Kids grow fast, as do avocado trees — especially when planted over a power-packed placenta. Oddly, prior to looking through the retrospective below, I had felt rushed for both of them to hit some developmental marks even faster.
As of today, Cass can legibly write most of the letters in his name, but he continues to do this curious thing where he writes his c’s backwards.
And as for his Fuerte avocado tree, my aim has been that it produces fruit for Cass to eat and that it develops a broad branching structure for him to climb. The tree is healthy, but it has yet to produce fruit, and it’s not yet big enough for Cass to climb.
Alas, sometimes you get focused on goals, on achieving results, but miss the wonders of the process along the way.
Just planted and just born, 2014.
One year old, 2015.
Two years old, 2016.
Three years old, 2017.
I’m determined to enjoy processes more. We’re not promised another day on this Earth. The process is really all we have.
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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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. It shows the eating seasons of 27 avocado varieties.
Below is a chart that I made based on information from many sources, including Julie Frink. It shows only the varieties I grow in my yard:
Just keep in mind that these charts are general. When fruit from your tree will taste best to you might be on the front end or back end of the months listed. For example, last year (2016), I picked a Reed fruit from my tree in late May that tasted good enough for me even though according to the chart above, most people say the Reed season is later.
Also keep in mind that because it’s slightly warmer the farther south you go, if you live in San Diego your avocados will mature a little earlier in the year than if you live in Santa Barbara; likewise, avocados up north will maintain quality longer. For example, I’m in San Diego County and I’ve been picking good-tasting fruit from my Hass tree since Thanksgiving. That’s early. On the other hand, I have picked good-tasting fruit from a Hass tree in Carpinteria an entire year later, around Thanksgiving, after the fruit had turned black on the tree. That’s late. But that same piece of fruit probably wouldn’t have tasted good until that spring.
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) is January 16.
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 its eating season was. 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 at any time 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 here in January, then try picking the next crop starting in about July.
By the way, if you want to try to figure out which kind of avocado tree you are picking from, feel free to send me a photo and maybe I can tell you. Or 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 a lot of what you’ll find there is mislabeled.
No matter what, mark your findings 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, Bacons can be picked starting after Halloween. And by the way, Bacons are at their peak right now. I just had some that were so sweet and buttery.
The boys helping with the Bacon avocado harvest.
The answer is yes. My aunt asked me about this yesterday. Her yard space is well-spoken for, but her husband would really like to have an avocado tree. “They get big,” she said. They do indeed. Most varieties will exceed 30 feet unimpeded. But they don’t have to.
Here are my best two ideas for growing an avocado tree in your yard if you only have a small space — that is, if you don’t have a space that is 30 feet wide and tall.
One, plant a Hass avocado tree and keep it pruned to about 15 feet wide and tall, like mine right here.
This Hass tree today has been in the ground for three and a half years. It was four feet tall when I planted it. Now it is 15.5 feet tall and 13 feet wide. It’s carrying 73 fruit. (What’s the retail value of that? A lot more than the time and money I’ve spent on the tree.) Hass is the variety that you buy in grocery stores, of course. It has excellent flavor, as you know, and the fruit will hang on the tree waiting for you to pick it from about February until July (even longer sometimes). Simply prune the tree to keep it at a 15-foot canopy.
Two, you could go with a variety called Reed, which is naturally slightly less vigorous than Hass, and so is easier to keep small — even down to 10 feet. Here is my Reed tree today. It’s the same age as the Hass above. It’s canopy is 9.5 feet tall and 9 feet wide, and it’s carrying 35 fruit.
Besides being a bit smaller, another benefit of Reed is that its eating season starts about the time the season for Hass ends. So, you could buy good California-grown Hass at the grocery store from the spring into summer, and then from summer through fall you could eat the fruit from your own Reed tree.
But do Reeds taste as good as Hass? They certainly do — plus the fruit is bigger, and they also don’t brown when you cut them and leave a half in the fridge. In case you haven’t seen Reed avocados, here are a few (not yet full size) hiding under the canopy of my tree.
In the end, if you want an avocado tree in your yard and you have even a 10-foot by 10-foot patch of dirt available, it’s possible. It’s more than possible, it’s proven and it’s prescribed.
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While there isn’t a great single resource for growing avocados at home, the best of what’s available is a handbook edited by Gary Bender, former farm advisor in San Diego County. He taught my master gardener class on avocados, and he really knows his stuff. The handbook is split into two “books.”
Book 1 discusses avocado history, botany, variety selection and planting.
Book 2 discusses irrigation, diseases and pruning.