It’s a great time of year for avocados. Some of my friends are feasting on boxes of avocados from the Bay of Plenty.
Others have trees laden with big green fruit.
Avocados thrive in many parts of the Waikato, even though our climate is generally too cold for commercial growing.
Avocados are everyday food for many people. They fit well into many diverse eating regimes, including vegetarian, vegan, ketogenic, raw food and dairy-free.
Nobody has anything bad to say about avocados – they are full of vitamins and minerals and healthy fats. And avocado oil is considered a healthy option for high temperature cooking.
But avocados were a symbol of luxury in my New Zealand childhood. They were small and wizened and expensive – probably imported from Australia or further afield.
In the 1970s many people didn’t know what to do with avocados. I remember outlandish-sounding recipes for avocado desserts in the New Zealand Herald.
I first encountered avocados when visiting my mother’s family in Pasadena, California. As a five-year-old, I noticed the strange, soft green oily slices, carefully laid atop some shredded romaine lettuce and surrounded by tiny cherry tomatoes, to make a Californian side salad.
I wasn’t sure whether I liked it. But I was trained from an early age to eat everything on my plate.
It was only a matter of time before someone thought of growing avocados in New Zealand. From the mid 1970s, while the mainstream Bay of Plenty horticulture industry was getting excited about kiwifruit, some far-sighted growers were busy planting avocado trees. A while back, I interviewed one of the avocado pioneers, Doug Brown of EcoAvo, for OrganicNZ magazine. Doug was also an organic pioneer – he was one of the first growers to have BioGro organic certification.
New Zealand’s commercial avocado industry is centred around the Bay of Plenty and Hawke’s Bay. Avocados are forest trees from the Central American rainforest. They need a particular temperature range and regular rainfall to thrive.
When the local farmers’ markets are operating (currently we’re still in Covid-lockdown) there are usually a couple of avocado growers from the Bay of Plenty. One of the regulars is Arthur Dixon of Ongare Point Organics. He sells avocados and citrus to the far south, Queenstown, Riverton, Invercargill and Dunedin, as well as the Waikato farmers’ markets.
I’ve discovered that there are many prolific avocado trees in backyards and on lifestyle blocks in the Waikato, despite our winter frosts. It’s possible to eat home-grown avocados almost all year round if you plant different kinds of avocado.
Treecrops enthusiast Maxine Fraser has five different avocado trees in her backyard, at the edge of a Hamilton gully. Some years she has avocados 11 months of the year, but it’s quite variable, she says.
The varieties include Reed “cannonballs” (they’re big and round) and Zutano, which is used as a pollinizer by commercial orchards. Maxine also has one big old tree that’s not a known variety.
“More people really need to grow this amazing fruit in the Waikato,” she says.
Trisha Wren and Ian Brennan have Hass and Reed avocados on their Maungakawa property. They’ve found it easy to grow avocados because they don’t get much frost, Trisha says. The two 10-year-old Hass trees are growing so fast they need trimming back.
How to grow avocados
Avocados are a very cost-effective home crop, if you have space for a tree, and several years to wait while it grows.
Tips for growing a backyard avocado tree
- Growing an avocado tree takes time. You’ll have to wait around five years before the tree starts fruiting.
- Young avocado trees are susceptible to frost until they’re at least 2 metres tall.
- Plant in a warm sheltered spot. Keep watered for the first few years. Once the tree gets its roots down, it can tolerate drier conditions.
- Avocados produce more fruit if there is a compatible pollinizer tree nearby – down the road is fine, Maxine Fraser says.
- You’ll need plenty of space. These are big trees, up to 12m high. There are dwarf avocado trees, but I’ve heard anecdotally that these aren’t as robust as their bigger cousins.
- When your tree produces, you’ll have an avocado abundance – far more than you can use. Be prepared to give away, swap or sell avocados.
Different varieties of avocado
It’s best to buy a grafted avocado tree, of a variety /cultivar such as Hass, Reed or Fuerte. There are many other cultivars to chose from – look online for NZ propagators. Or you can try grafting scion wood/cutting from a known variety on to your own seedling. The Waikato branch of the Treecrops Association holds an annual grafting workshop. It’s a great organization and a good place to find people who know about growing avocado trees.
It’s easy to grow an avocado seedling. Almost every avocado pip will germinate if you let it. But, this isn’t a great way to get a productive tree. It won’t be the same as the original fruit. It might be an amazing new variety – or (more likely) it might be a dud. And you won’t find out for several years.
There are many varieties of avocado, and they ripen at different times of the year. All the varieties have subtle but distinct differences in texture and flavour.
How to ripen an avocado
Ripen avocados in a warm place. The hot water cupboard is ideal. For faster ripening, put in a bag with a piece of banana peel. Check at least once a day. Unripe avocados keep for weeks in a fridge.
The most common variety is Hass, which has creamy yellow-green flesh. Hass is the only variety which goes dark brown when ripe. With the other varieties, check if they’re ripe by touch. Or gently insert a toothpick into the stalk end. If it doesn’t go in easily, the avocado isn’t ripe.
What to do with avocados
Mashed on toast
Sourdough or wholemeal, with a squirt of lemon juice and a sprinkle of salt and black pepper
This Mexican sauce is my favourite way to eat avocados. Guacamole goes perfectly with refried beans, salsa and tortillas.
Two or three ripe avocados
1 clove of garlic, mashed
1 tablespoon finely chopped onion
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon yoghurt or kefir (optional)
Mash the avocados.
Add the other ingredients.
Mix everything together.
Make the guacamole an hour before you eat it, to let the flavours blend. But plan to eat it on the same day – it doesn’t keep well.
Anna’s avocado dressing
This dressing/ sauce/ pesto comes from A Modern Way to Cook, by Anna Jones. It’s a very interesting taste sensation. The spicy, aromatic basil and pungent coriander combine to produce something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
one ripe avocado
4 tablespoons coconut milk
a teaspoon of runny honey
1 green chilli
a small bunch of fresh basil
a small bunch of fresh cilantro/ coriander
2 tablespoons tamari or light soy sauce
4 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Place everything in a blender and whizz until smooth and green. Taste and add more soy, vinegar or honey, as needed