Chris and I eat avocados all the time, mostly in guacamole, tacos, salads, and veggie burgers. Growing up, it became a joke in my family to say “If you don’t eat it, we’re only going to throw it away.” Truly, this has stuck with me (don’t even get me started about the Clean Plate Club), so when I realized how many avocado pits we were throwing away, and how little greenery we had in our apartment, I decided to grow some avocado trees. My soon-to-be mother in law Juli gave me one avocado pit which she had already started to root, and we may have a small forest on our hands in the near future. For now, I’ve got three and a half healthy, happy trees, one struggling little guy who I refuse to give up on, and eight starting pits in mason jars.
Let’s start with the pits. No, let’s start with the avocados themselves. You’ll know an avocado is ripe if you squeeze it and it has a little bit of give to it, but isn’t mushy yet. It is not easy to find a ripe avocado in Michigan, least of all the UP. Hold the avocado in one hand and slice it in half with a knife, turning it so that when you pop it open, the pit is undamaged. Pull the pit out and set it aside, then scoop the fruit out of the skin with a spoon. You can put avocado slices on burgers, sandwiches, tacos and salads, or mash them up to make guacamole with tomato, onion, cilantro, lime juice, garlic, and spices. There are many recipes you can find, and most of them are fantastic. During my summer in Honolulu, Hawaii in 2008, I worked with someone who had a fruit-bearing avocado tree right in her backyard. I got in the habit of just eating the mashed avocado plain with tortilla chips. (So. Yummy.)
Rinse off the pit and scrub the remaining fruit off of it. With the fat side pointing down, carefully poke three tooth picks into the avocado, evenly spaced, about two thirds of the way up. Balance the avocado on a glass of water so that the bottom half is submerged; I use mason jars. Place the glass in a window with lots of light. In Michigan, the most light will be found in south-facing windows. As time goes on, water will evaporate. It is important to check it every couple of days and refill the water. Rinse it out every now and then and try not to let the water get cloudy. After about a week, you’ll be able to remove the peel from the pit, and you may have to adjust the toothpicks as the pit splits apart and the root starts to grow. It may take a while, even a few months, but eventually roots and the tree itself will start to sprout. Let it grow until the tree reaches at least 12 inches tall, gets leafy, and the roots are full and numerous.
At this point, I read varying advice on what to do next. One website said to cut the tree down to six inches tall to promote growth. Another said to pinch off the top set of leaves for the same result. I tried both and ended up with some awkward-looking trees. On the next round, I’m going to just let them grow and see what happens, without cutting them. Although they look awkward, this advice might have been good, since it looks to me like they’re growing tall and strong, however crooked. On the other hand, I have no frame of reference yet, so it’s hard to say.
The plants will be ready to plant in dirt when they’re at least twelve inches tall, leafy, and with a nice knot of long roots. I started out with 8” pots. Make sure there’s a hole in the bottom for drainage, and put a tray under it to catch the draining water. Place a seashell over the hole and fill in the pot with a thin layer of rocks or pebbles, about 1” deep. On top of that, plant the avocado tree in potting soil, leaving the pit slightly exposed. Water thoroughly right after planting, and water the tree every few days after that. If the tree is being overwatered, the leaves will develop yellow edges, and if it isn’t receiving enough water, the edges of the leaves will appear brown and somewhat dry. The dirt should feel moist, never dry or muddy.
I’ve tried just about the same method with all my plants, and the tallest one is 27” tall with about two dozen leaves and a root which has grown upwards into another tree in the same pot, now about 10” tall. The little guy I mentioned earlier who isn’t doing very well is 5” tall, lost all his leaves, and was started around the same time as the other oldest ones. The only thing I can say is that sometimes avocado pits just aren’t going to grow into big, strong trees. For this reason, it’s a good idea to start a few pits so that if one doesn’t work out, it isn’t so disappointing. Three out of four ain’t bad. Out of the eight pits I’ve recently started on my kitchen windowsill, I expect only six of them to do very well.
When is it time to move to a bigger pot? Trust your instinct. That’s what I’ve been doing and it’s working out pretty well for me. I’ll keep you posted on the trees’ growth and development. It’s important to keep in mind that in Michigan, these will only be indoor plants. They may be able to move outside in July and August, but avocado trees risk death if temperatures go below 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit. Even tonight in June, Marquette is 41 degrees. It is extremely unlikely that an avocado tree in Michigan will ever bear fruit, and the only chance you’ve got is if you have multiple trees which have the chance of being pollinated. Remember, water, dirt, and plenty of sunshine is really all you need! Keep in mind that the above is the advice and experience of someone who has only been growing avocado trees for one year. I find it to be very rewarding. I’ve always loved gardening, and without much of a yard of my own, a sunny windowsill is the next best thing.