Avocados are California. They are our heritage fruit. My great great grandfather grew a huge seedling avocado tree at his house near Los Angeles. When my mother was a child, she climbed in her neighbor’s Fuerte avocado tree. I have planted avocado trees over the placentas of each of my children.
This is a post about how I grow avocado trees in my yard and how you might want to. Or not. Avocado trees can survive and produce fruit without some of the exact conditions or care that I describe below. I’ve seen pretty happy looking trees with grass or concrete under them instead of the wood-chip mulch that I place under mine, for example. But I’ve seen many more happy looking avocado trees that get treated the way I treat my trees.
Almost every yard in Southern California between the mountains and the ocean can grow an avocado tree. Think Sunset zones 18 through 24 (find your Sunset zone here). You only have to decide which micro-climate in your yard is best for an avocado. Micro-climates with these characteristics are ideal: wind-sheltered, as sunny as possible, warm in winter.
I currently grow nine varieties. Someday, if my wife allows, it might get up to twenty. There are just so many worthwhile avocado varieties to grow.
Yet, almost every avocado found in grocery stores is a variety called Hass. Hass (rhymes with “pass”) originated in Southern California and can be grown in almost every part of this region. And if you have desire and yard space for just one avocado tree, you’ll likely be most satisfied with a Hass tree. Hass tastes great (better from your yard than the store, by the way), is very productive, and the fruit hangs on the tree ready to be picked longer than most other varieties, for at least six months (approximately January to July).
(Do not grow a Hass seed thinking that you’ll get a Hass avocado tree from it, however. Avocado seeds grow up to be different from their parents, just like people do. Buy a grafted Hass avocado tree from a nursery if you want a tree that produces Hass fruit.)
If you have desire and room for two avocado trees, I’d recommend Reed to go with your Hass. Reed also tastes great, is usually even more productive than Hass, and while the fruit doesn’t hang on the tree for quite as long as Hass, it is ready at a different time (approximately May to September).
A maximum amount of fruit on an avocado tree comes when one tree is close to a tree of a different variety, especially a variety with opposite flowering behavior (called A or B). That is why, for example, I planted a Hass next to a Fuerte in my yard. (See my post, “Cross pollination of avocados, or why I planted a Hass next to a Fuerte.”)
However, do not think that you need to plant two different avocado trees in order to get fruit. The assertion that, in general, you need two avocado trees to get fruit is nonsense. You can get plenty of fruit from a single Hass or Reed avocado tree in your yard. (See my post, “Do you need two avocado trees to get fruit?”)
Avocados can be grown in sandy or clayey soil. If your soil is sandy, you’ll have to water more frequently. If your soil is clayey, you’ll have to water less frequently. It’s not that you can water less frequently with clayey soil, you must. Avocado roots have a great need for air and can’t be in saturated soil for long without suffocating, so a spot in your yard that often puddles and doesn’t drain away within a few hours after a rain in winter is not appropriate for an avocado tree.
A yard space of about ten feet by ten feet is the minimum for an avocado tree to be productive. Of course, they can get over forty feet tall, but pruning can keep them much smaller while maintaining fruitfulness. (See my post, “Can you grow an avocado tree in a small yard space?”)
You can successfully plant avocado trees at any time of year in Southern California, not just the spring, as some people recommend. In fact, I find it easiest to plant in the late summer or fall. The weather quickly becomes mild and rainy, when you no longer have to pay the young tree so much attention as it gets settled in.
Plant an avocado tree at the same level as the surrounding soil if your soil is sandy. If it is clayey, the tree would appreciate being up on a slight mound — anywhere from a few inches to a foot up is good, with a mound width of 3-5 feet. Do not plant an avocado tree in a basin, below the level of the surrounding soil, ever. That will cause water to pool around the base of the trunk, which is not where the tree wants to grow its roots, and which can lead to rotting diseases on the trunk.
Dig a hole that is just a few inches wider than the container the tree is in. Be very gentle when you remove the rootball from the container as avocado roots are brittle. Check the sides and bottom of the root ball for circling roots. If found, gently pull them loose to straighten them out. To splay the roots out you may need to widen the planting hole.
Fill in the hole around the root ball with the dirt you removed when you dug it. There’s no need to add anything else to the planting hole, such as compost or fertilizer.
Don’t leave the tree tied to the original stake that came in the container for more than about a month. The trunk will never strengthen if you do. It needs to be able to sway in order to strengthen. Rather, place a stake on either side of the trunk and tie it to each.
Do not place landscape fabric around the base of the tree. Landscape fabric prohibits the tree from growing roots up to the surface of the soil, as it is naturally inclined to do. But do place mulch around the base of the tree, and let whatever leaves fall lie in place.
A coarse mulch of wood chips and twigs and leaves (tree trimmings) is ideal for avocado trees. Put down a layer about five inches deep at first, spreading about two feet out from all sides of the trunk.
Such a mulch covering the soil is loved by all avocado trees, but for those growing in loam or clay soils it may mean the difference between life and death because it allows the roots to proliferate just under the mulch where there is much air and where there are disease-suppressing enzymes and micro-organisms. Read about a study done by the University of California on the effects of mulch on avocados here.
Within two years after planting, if your tree is in tip-top shape, you should be able to scoop the mulch layer away in a spot under the tree and find many white or cream-colored roots sticking into the mulch above the actual soil.
Watering is the most important thing to get right for an avocado tree. Again, by far — after an avocado tree has been planted correctly — watering is the most important thing to get right. Get the watering right. Ok, you heard me.
Immediately upon planting, water as much as necessary such that the soil out to about three feet from the tree’s trunk is wet down to two feet deep. If the soil is dry at planting time, this might even take up to 30 gallons. This is not a time to be stingy or hasty.
Avocados can be watered with drip emitters but they do better with sprinklers. Any kind of sprinkler that waters most of the ground under the tree’s canopy is acceptable. I use a micro-sprinkler in its sprayer mode on my newly planted avocado trees. Details about how to water a newly planted avocado tree can be found here, but the main take-away is that you need to water newly planted trees very often, every day or every other day for the first couple weeks in the summer. They’re very sensitive to drying out at first.
I switch to using a micro-sprinkler in its spinner mode on my avocado trees after their canopies are at least four feet wide in diameter, which is usually the case in the second or third year after planting a tree from a five-gallon container.
How much and how often to water? You must regularly scrape the mulch away and observe and feel the soil. Sorry, but there is no substitute for getting your hands dirty. The soil at the surface should never be allowed to become totally dry. At the same time, if the soil at the top is wet (still feels like it does a few hours after watering), then it should not be watered again yet. This goes for new and old trees alike. You’ll find that new trees dry out much faster than old trees, and so new trees must be watered more often than old trees.
Give all trees enough water each time such that the soil is wet as deep as the tree has roots. This varies from yard to yard, and even within yards, but for reference I have never found roots under my avocado trees deeper than 2 feet. The only way to know how deep you’re watering — and where your tree’s roots are — is to dig and discover. You won’t significantly hurt the tree by doing this.
In the fall and winter, it’s common to see brown tips on avocado leaves. This comes from the build up of chloride that has entered the tree through irrigation water. If a tree’s leaves show about thirty percent tip burn or less, it’s no big deal, the tree will still produce fine. More than that and it’s a concern. The main solution is to water with more volume each time you water so that some of the chloride is leached below the level of the roots in the soil.
Are avocados worth all of the water required? See my post, “The water economics of homegrown avocados.”
Keep a layer at least two inches thick of wood chips under the tree at all times. This protects and feeds the worms and microbial creatures in the soil below, which in turn protect and feed the tree’s roots. With this mulch, you should not need any additional fertilizer.
I have friends who buy and apply fertilizers to their avocado trees, and some of their trees look great and are very productive. But I’ve never applied fertilizers to any of my trees because they’ve never told me they’ve needed anything more than the deep mulch of wood chips that I provide.
There are only a few good reasons to prune an avocado tree. One is to remove branches that are very low and interfere with sprinklers from distributing water out to near the tree’s canopy edge. Another is to keep a tree down to size.
Pruning of small branches can be done at any time of year, but it’s safest to prune thick branches — thicker than your finger — in February or March so that foliage quickly grows during spring to shade and protect any branches that get newly exposed to the sun by such pruning. Avocado bark sunburns easily. Paint any bark that is exposed during summer. (See this post about how to paint avocado branches to protect them: “Avocado trees get sunburned — what to do?”)
Pests, diseases, stresses
Kill gophers in the area or they will kill a new avocado tree and harm an older avocado tree. Gophers killed one of my young trees last year and have attacked almost all of my other avocado trees at one time or another. It’s a constant battle, but the best weapon I’ve found is the Cinch trap. (My post, “The best gopher trap: it’s a Cinch”)
Light winter frosts might do damage to a few leaves or twigs and summer heat waves may scorch a few leaves, but if an avocado tree is in prime health it can come through most extremes in Southern California weather with zero practical harm.
If you pick an avocado from a tree when it’s not ready, you might think you don’t like that variety when it’s really your fault for picking it at the wrong time. Use a reference chart to get an idea of when a particular variety might be ready to harvest. I have some reference charts in my post called, “When to pick avocados.”
Also, get to know how an avocado tree makes its fruit: it grows flowers in the winter and spring, and then some of those flowers become fruit; some avocado varieties (such as Fuerte) grow their fruit rapidly and the fruit is ready to pick that winter, but others (such as Holiday) mature their fruit slowly and are not ready to be picked until the second summer.
And when will you begin to eat avocados from a tree you plant today? Probably three to four years. (See my post “How long until an avocado tree fruits?”)
I can’t imagine a yard in Southern California without an avocado tree. They’re evergreen and beautiful, the fruit is unparalleled — it’s like being able to grow butter — and let’s not forget that the bark is smooth so the branches are perfect for climbing.
Would you like some deeper reading about growing avocados in California? Though it’s written for commercial farmers, it’s definitely deep: see Gary Bender’s “Avocado Production in California”. Here is “Book 1” and here is “Book 2.”
Also, be sure to check out the website Avocadosource.com.