finish here.
All of the sources I used for this chart are from Southern California, but you should know that even they (we) slightly disagree. I chose to color in the months where almost everyone agrees that a particular variety tastes not just okay but good. I didn’t color in November for Hass, for example, because even though Hass can taste satisfactory that early, no one thinks it tastes good until at least February.
Just keep in mind that any chart is going to be general. When fruit from your tree will taste best to you might be on the front end or back end of the months listed.
Also keep in mind that it’s slightly warmer the farther south you go in California, so if you live in San Diego your avocados will mature a little earlier in the year than if you live in Santa Barbara. I have picked good-tasting fruit from a Hass tree in Carpinteria in November — not the first November, but the second November. In other words, the tree had bloomed in perhaps February and the little fruitlet began to grow, and then it hung on the tree for almost two years after that. When I picked it, the fruit was totally black. But it was still totally delicious.
You might also be interested in knowing that the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Avocado Inspection Program controls when commercial farmers can pick and sell their fruit. They issue release dates such as this one, and these dates can also be used by us backyard growers as guides for when to harvest. For example, the 2017 release date for any size of Hass (even small) was January 16 while the release date for any size of Lamb was six months later, on July 17.
If you don’t know the variety
But what if you don’t know which kind of avocado tree you’re picking from. My mom has a seedling avocado tree in her backyard, and some years back we had to figure out when to pick its fruit. Also some years ago, a friend of mine moved into a house that was shaded by an enormous old avocado tree with large round fruit that had shell-like skin but whose varietal name no one told him. Through trial and error, we figured out when to eat that tree’s fruit (and we later concluded that the tree was an old variety called Nabal).
Here’s how I’ve learned to approach situations like those:
Pick the biggest fruit on the tree and see how it ripens. Be patient. Ripening (the softening of the flesh inside) sometimes only takes a couple days but can take a couple weeks. If the skin shrivels or if the fruit never softens beyond a rubbery texture, then it’s immature. Wait about a month to pick and test another big fruit.
If the fruit has hard skin like a shell (e.g. the varieties of Reed and Nabal), you may want to pop the stem off and stick a toothpick in to judge whether the flesh is softening.
If the fruit ripens nicely but when you cut it open the flesh is dark yellow, tastes overly rich, even smelling near rancid, then you’re too late. Next year, start picking about six months earlier. In other words, if you pick one that’s too mature in July, then try picking the next crop starting in January.
Avocados flower in the winter through spring, and then the little fruits grow all summer. Fast-maturing varieties like Fuerte will then be ready in late fall, but slow-maturing varieties will have to continue growing through the winter and beyond. Every kind of avocado is on a unique schedule.
Determine the variety
By the way, if you want to try to figure out which kind of avocado tree you are picking from, use the maturity season that you discover and refer to one of the charts above in order to get names of possibilities. For example, if it tastes good in the summer then that eliminates Bacon, Pinkerton, and Fuerte, but it leaves as possibilities Hass, Reed, and Lamb. Then search for those names on the U.C. Riverside Avocado Variety List to see if one fits the description of your fruit and tree. This is better than doing a general web search because unfortunately, a lot of what you’ll find on, say, Google Images is mislabeled.
No matter what, mark your impressions of the fruit you pick on a calendar so you don’t have to keep dates in your busy mind. Or, what I often do is associate a harvest season with a holiday or birthday. For example, Holiday avocados are named Holiday because they taste good from Labor Day through New Year’s. Bacons can be picked starting on Halloween.
My boys helping with the Bacon avocado harvest.
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How can the un-local Davis Garden Show be the best one for Southern California? It’s partly that the radio show/podcast is that good, and it’s partly that co-host Don Shor grew up in La Jolla and knows about growing plants here better than we do and kindly remembers to make side notes about how gardening works in our slightly drier and milder neck of the woods.
Last week’s episode perfectly represents why the Davis Garden Show is the best. In this January 5, 2017 episode, Shor talked all about the timely topic of deciduous fruit trees, from bare root planting, to training and pruning, to the meanings of terms like “sucker” and “pollenizer.”
The episode is so packed with information that you’ll want to listen multiple times. Shor articulates the concepts so well that even if they’re not new for you, you’ll enjoy listening to him describe them. But he isn’t reading from a horticulture book. Shor has studied horticulture formally at U.C. Davis, but he has also run a retail nursery, Redwood Barn Nursery, for decades, and he grows just about everything on his large property in the Davis area. When he says he recommends training most fruit trees to a “modified central leader” structure, it’s because he has trained many trees in other styles over the years, and he gives reasons and examples to support why modified central leader is his favorite for backyard growers. (The photo above shows Fuyu persimmon trees that have a modified central leader structure.)
In other words, when you listen to the Davis Garden Show you get not only an education but also ideas that are concrete and with which you can take action.
The Davis Garden Show broadcasts every Thursday at noon, when Shor is usually joined by co-host Lois Richter. You can listen to the show live from the KDRT website, but I always stream or download the podcasts on my computer or phone, which you can do from here or here.
Listen to the January 5, 2017 episode, and also listen to the excellent previous episode about fruit trees from December 29, 2016. From there you’ll probably be hooked like me, and you can browse past episodes for topics of interest, and you can listen to the latest episode for timely topics.
Can you tell? Hint: the purple blush on the back sides of the petals gives it away.
See the comments section for the answer.
There are so many options. In Southern California, we can grow pears, bananas, oranges, persimmons, figs, peaches, plums, nectarines, jujubes, cherimoyas, sapotes, pomegranates, tangerines, grapefruit, apricots, pluots, mangos, just to name a few. How do you choose?
Over the years I’ve developed a process that has led to choices that I remain happy with today. First, there are the three most important factors to consider:
- What do you eat?
- Which trees are well-suited to your yard?
- When do you want to eat the fruit?
Then there are a couple of less critical but still worthwhile things to think about:
- How much effort are you willing to give the tree?
- Would you like the tree to provide shade or privacy too?
As you work your way down the list, you ought to eliminate options until you end up with the fruit tree(s) that are best for you. What’s best for you is not what’s best for me or your friends (assuming I’m not one of your friends), but to wrap up the post I’ll demonstrate how I recently ran through this process to make a choice for my yard.
So to start, which kinds of fruit do you eat — regularly? You don’t want a tree full of white sapotes if you only want to eat a couple every now and then. And also think about which kinds of fruit you would eat if only you could. Maybe you know that you love apricots because you used to eat them from the tree in your grandparents’ yard, but you never eat them anymore because whenever they’re available at the grocery store they’re tart or tasteless. You would eat apricots regularly if only you had a tree full of them in your yard.
Now, out of the fruit you eat, which kinds are well suited to the environmental conditions of your yard? When thinking about this, consider how cold it is in the winter as well as how hot it is in the summer. If you live close to the beach, bananas will probably do well in your yard but apricots might not. The opposite is true if you live where I do, about twenty miles from the beach. In the environment of my yard, bananas don’t do great because of the handful of winter nights in the 30s, but apricots love that and they produce like crazy here.
Also, think of how many hours of unimpeded sunlight your yard gets. If the place for your tree only gets full sun for a few hours each day, you might be able to grow acceptable lemons but probably not excellent, sweet pluots. In general, fruit trees want to bathe in the sun all day long.
How do you know what environmental conditions different fruit trees prefer? Consult the Sunset Western Garden Book (for all kinds of fruit trees) or Dave Wilson Nursery (for winter chill guidance on deciduous fruit trees), or best of all, note which fruit trees are doing well in the yards of your neighbors. Your own observations trump all other opinions.
The third critical thing to consider is when you want the fruit on your tree to ripen. These days it’s hard to know the seasons of fruit varieties because grocery stores make them available all year by importing from abroad. We can buy navel oranges from Australia in August, but navel oranges from a tree in your yard in Southern California will taste terrible in August. Rediscover when different kinds of fruit ripen in our part of the world by consulting the Sunset Western Garden Book or Dave Wilson’s Harvest Chart (for deciduous fruit trees), or for avocados and citrus have a look at this chart from Maddock Nursery in Fallbrook (one mistake on the chart is that the Gold Nugget mandarin season does not start in January but rather in about March).
A chart I made showing the harvest times of some of my fruit trees and berries and vines.
But why is it important to know when a particular fruit tree will have ripe fruit? So you don’t miss out. If you go on vacation every July and plant a Red Baron peach tree, you’ll likely never taste its fruit. Every year you’ll return from vacation to find a hundred peaches rotting on the ground. Or, you may already have some fruit trees in your yard. In that case, you’ll probably want to add to your orchard with a tree that won’t ripen its fruit at the same time as a tree you already have. If you have a Fuyu persimmon tree providing you fruit in the fall, then get a Valencia orange to provide you fruit in spring and summer. Spread your harvest season rather than concentrate it.
Still have many options left? Think about these less critical factors:
How much effort are you willing to give the tree? For example, do you want the responsibility of pruning? Peaches, nectarines, plums, pluots, and apricots pretty much have to be pruned yearly. If they aren’t, they’ll end up with broken branches or sunburned bark or fruit that must be picked from a ladder because the tree is 20 feet tall. On the other extreme, you can plant a pomegranate and never prune it and you will continue to get fruit that is within reach.
Are you willing to be careful about irrigation? If you plant an avocado and carelessly water it, the tree will possibly die or at best give you few fruit. Then there are jujubes, which will do fine without any irrigation at all. All other fruit trees’ irrigation needs lie somewhere between those extremes.
Would you like the tree to provide privacy or shade too? It’s always nice to kill two birds with one stone — the two birds being fruit plus privacy or shade. A deciduous fruit tree like a nectarine could provide fruit and shade. But remember that deciduous fruit trees won’t provide year-round privacy. If you want fruit, privacy and shade — three birds! — then your best choice is an evergreen like citrus or avocado.
Well, what’s left for you? Which kinds of fruit trees fill your needs? What’s the best fruit tree or trees for you and your family, in your yard specifically?
Let me tie everything together by giving you the ideas that went through my head while considering the above factors when making a decision about which kind of fruit tree to plant in our yard last year.
We already had many different kinds of fruit trees in the yard, but only one apple, a Pink Lady, planted the previous year. As a family, we have always eaten lots of apples, so I was thinking we would add another. We often bought Granny Smith, Fuji, Gala or Braeburn at the grocery store. Out of those varieties, Braeburn was the only one said by Kevin Hauser of Kuffel Creek apple nursery in Riverside to not do well in Southern California. Braeburn was eliminated. We had a relative scarcity of fruit coming from our yard in the period of late August through October, so I wanted the new apple tree to ripen its fruit in that window if possible. Granny Smith is ripe about the same time as our Pink Lady, from about October on through the end of the year. That’s not good. Gala is ripe earlier, around August. That might work. Fuji starts in September and certainly lasts through October. Fuji fit our needs closest. So I chose to plant a Fuji — right beside the Pink Lady.
What will you plant?