Grow an Avocado...You Know You Want To!

    Photo: Bukowsky18/FlickrI don't know about you, but I'm an avocado fiend. I adore these delicious little fruits, particularly the rich, creamy Hass that's widely cultivated in California and parts of the Southwest. And, like so many of us, every time I wrench a pit out of an avocado to get at the goodness inside, I mull over the thought of growing my own avocado tree. I've even sprouted a seed or two in my day, but I never really committed to the project, assuming it was too cold for me to grow avocados, and thinking it would be too much work.

    Turns out, I was wrong.

    While avocados can be a bit fussy (they really prefer to be grown in USDA zones 9-11, although you can grow them in greenhouses), it's totally worth a try. Even if you don't get your avocado tree to bear fruit (and we'll talk about that more in a moment), avocado trees are actually rather gorgeous, and well worth keeping up as part of your landscaping. You can buy them at some nurseries to get a jump start, but the fun part is actually sprouting them from seed -- though be warned, because commercial avocados are grown with grafting techniques, your tree might not behave exactly as you expect. If you want a reliable outcome, you'll have to go with buying a tree from a nursery. Consider this more like a fun gardening experiment.

    Start out with an avocado pit. Make sure to cut the fruit open carefully to get to the pit, and take it out without disrupting the layer of brown material on the outside of the pit. Run it under water to remove any remaining flesh, which could rot and damage the pit while it's sprouting. Then, point the narrower end up (that's where the tree will sprout) and the broader end down (that's where your taproot will develop) and use a few toothpicks or prongs to pierce it, much like you're setting up a Christmas tree stand.

    Rest the edges of the toothpicks on a glass, bowl, or similar container and fill it with water. Make sure to let the top of the pit stay dry, while the bottom of the pit stays wet, and change the water every three to six days, keeping the pit in a bright, sunny, warm area of the house. It can take up to two months for an avocado pit to sprout, and while you're waiting, make sure it doesn't develop mold and mildew. If you're having trouble with light levels, talk to your Dallas electrician about setting up a grow light.

    You'll know you have a starter when your seed starts to dry out and crack at the top, sloughing away the brown casing material. A small shoot will start to appear, even as a taproot develops at the base of the pit and branches out into a series of roots. Keep the avocado pit watered, warm, and well-lit for several weeks, until the young tree is about a hands-length tall. Cut the stem back to promote healthy growth (I know, it feels cruel, but do it anyway!) and then allow it to grow back to the same height before potting it up in rich, moist soil.

    As your avocado tree grows, you can gradually transplant it into larger containers, and eventually into the ground. If you live somewhere warm and temperate, your avocado tree will likely be happy outdoors in a sheltered, sunny place. If you live somewhere cooler, keep your avocado in a wheeled container so you can move it indoors for wintering on a sun porch or in a sunny part of the house.

    Avocado maintenance is actually pretty simple. Periodically pinch the leaves back to encourage the tree to develop a bushy form, rather than a leggy one. Generally, you can pinch the top two leaves to promote the formation of branches, rather than more leaves, and as the branches grow out, you can keep doing this to make your avocado even in form. If your avocado starts being nibbled on by aphids or other insects, wash it in warm water with mild dish soap, or consider applying neem oil, a good source of natural pest control.

    Is your tree browning? It may be drying out, or it could be upset about being buffeted by winds. Looking wilty? Low water may be a problem, but it could also be drowning in too much water, so check the soil carefully. Houseplant food with a good balance of nitrogen and zinc is usually sufficient for avocados.

    So, when will your tree produce fruit? It takes around five to seven years for a tree to fully mature and start bearing, and be aware that avocados are what is known as alternate barriers. That means that one year, they'll set a large crop, and the next year will be smaller. The year following will have a large crop, and so forth.

    Avocados are also not very good at pollinating themselves, although they technically can. The problem is that while the flowers are both male and female, the sex organs open at different times, making it difficult for the pollen to reach the female organs and fertilize them, even with bees or manual pollination. For this reason, it's a good idea to have a second tree around to help out; when the female parts are open on the first tree, the male flower parts on the second tree produce pollen to fertilize them.

    These fruits are actually pretty special snowflakes in the flowering department. The trees are broadly broken into two categories. "A" avocados open their female parts in the morning of the first day of flowering, and their male parts in the afternoon of the second day. "B" avocados do the opposite. If you have one of each, they'll fertilize each other, and the trees should both set fruit.

    Hass is probably the most famous A variety, but there are a number of others, including Pinkertons. Bacon and Fuerte cultivars, meanwhile, fall into the B category. (Yes, there's an avocado cultivar called "Bacon.") Get one of each, and you'll be getting happy avocado fruit! Once a tree starts fruiting, unless it's damaged or diseased, it can keep going for decades...or hundreds of years, as attested by some truly ancient but still productive Mexican avocado trees.

    P.S. If you're running out of ideas for that bumper avocado crop, here are some tips.

    P.P.S. For a remarkably detailed, up-to-date guide on the 14 health benefits of avocado, as well as 5 delicious avocado recipes, check out this terrific post.

    Katie Marks writes for

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