The good news is that even if you don’t train your young avocado tree to the perfect shape, the tree can still ultimately be healthy, balanced, and fruitful. I should know. I’ve got a number of mature avocado trees that perform well but that I wish I had trained somewhat differently in their early years.

So this post is about how I go about forming the shapes of my new trees these days — an improved approach, I think — in order to achieve four main goals: the tree is able to stand without the aid of stakes, it can carry a fruit load, it won’t interfere with irrigation, and it retains the leaf litter it drops and shades its trunk and rootzone.

You would be justified, however, in training your own tree in other ways or additional ways. “Any suggestions made must be interpreted in the light of their own individual conditions, and not taken as set rules to be applied anywhere, regardless of conditions,” wrote Carter Barrett back in 1935 in his article for the California Avocado Association, “Training and Pruning Avocado Trees.” I say the same about my suggestions today.

Standing without a stake

Getting a young avocado tree off the crutch of a stake within a year or two after planting primarily requires keeping its canopy balanced. If the tree grows a side branch that is fat at its base relative to the size of the leader/trunk (more than a third the size of the trunk can be considered fat), that branch should probably be checked or it will eventually make the canopy too large and heavy on its side, and the tree won’t be able to stand on its own without a stake.

In the past, I’ve left such vigorous side shoots unchecked on a young tree only to later have to cut them back drastically in order to get the tree to stand without stakes. I now prefer to consistently nip them back or remove them as soon as I spot them.

One young tree in my yard that has a vigorous side shoot is this Hass:

The strong side branch is up high on the left. You can see the tree still slightly leaning despite my continual pinching back of that branch.

Another tree with a vigorous side shoot is this Ettinger:

The young Ettinger has its strong side shoot on the lower left.
Side shoot is about half as thick as the trunk.
So I’ve been pinching its terminal leaves to keep it tame.
Pinched. Tamed.

Allowing the tree to choose a new leader

There is an exception, however. If a vigorous side branch is aiming vertically, you might want to go with it and allow the branch to become the new leader/trunk of the tree. I’ve allowed this a number of times and it has worked out successfully in the long run. Sometimes it seems that the tree chooses this new branch as a leader and sends it an abundance of energy, and we would do well to listen to the tree rather than fight it, as insisting on the leader that we have chosen results in a slower growing tree overall. But it’s important that this new leader is naturally aiming close to vertical or else it can’t be managed.

Two-year-old Nabal avocado tree.
Original leader has white paint. Vigorous, vertical shoot appeared to the right last year.
So I tied it to the stake and let it take over.

Carrying a fruit load

Having a balanced canopy prior to fruitset is vital for a young tree because of how heavy the avocados become. If a tree is lopsided when it starts developing fruit (in the spring), then the fruit usually exacerbates this and causes the tree to lean and can threaten to topple it, especially if it’s on a slope or if it must deal with strong winds.

I made the mistake of allowing this Lamb tree to set fruit on an unbalanced canopy when it was young. And even though it was staked and never toppled, I have been working to correct the imbalance for the last five years and the trunk will always be crooked.

Also, do you care if the fruit develops while touching the ground? Such avocados become discolored on their bottom side, usually appearing light green or yellow where they touch the ground. It’s only a skin blemish so I personally don’t mind. But if you do, then you want to prevent this by incrementally removing low branches (branches below about knee height can be considered low). You might also need to shorten other low branches (that are still above knee height) because if they set fruit near their tips, that fruit can cause the branch to sag enough to land the fruit on the ground.

Retaining mulch and shading the trunk and rootzone

Yet my preference is not to just remove all low branches on an avocado tree at the time of planting because low branches are functional and useful, especially for the smallest trees. The more branches and leaves a tree has, the more energy it creates and the faster it can grow up to productive size. On a small avocado tree, say under eight feet tall or so, low branches perform this function about as well as high branches.

Also, low branches serve as protection and as a buffer. Especially helpful in windy areas, these low branches keep the leaf litter that begins to fall and collect under a tree from blowing away. And especially helpful in hot areas, low branches provide shade to the young tree’s trunk, which can easily sunburn. The roots also appreciate the shade, as they fry if the soil gets too hot. So my preference is to incrementally remove low branches as the tree grows taller.

Two-year-old Carmen tree that is ready to set a first crop this spring.
I’ve removed a couple low branches whose fruit would develop on the mulch and that interfere with the sprinkler water.

Not interfering with irrigation

A convenience of watering an avocado tree with drip irrigation is that low branches don’t interfere. But if you use any type of sprinkler or sprayer, then over time you’ll want to remove some lower branches so they don’t block the distribution of the water.

If irrigating with a sprinkler or sprayer, it’s also ideal to train the young tree to a single trunk up to about knee height. If you let the tree form large branches below that level, they will probably interfere with your irrigation water. I’ve made the mistake of letting avocado trees branch into multiple trunks down low and — while it makes for a great climbing tree for the kids — it prevents me from placing my sprinklers wherever I want around the tree.

Reed tree with low, bifurcated trunk that limits sprinkler placement.

How and when to train

As a final note: I’ve found that by continually assessing the form a young avocado tree is taking, you can train it to a desirable shape by almost never needing to cut a branch. Just pinch the terminals of a vigorous side shoot. Or tie a new leader to the stake. Do it early in the life of the tree, and within a couple years the tree will likely be able to stand on its own, carry a crop of avocados, and face a strong Santa Ana — few, if any, tools having been required. 

Video

Here I show some of the same avocado trees as above and talk about how I’ve trained them or wish I had trained them.

My post about pruning avocado trees in general is here.

You might also like to read my post about planting and staking an avocado tree.

All of my Yard Posts are listed HERE

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