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Avocado adventures.

"I love that monster, even though it keeps us from living a normal life." So writes Al Kray about his bearing avocado tree in Glendale, California. Other home growers might agree: when an avaocado tree rewards you with a hefty crop, it's easy to overlook the tree's faults: large size, temperamental bloom habit, constant leaf drop, and a dense, shade-casting canopy that makes for difficult gardening below.

If you're growing an avocado tree now or are planning to plant one, here's advice on how to keep it happy, how to live with its habits, and how to harvest the fruit.

More than 300 readers contributed to this report; they wrote us in response to a query in Sunset. Some, like Dr. Baldwin Lamson (pictured on opposite page) and the Joe Muellers (above left), started trees as nursery-grown plants; Dr. Lamson now grows 28 trees-eight varieties--on a terraced, 1/2-acre hillside. Many, like john Eells (left), inherited their trees from previous owners. Still others, like Mrs. Roland Manning (above), started trees by sprouting seeds in glasses of water in the kitchen.

Mid-March is the best time to plant an avocado tree in mild, nearly frost-free climates (see the map on page 121 for areas where avocados grow best); the longer the tree has to get established, the better it will be able to withstand the first winter. If frost is still possible in your area this month, your winters are probably too cold for avocados. Start with the right variety

The best variety for your climate and site can improve your chances for a bearing tree. If in doubt, your extension service.

At left, we show seven commonly grown varieties. If you inherited your tree, the photograph can help you identify it.

Guatemalan types are the most frost-tender; they're widely grown only in the most frost-tree areas, including mildest parts of Southern California.

Mexican types are hardiest but smaller and thin-skinned. They're best for lower, colder inland valleys and temperate areas of northern California.

'Fuerte', a hybrid midway in hardiness (about like a lemon tree), is widely grown in slightly colder ares of inland Southern California and in the San Francisco Bay Area. Once popular commercially, it's touchy about bearing fruit in areas where early flowers are subject to frost.

Where garden space is at a premium, try a dwarf or semidwarf variety, such as 'Littlecado', 'Gen', or 'Whitsell'.

Nurseries sell trees in 5-gallon cans for $14 to $20, in 15-gallon cans for $30 to $65. Plant in well-drained soil in full sun, in a spot protected from wind. Seedlings: a gamble, but you may get lucky

If pit-started trees bear at all, their fruit usually differs in size, shape, and quality from the mother plant. Our readers report varying degrees of success with them, from excellent ("My pride and joy is 31 years old and consistently produces tasty, black-skinned avocados") to s-so ("I'm not really crazy about the fruit") to no fruit at all ("After 20 years, my seedling remains a lush, healthy ornamental").

If you have space to spare, you might try growing a seedling. To reduce the gamble, you can graft a bearing avocado onto the seedling rootstock, but this takes patience and some know-how; only two out of nine readers who tried it reported success.

"If you want to harvest avocado of predictable quality," writes Frank Ishihara of Alta Loma, "you can't make a better investment than a nursery plant." Secrets of success: how to water, fertilize

Avocado trees can't take drought, but they don't like wet feet either. One rule of thumb: water whenever the soil is dry 18 to 22 inches below the surface (check at the drip line with a soil auger). For mature trees in well-drained soils, that usually means watering every two to four weeks in summer, more often in hot, dry, windy weather. Frequent light waterings are best where soil is shallow, since root systems are most likely in the first foot of soil. Deeper watering is best in deep, sandy loam--the best soil for avocados--where roots can be 2 to 3 feet deep. A heavy watering about every fourth time helps flush salts from the soil.

Rotating sprinklers and drip emitters work well. Most Sunset readers prefer slow soaking with a hose around the drip line. One reader soaks the root zone under his tree one quadrant per weekend (always the same section on the same Saturday of the month) for an hour or two, depending on the weather.

IF you build a watering basin around the drip line, knock it down before rains come to keep water from building up.

Mature bearing avocado trees grown by Sunset readers get every kind of feeding regimen: no fertilizing at all, occasional fertilizing, or light applications as often as once a month during growing season.

Nitrogen is the chief nutrient avocado trees need; mature trees appreciate about 1 pound per year. Some gardeners use ammonium sulfate. A complete fertilizer with an NPK number of about 10-8-6 (sometimes sold as "citrus and avocado food") is another popular kind; a regimen of 3 to 5 pounds per mature tree applied two times a year between February and October equals about 1 pound of actual nitrogen per year. Young, nonbearing trees get off to a good start with much less: about 1 teaspoon every second or third watering the first year, following package directions. If pruning is necessary

Mature avocado trees need little or no pruning. Left on their own, however, some varieties grow into shapeless mounds of foliage; others shoot skyward and dangle their crops mostly out of reach.

Best time for shaping and developing a good branch structure is when a tree is young. To induce bushiness in upright growers, pinch out terminal buds after each growth spurt for the first few years.

Once trees are established, most Sunset readers prune them only to keep stray limbs out of their neighbor's yard or below telephone wires, to open up the canopy to prevent wind damage, or to lighten excessively heavy limbs.

If you prune, make cuts as close to a main branch as possible, and remove as little green wod and as few leaves as possible. Before you prune off lower branches to expose the sunburn-prone trunk, make sure the leaf canopy is dense enough to shade it, or coat the trunk with white water-base paint. Be consistent about pruning top growth of upright kinds, or it will grow right back.

Avocado trees are relatively trouble-free in home gardens. For some problems encountered by Sunset readers--and what to do about them--see page 232.

If you live outside the avocado belt, cover trees the first year with burlap (not touching foliage), if necessary, to protect them from hottest sun and frost. A word about pollination

If there are bearing trees in your neighborhood, you probably don't need to worry about pollination, and you may get a better crop: one reader's tree bears its heaviest crop on the side facing his neighbor's tree, 20 feet away.

Weather must be warm (above 60[deg.] or so) when flowers form, or fruit won't set. For more abut pollination, see page 232. When and how to harvest

On the tree, avocados don't soften until past their prime, so it's difficult to tell when to pick them. Some readers go by frut appearance: "The skin of 'Mexicola' gets a frosty look, and the fruit comes away from the stem easily." Or by sound: "Shake a ripe 'Duke' and the seed inside rattles." Others wait for local critters to give them a clue: "When I spot raccoons washing avocados in my pool in the dead of night, I know it's time to pick."

But there are other clues: as they mature, dark-skinned kinds turn from green to dark; green-skinned kinds lose their shine. Stems turn yellowish on some kinds. If you cut an immature avocado in half, the seed coat looks thick and white; in a mature fruit, it's papery-thin and dark brown.

Best way to tell if it's harvest time is to pick a large avocado and let it soften indoors. If the fruit is mature enough to pick, it will soften in about 5 to 10 days; if immature, it will shrivel (wait a week and try again).

Often the only way you can harvest the upper reaches of a tall tree is with a pole picker (see cover photograph). Sunset readers use everything from a polemounted 1-pound coffee can with a V cut in the rim to a swimming pool brush pole with a three-prong cultivator attached. (Cutting the stem is better than pulling it; leave a little stem "button" attached.) A few readers report success with the team "cut-and-catch" method: one person mans the pole picker, while the other catches the avocados in a net bag.

You can buy pole pickers with cutting devices attached and long cords for operating them; some come with canvas bags attached to catch the fruit.

Even with a ladder a pole picker, you may have to wait for gravity or squirrels to harvest crops from tallest trees. Some tree services will pick fruit from very tall trees, but it's expensive (about $60 per hour for a two-person crew). If you grow a summer-bearing variety, some tree services will pick highest avocados and lightly prune or shape the tree at the same time. (Pruning in late fall and winter stimulates new growth that's most susceptible to frost damage.)

Until late in the season, most back-yard growers harvest only what they use in a week or so. Some varieties can stay on the tree up to five or six months; others need harvesting within two to three months. What to do with leaf drop

A few Sunset readers rake fallen leaves into a uniform layer beneath the tree for mulch; for a neater pile, run over it with a rotary lawn mower, or confine fallen leaves with a low wire fence around the drip line. You can make compost below the tree: water and turn leaves occasionally, then rake them up each fall and dig them into garden beds.

If piles of leaves invite tree rats in your area, compost the leaves or send them out with the trash. Gardening under avocado trees

Some fastidious gardeners prefer to grow things under their avocado trees. Bernice Mattern of San Jose (see photograph above) isn't concerned about disturbing the shallow roots of her 35-year-old 'Fuerte' when she plants: "I poke around with a shovel until I find a place where no big roots are, then I dig."

If you'd rather not risk injuring shallow roots, confine plants to posts clustered around the tree's base, or to baskets hung from the tree's widest, strongest limbs.

Two readers nurture thriving St. Augustine lawns below avocado trees, lightly pruning their canopies so the grass gets some filtered sun.

One reader finds the concrete patio encircling his tree to the drip line makes clean-up easy, but watering and fertilizing tough. He feeds and waters the tree through 15-inch holes and waters into the soil every 30 inches around the patio edges.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Mar 1, 1985
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