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Homegrown Avocados

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Who among us did not grow up with at least one toothpick-skewered avocado pit in a glass of water languishing in a sunny kitchen window? If I only had a dollar for every one of those home science experiments that my mom and grandmother stuck in the window almost second-naturedly, I could buy a desert island on which to plant my own avocado forest. 

So where are those little plants now? Most of them suffered the same fate as the ones I so fervently sprouted on my windowsill until I grew weary of watching them shrivel in the hard December frost after putting them out in the garden. Notice I said most of them. There was this one little tree that my grandmother planted near her house in the Bay Area that grew to a size where she was concerned about the close proximity to the windows. The neighbor encouraged her to cut it down, arguing that it would never bear fruit since it didn’t have a pollinator. Well, Nature has her way of ensuring the proliferation of the species and after that tree was chopped down and lying on the ground, it was discovered to have one very large fruit. I may have only been eight or nine at the time, but that whole tragedy really left a mark on me.

Back then, who knew anything about growing avocados? We certainly have come a long way, from having zero cold-tolerant options to a nice variety of cold-hardy trees for the backyard gardener. Avocados are large, single-seeded berries, maturing very slowly, spending 6 to 12 months on the tree before harvest, with some taking up to 18 months. This is important to know when choosing varieties for your backyard crop, since you can essentially time your harvests for a longer season. And of course, an added bonus is that the fruits do not ripen on the tree, but only become soft and edible after picking, extending your season even longer. 

I think by now, we all know how good avocados are for us. Not only are they delicious in so many ways, but one-third of a medium avocado (50g) has 80 calories and contributes nearly 20 vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, making it a heart-healthy choice to help meet nutrient needs. More than 75 percent of the fat in avocados is unsaturated, which means they do not raise LDL, or bad cholesterol levels, and can actually keep them under control. 

In the last ten years, avocados have become one of our favorite fruits. From guacamole to avo toast, Americans consume almost 2 billion pounds each year. California, naturally, is the epicenter of avocado demand, with most of these grown in San Diego and Ventura counties. However, the majority of avocados consumed in the U.S. continue to be imported from Mexico, the world’s leading producer of the “green gold.”

Avocado trees are monoecious, which are considered “perfect,” featuring both male and female structures. The flowers alternate between operating as males and as females. They function as females upon opening, before switching to a male reproductive mode later. Avocado trees flower in patterns, termed Type A and Type B. Type A flowers open as females on the first morning, before starting to operate as males on the second afternoon. Type B flowers function as females on the first afternoon they open, before switching to a male reproductive mode on their second morning. Both types of flowers close permanently at the end of their second day. Sound a bit confusing? Not to worry, though; since avocado trees have a limited ability to self-pollinate, backyard enthusiasts can improve their pollination rate by planting Type A trees in the vicinity of Type B trees.

Although they evolved in tropical latitudes, avocado trees have historically grown in several different habitats, leading to the development of three separate but closely related races: Mexican, Guatemalan and West Indian. Over time, growers have combined the three races in various ways to produce hundreds of different varieties. Seven avocado varieties are produced commercially in California, including the Hass, Zutano, Reed, Pinkerton, Lamb Hass, Gwen, Fuerte and Bacon varieties, with more being introduced all the time. Despite this diverse array of choices to our farmers, the overwhelming majority of avocados produced in California are of the Hass variety.

However, as popular as the Hass is, it may not be suitable for our cold winters and hot summers here in the Valley. This has always been an issue for me, as I have so passionately desired to grow my own avocados out in the country where temps can quickly drop to below bearable for most avocado varieties. You may have read some of my articles in which I have lamented not being able to grow them, or that I vowed to at least get serious about trying. Again.  

And so, I did get serious this last summer when I learned that my local nurseries were offering hardy Mexican varieties that are frost-tolerant down to 18 degrees fahrenheit. I went a little crazy and purchased five different trees, including Mexicola, Bacon, Zutano, Stewart and Reed. And honestly, I don’t think I’m done. Considering the Type A and Type B pollinating schedule, I want to make sure I have enough cross pollinators to ensure a stupendous crop. I mean, after all, I have waited for a really long time. Who knows, I may end up with that avocado forest after all. In the meantime, I look forward to all the different fruits I’ll have by this time next year.

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