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Originally published Friday, February 13, 2009 at 4:56 PM

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Grow an avocado plant that bears fruit

How to grow an avocado plant that bears more than just lovely foliage.

The Associated Press

Everybody wants to grow some of their own food these days. How about avocados?

We're talking about a plant that really does bear fruit, not just the stems and leaves you get from plants grown from avocado pits raised to become houseplants. It's a challenge.

Start with good light and a good variety

Avocado trees are evergreen and need good light year round to bear fruit. Indoor trees need the sunniest, most south-facing windows in the house. In much of the country, the light streaming even through those windows will be paltry compared to what falls on Florida and California even in January or February.

The other key to an avocado harvest is to grow a grafted tree. An avocado tree grown from a pit could eventually bear fruit, of course, but that first fruit would be long in coming and of unpredictable quality.

A grafted tree is made by taking a branch from a good-tasting variety, then joining it to a rootstock. The resulting tree bears fruit identical to that from which the branch was taken, and does so within only two or three years of planting.

Avocado varieties

Growing your own avocados gives you the opportunity to select from a greater number of varieties than the couple typically found in food markets.

Varieties for growing in pots should not only taste good but should be borne on naturally small trees. Three varieties that fill this double bill are: Gwen, ripening from March to November; Wurtz (Little Cado), ripening from May to September; and Whitsell, ripening from February to August.

Cross-pollination, which requires planting at least two trees to get fruit, is not absolutely necessary for avocados, but does increase yields somewhat.

Planting both Gwen and Whitsell would offer fruit for much of the year, so why not plant two anyway? Another possibility would be to have a single tree with two — or more — varieties grafted onto it.

Grafting is relatively easy, but if it's not in your bag of horticultural tricks, start with a grafted plant from a nursery or by mail-order (www.nipahutgardensandgifts.com and www.waysidegardens.com are among the mail-order businesses that usually offer avocados).

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To grow and, maybe, to harvest

Success with a potted avocado plant demands little more than attention to light and planting stock. Just give the plant the same good growing conditions that other potted plants get.

Avocados hate wet feet, so the plant might appreciate a little extra sand or perlite to improve the drainage of any regular potting mix.

Even a dwarf avocado could grow 10 or more feet high, so regular shoot and root pruning — or raising the ceiling — is needed. Size is also a consideration for a tree that may be moved indoors and out as weather permits.

Fortunately, avocado takes kindly to pruning, just before the spring growth flush.

And now for the best part: harvest. The harvest period spreads over many weeks, which is good because there is a limit to how many avocados anyone can eat at a sitting.

Green varieties are ready to pick when their skin turns slightly yellowish; dark varieties turn almost black at harvest time.

Fruits ready for harvest can be left hanging on the plant for a few weeks, but not too long or the flavor and texture will be ruined.

Avocados are one of the few fruits that are not ready to eat right when they are harvested. After picking, let the fruit sit in a bowl, or hasten ripening by putting it into a bag with an apple or banana. In a couple of weeks, or less, the flesh will be soft, buttery and ready to eat.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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