by Teresa Watkins
© Teresa Watkins, July, 1999. All Rights Reserved
One of the most delicious things about living in sunny Florida is the fact that you can sit down to a healthy breakfast of tropical fruit from your very own garden. You don't have to worry about how fresh it is or what kind of pesticides someone else has sprayed on them, and since many varieties of fruit can be planted year round, you don't just have to eat grapefruit each morning. Having an abundant supply of these tasty fruits is not only nutritious but can also be a source of pride and enjoyment for the tropical gardener. This column begins an alphabetical multi-part series in which I will discuss what types of fruit can be grown in your backyard for Zones 9-11. I will give you the descriptions, seasons, growing conditions, fertilizer needs, and sources needed to successfully produce a variety of these tropical treats. I will even include a few recipes. I mean, why would you want to grow avocados, bananas, papayas, sapotes and guavas, if you didn't know how to use their great flavors in your meals?
When my family first moved to Tavares in 1972, we had two to three standard citrus trees, a privacy grove of bananas at the back fence, and a 40-foot avocado tree in our backyard that towered over our house. Even the nearby magnolia tree was almost rivaled by the avocado tree with its beautiful, dark, reddish-green elliptical leaves and majestic stature. My 'bonnie' mother, born and raised in Scotland, had never eaten avocados growing up and as such, they were not a part of our 'meat and potato' meals. So the beautiful, emerald green fruit from the magnificent, asymmetrical tree was never picked and just fell to the ground where they were promptly eaten by 'Tootsie', our once thin beagle. She loved them so much that the only creatures she would share them with were the squirrels, and that is because she couldn't eat the squirrels while eating her avocados. It wasn't until I left home and found out about guacamole and nacho chips (and margaritas?) that I grew to love them. After that, I could not throw a party unless there was lots of guacamole bowls everywhere filled to the brim to be devoured by guests.
Most everyone has witnessed the elementary science lesson of the toothpick in the avocado pit growing roots in a baby food jar. You may even remember seeing the flourishing jar in your sunniest classroom window. We learned at a young age how to root seed pits in water. Some people , such as my neighbor, still think avocados are grown this way… massive commercial farms with lots of vertical rows of little glass jars filled with avocado pits and white roots streaming from underneath. For all fruits trees, the best advice is not to grow one from seed. For the best-tasting and fastest fruit production, you should purchase most fruit trees that are grafted onto proper root-stock. If not, the plant could take up to 10 years to produce a good tasting fruit and ample harvest.
Avocados (Persea americana) (Family: Lauraceae) are natives to tropical America and subtropical regions in the world. Varieties are known as 'races' with the three recognized indigenous 'races' to zones 9-10-11 being Guatemalan, Mexican, and West Indian. There are records of avocados being cultivated by pre-Columbian farmers who ensured that the avocado would become one of the most important fruits in tropical America. The first verified introduction of avocados to the United States was 1833 in Florida with California production starting in 1856. Avocados are also grown commercially in many other parts of the world including tropical Africa, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Israel, and Mexico.
The varieties best suited for homeowners wanting to grow avocados in their backyards are the Mexican races, such as Winter Mexican, Lulu, Brogden, and Choquette. These fruit types are hardier, taste better, have a higher butter fat content and are more cold tolerant. Avocados can attain a mature height of 30' to 65' and are considered an evergreen. Different varieties can lose their leaves just before flowering but push out new leaves at the same time. The fruit is classified as a berry and consists of a single large seed that is covered with a buttery tasting pulp. Ripe fruit can be green, black, purple, or reddish, depending on the variety.
Most varieties are self-pollinating, but they can be cross-pollinated, too. Self-pollination begins when there are two different stages of flowers on the tree. Mother Nature then blows her breezes across the flowers, blending the pollen together, which makes it become fruitful. Cross-pollination happens when large flying insects, such as bees and wasps, fly from flower to flower replicating the winds' action. If you have trouble getting fruit to fully develop on your trees, you may not have enough bees in your area. You can plant purple or white Mexican heather (cuphea hyssopifolia) around your yard to encourage the bees to visit and 'do their thing'. Make sure you are not using harmful pesticides in your gardening practices, which will not only kill pests but beneficial insects as well.
Avocados do not like wet or lowland areas. With our Florida limestone and sandy soils, avocados can have sufficient fruit production if maintained with a consistent and balanced fertilization routine. With new trees, it is better to use a lighter, more frequent fertilization method such as 1/4 lb. to 1 lb. per tree of 6-6-6 or 8-8-8 every month depending on the size of your tree. After the second year fertilization three to four times a year is sufficient. Make sure trees are sufficiently watered before and after fertilizing to prevent burn damage. Irrigation should be consistent during fruit set, production, and drought periods. Avocado trees can suffer from iron deficiency under alkaline conditions. This can be managed with timely applications of iron chelates formulated for such purposes.
Avocados need special attention when first planted and through the first three winters. The most common reasons for an avocado tree to not perform well are freezing temperature and disease. During the first and second seasons, it is extremely important to protect your avocado tree from temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit by using either a frost blanket or cloth (never plastic) with a heat bulb underneath. The blanket or cloth must be secured at ground level to retain heat inside. Even as it matures, the tropical avocado will never be able to take unusually low temperatures. Trees that survive but are damaged by a bad frost may not produce fruit for several years.
Avocados do get pest problems but they rarely hamper fruit production. In the fifteen years that our avocado tree was in our backyard, my parents never did anything to encourage it (not even fertilizer). Mind you, it was an established 40-foot tree in a once fertile swamp area and it thrived until the destructive back-to-back Central Florida freezes of the '80's. The most common insects to attack avocados are Avocado Loopers (Epimecis detexta), Pyriform Scale ( Protopulvinaria pyriformis), Dictyospermum Scale (Chrysomphalus dictyospermi) Avocado Red Mites (Oligonychus yothersi), Borers (e.g. Ambrosia beetles, Xylosandrus sp.), Avocado Lace Bugs (Acysta perseae), and Red Banded Thrips (Selenothrips tubrocinctus ).
For disease control, spraying a 'preventative' fungicide before there is a problem is not recommended, as it has not proven to be an effective deterrent. Leaf spots (foliar disease) and fruit diseases can be controlled successfully with proper irrigation practices and the correct use of a recommended fungicide. Remember that you must spray both the tops and bottoms of the leaves. If there is an insect or disease problem, contact your Master Gardener Clinic of your local county extension office for their recommended controls of insects and disease.
Avocados do not ripen on the tree and should be harvested when they reach a certain size and calendar date. The fruit season can be from June through March with the highest yield from August to December. Florida avocados ripen best at temperatures of 60 to 75 degrees F. They may ripen unevenly with warmer temperatures.
The avocado fruit is highly nutritious and a good source of Vitamin A and potassium. It is one of the few pulpy fruits that does not contain cholesterol with the Florida varieties having less total fat than varieties of California avocados. It is not recommended to cook avocados as this hampers their appearance and flavor, but they can be used in salads, dips, appetizers, and served on sandwiches for a great meal. A bacon, lettuce, tomato, blackened chicken breast, blue cheese and avocado sandwich is to die for -- although I can't really speak to the dietary aspects of it -- but heck, have another margarita and try it. This great tasting summer sandwich may not be good for your waist, but I know it will be good for your soul.
The following recipe is from Chef, Owner Toribio Prado of Cha Cha Cha and CAVA restaurants in Los Angeles.
- 2 ripe medium avocados, peeled, pitted and diced
- 1 large ripe tomato, diced
- 1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 Tbs. chopped fresh cilantro
- Juice of 1 large lime
- 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp. salt
In medium bowl, combine all ingredients; toss well and maintain chunky consistency.
Nutrients per serving:
Calories 59 (46% from fat); Fat 3g (sat. 0.5g, mono 1.8g, poly 0.4g);
Protein 1.1g; Carb 8.5g; Fiber 2.8g; Chol 0mg; Iron 0.5mg; Sodium
153mg; Calc 29mg.
This and more recipes are available from The California Avocado Commission