Bay Area yards are filled with mysterious avocado varieties. This man is on a mission to find them all.
Meet Gary Gragg, a horticulturist and avocado obsessive who's dedicated his life to the fruit.
By ELENA KADVANY Feb. 8, 2022
San Francisco Chronicle
Constanza Hevia H./Special to The Chronicle
Yes, it is true, you can successfully grow avocados in the San Francisco Bay Area and throughout low elevation Northern California.
Gary Gragg has experimented with countless varieties on his Lafayette Winters and Richmond sites for the past 18 years and has learned the subtleties of each and best practices for their successful cultivation. Is it more of a challenge to grow avocados here than on the winter-warm hillsides of San Diego? Yes, but select the right varieties, plant them in the right locations, keep them moist but not saturated, keep the deer away, protect them from frost and scorching sun the first few years until they bulk up, encourage as many bees as possible to visit your trees in Spring, mulch, mulch and then mulch some more, and you too will be the most popular person on the block, wielding your massive green surplus for favors, barter, goodwill or better.
Watch the Videos below starring our very own demonstration Reed Avocado tree located in our parking lot at the nursery over a full year of fruiting sequence. And don't dare grab any lest the lethal booby traps trigger! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
Gary displays a harvest from his
Lafayette grove of Bacon, Mexico
Grande, Zutano and Fuerte avocados
(Left to Right)
Golden Gate Palms Super Awesome
Avocado Video Series
What would you do if you suddenly found yourself as the authority on a magical fruit that previously no one thought they could grow, that had tons of beneficial health qualities, is delicious, and super beautiful when everyone found out about you and then sent countless questions your way via email, phone, text and even smoke signal???? So many that you did not even have time to answer them all??? RIGHT! Make a bunch of Super Awesome videos. If you are willing to come down to the nursery, we will talk your ear off on growing these most wondrous fruits. Or you can arrange to call Gary for a prepaid half hour phone consult at $100, Or better yet, listen to him spew more guacamole prose than you ever cared to listen to below by watching his "Golden Gate Palms Super Awesome Avocado Video Series". Bon Appétit!
Simply move your cursor over the image for a description, click the image for an expanded view
AND YES, SIZE MATTERS
The photograph below depicts standard available sizes of avocados from Golden Gate Palms. From right to left, the first and smallest plant is our 5 gallon avocado that over time we determined is a bit too wimpy to plant out in the big, bad scary world of heat waves, wind, frost, intermittent moisture etc. and no longer sell as we found attrition rates unacceptably high because of their juvenility. Occasionally we will offer up very hard to find varieties such as Gem in smaller sizes when that is all that is available. Cost on these ranges from $85- $150.
Next to that is our premium 5 gallon plant we occasionally stock at about 4'-6' tall that is appreciably larger and tougher than the first for $135-$200. Fourth is our most popular, more filled out and established 15 gallon sized category at 5'-7' tall for $300-$385. And for those that just have no patience waiting for their guacamole gold mine to be in full operation, last is our super sized premium box tree that typically stands at 7'-11' high by 3'-6' wide. This size is markedly more cold hardy and tougher than smaller plants and will typically produce 10-25 avocados the first year and sells for $750-$850. And sometimes we have SUPER SIZED 15's that are as large as the 24" trees at $100 less making for an easy installation of a relatively large tree. And note that as of the date of this update in Spring of 2021, the demand for these trees has greatly outstripped the supply and they are being purchased faster than they can be grown to the sizes we would like. Our choice is either to not bring any trees in and let them grow, or bring them in small and sell what we have. The cost of production and supplying of the trees is the same regardless of the size of the actual plant contained in the container so we must charge full price even though the trees are small. If the economy wanes for several years, the trees will become larger as sales will drop and the trees will have longer grow cycles before they are pulled up to enter civilian life in gardens. So the silver lining to a recession is you'll be able to get HUGE avocado trees, but until then, enjoy the economic boom times of the "The Roaring 20's Dos" and your resultant cuter more petite starter avocado trees.
The advantages of getting plants from larger container sizes is critical mass which is even more important when economic times are good and avocado trees for sale are small (and sometimes, non-existent). First, the larger plants will feed you sooner and secondly, the larger the plant, the less susceptible to freezing temperatures it is and overall wimping out. Using larger trees is especially important in Northern California where life is a bit more challenging than the benign climates of the commercial growing zones of the south.
Yes, size matters. Left to right: 24" box, 15 gallon, a robust 5 gallon, and a rather wimpy 5 gallon.
Listed below are the varieties we recommend for planting locally. All of these trees are genetic grafted clones, meaning, they will be genetically identical to their parent tree from which their budwood was obtained as well as be sexually mature immediately, which sounds a bit salacious but basically means that they will have the ability to set fruit on day one.
Homegrown seedlings rather are always variable in their characteristics and are almost always inferior to cloned plants from named varieties and they will not become sexually mature for many years meaning, yes you guessed it, no fruit, and no fun for the bees!
Move your cursor over the images below and displayed will be name, notes, average fruit size, general cold hardiness, and flower type. Click "go to link" to see the UC Riverside Avocado Variety Chart which is a wealth of information. Additional cultural information is listed at the bottom of this page as well as is an article Gary wrote for Bay Area News Group way back in 2010 on growing avocados in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond.
COLD HARDY AVOCADO VARIETIES FOR NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
INVENTORY AS OF 5/13/22
PLEASE NOTE: Although we HIGHLY recommend planting avocados from more established 15 gal sizes as such larger sized plants establish much more reliably and produce avocados 2-3 years sooner than their much more tender and juvenile 5 gal counterparts, occasionally we will release hard to find varieties in the smaller 5 gallon sizes when we do not have availability of the larger sizes. These smaller starter plants must be watched much more closely during their establishment period against hot sun, freezing conditions, deer pressure, and moisture management than their larger, more established and hardier 15 gallon and 24" counterparts. BUYER BEWARE WHEN BUYING THE SMALLER AND MORE FINICKY 5 GALLON PLANTS!!! Lastly, the inventory listing above is updated bi-monthly, and may not reflect what we have in stock at the nursery. If you want to make sure we have something before you visit, please call or email us to find out what we have in stock.
"Yo Kyle, what kind of avocados are in stock?"
Originated in Buena Park, California, by James Bacon. Introduced in 1951. Flesh has an unusually pale yellow/green color. High Oil Content. Upright tree, reliable, consistant, heavy producer. Good frost tolerance. Reliable producer for San Francisco Bay Area. -Harvest January - July -Average Fruit Size: 8-14 Ounces -Hardiness: to 24 degrees when mature -Flower Type B
Yes, this is the monster of all avocados weighing in sometimes at over 2 pounds each, That's like four Hass wrapped into one. Creamy and rich bright yellow flesh does not discolor when refrigerated. Skin is so thick and tough it can be used as its own Guacamole Bowl. Tree becomes large and round headed. Available Fall of 2020. -Harvest May - November -Average Fruit Size: 18-32 Ounces -Hardiness: to 26 degrees when mature -Flower Type A (for more info on THE BIG MUP click link below)
Origin Atlixco, Mexico, intro. Carl Schmidt, 1911. Hybrid. Tree open, spreading, tall. Fruit large to very large, elongated pyriform, skin dark green with numerous small raised pale spots, waxy bloom, skin thin. Flesh good, oil 18%, seed medium. Formerly standard cv. of California industry. Tends to bear in alternate years, less productive near coast or in north. -Harvest: February - June -Average Fruit Size: 8-16 ounces -Hardiness: to 26 degrees when mature -Flower Type B
No need to even peel this one as the skin is so small it is edible. Sexy long neck, bears heavy, nice rounded well behaved tree. earlier than Bacon and just as reliable. A bit hardier than Bacon. -Harvest January - March -Average Fruit Size: 7-14 Ounces -Hardiness: to 22 degrees when mature -Flower Type B
A Guatamalan x Mexican cross from Australia. Commercially grown in Hawaii. Has a well centered stem. Fruit shape is oval/pear shape. Very easy to tell when it is soft and ready to use, the old fruit can remain on the tree till the new crop is ready to begin picking. Fruit stores well. -Harvest: February - November -Average Fruit Size: 8-16 ounces -Hardiness: to 28 degrees when mature -Flower Type B
Originated in LaHabra, Heights, California, by Rudolph Hass. Introduced in 1936. Oval/pear shaped fruit.The leading commercial variety in California. Not very aggressive growing in Northern California. Tender. Thick skin makes peeling easy. Excellent flavor. -Harvest July - November -Average Fruit Size: 7-14 Ounces -Hardiness: to 28 degrees when mature -Flower Type A
Dwarf tree has very large fruit. Beautiful tree with spreading, umbrella shape that skirts the ground. Not extremely small, but certainly not a towering tree. Tree is smaller than Wertz. -Harvest: January - July -Average Fruit Size: 18-24 Ounces -Hardiness: to 30 degrees when mature -Flower Type A
"Hass-like" Cultivar with black skinned fruit with green specks. Lamb-Hass is a cross between the traditional Hass and a Gwen (Dwarf) Avocado. Lamb-Hass is a precocious, high yielding, late season avocado with good quality fruit. The tree is upright and compact. Longer season than traditional Hass. Fruit has a squared off "shoulder" top. -Harvest May - September -Average Fruit Size: 10-18 Ounces -Hardiness: to 28 degrees when mature -Flower Type A
Also called Minicado, Littlecado. Sometimes spelled Wurtz. Originated in Encinitas, California, by Roy Wertz. Introduced in 1948 from a chance seedling planted about 1935. Good production, fruit holds on tree well. Rich buttery flavor. The only true dwarf avocado which makes it the best choice for container culture. -Harvest May - September -Average Fruit Size: 17-24 Ounces -Hardiness: to 26 degrees when mature -Flower Type A The best variety for small spaces.
Mexicola variety is considered to be the most cold hardy of all avocados tolerating temps down to the high teens with little to no damage once mature. It is also the earliest ripening with harvest as early as late August. Gorgeous shiny black fruit. Spicy anise flavor to the edible skin. Cut it in half, pit it and the fruit is perfectly sized to fit on a large cracker. -Harvest August - November -Average Fruit Size: 4.5-6 Ounces -Hardiness: to 18 degrees when mature -Flower Type A
Seedling selection of Mexicola. Mexican. Tree tall and spreading similar to Mexicola. Fruit 15% - 25% larger than Mexicola and somewhat rounder in shape with better seed/flesh ratio. Skin paper-thin, purple-black. High quality flesh with high oil content. -Harvest November - February -Average Fruit Size: 7-12 ounces -Hardiness: to 18 degrees when mature -Flower Type A
Many say the best tasting avocado. Large, round fruit, rich flavor, very tropical looking, glossy recurved foliage makes for a handsome tree. -Harvest May- Sept -Average Fruit Size: 16-30 Ounces -Hardiness: to 27 degrees when mature -Flower Type A
Commercial variety. A heavy producer for both coastal and inland areas. Harvest begins in January in some commercial areas. Tasty fruit with high oil content and attractive elongated neck. Medium slightly spreading tree. -Harvest February through May -Average Fruit Size: 8-16 Ounces -Hardiness: to 28 degrees when mature -Flower Type A
A new patented Hass type with black skin and large fruit. Ripens before Hass in the late Winter/ early Spring. Fruit does not oxidize when cut or kept refrigerated. An upright tree with similar cold hardiness to Hass. -Harvest March - July -Average Fruit Size: 10-20 Ounces -Hardiness: to 28 degrees when mature -Flower Type B
Originated in Mentone, San Bernardino County, Ca, on the Stewart Ranch. Introduced in 1956. Flesh clear, bright, light yellow shading to green toward skin, firm, but melting, excellent quality. Tree: spreading, strong, vigorous; bears good crops. Although listed as an "A" type flower, it typically shows "B" flowering characteristics. Attractive dense tree semi dwarf tree -Harvest September - December -Average Fruit Size: 4.5-6 Ounces -Hardiness: to 18 degrees when mature -Flower Type A/B
Originated in Fallbrook, California, by W.L. Ruitt. Introduced in 1941 from a selection made in 1926. Tree; consistent producer; more hardy than Fuerte. Commercial variety. Fruit are oval/pear in shape with waxy bumps on the skin. Best pollinator for Hass. -Harvest February - June -Average Fruit Size: 11-14 Ounces -Hardiness: to 23 degrees when mature -Flower Type B
EVERYTHING YOU WILL EVER NEED TO KNOW TO GROW AVOCADOS IS BELOW
THERE ARE 5 MAJOR CLIMATE ZONES IN THE BAY AREA:
Zone 17 along the coast and Bay with little or no frost- All of the trees we offer can be grown in zone 17
Zone 16 in the hills above zone 17- This zone generally has more heat but more frost than zone 17. Although the more tender varieties should do well, it's safest to go with trees hardy to at least 26 degrees
Zone 15 away from the Bay and Ocean- This zone sees more frost and heat than 16 so it is best to go with even hardier varieties such as those that are hardy to 24 degrees
Zone 14 is in the protected inland valleys around the Bay and see the most frost and heat- Here it is safest to go with varieties that are hardy to 20 degrees. Hilltops in this zone can be much more mild.
Zone 5 is the montane zone of the Bay Area. No Avocados should be attempted here.
VARIETY SELECTION IN RELATION TO CLIMATE ADAPTABILITY
ALWAYS PROTECT YOUNG TREES FROM FROST UNTIL ESTABLISHED, Although trees will gain hardiness with age and size, it is important to select a variety that will be hardy to your climatic zone and your particular micro climate whithin this zone, and for that matter, the microclimate within the microclimate (I.E. The south side of a 2 story stucco walled house that lies on a south facing warm ridge high above the valley floor, within fairly mild zone 15- you could probably successfully grow a tropical Mango in this spot whereas the north side of your buddy's house just at the bottom of the hill, lying at the base of a north face hillside, but fully within the same macro climate zone 15 would have a tough time growing a common orange.) Thus the complexities of micro climates within macro climate zones. But, here are some general rules about the Bay Area climate zones:
However, all of that being said, many people grow more tender varieties outside their recommended zones by protecting the trees when they are young and utilizing favorable micro-climates on their particular site. Trees will gain hardiness with age and size.
To find out what zone you are in go to Sunset's zone finder and click "find my sunset climate zone" and then click on your location to see where you lie within the zones.
When selecting a variety, to increase fruit production it is recommended to have both an A type and B Type flower cultivar, even if you have to plant them in the same hole because of lack of space.
How much to irrigate depends on many factors - soil, weather, the age of the plant, etc. - but generally speaking, the goal is to maintain a moist, but not overly saturated, soil. Avocado trees can occasionally dry out a little bit and be okay, but they will not tolerate prolonged dryness nor saturated conditions. Ideally, water needs to be evenly distributed throughout the entire root zone and also outside the root zone to encourage new roots. Commercial avocado orchards typically use microspray emitters for an even distribution of water over the root zone, versus a bubbler that would flood the immediate area, providing uneven coverage and perhaps a lot of runoff before soaking into the ground.
We recommend the following application rates. You'll need to check to see if you're getting the desired result (which would be the evenly moist sponge-like effect) and like the the three bears, adjust as needed until you have it just right.
5 gallon plant - about 2 gallons per application
15 gallon plant - 3 gallons per application
24" box - 4 to 5 gallons per application
And as Avocado Trees are sun emergent forest dwellers, they are basically evolutionarily designed to germinate in the shade of larger trees, and shoot up through the layers of forest around them in the competition for light and to find a hole up in the canopy and reach for it and then and only then push its head out into the bright sunlight it so craves. By the time it reaches this level, it has a bounty of leaf material that shades its under structure form the sun directly overhead. Seldom does an avocado branching structure in habitat see the sun because of this phenomena and most always it is from directly overhead and filtered by its leafy canopy. HOWEVER, we gardener guacamole junkies dictate that our new friend get planted in full baking sun, often with no shade relief the entire day.
In the typical garden setting, low angle sun, that would normally be filtered by the neighboring trees of the forest in habitat, sneaks into the tree and can cause the tender green skin of stems and trunk to sunburn to a sad black color. This will stunt the tree's growth and can even kill it in extreme cases. What to do????? Go find some white or near white latex paint, mix it 50/50 with water and paint every green stem and branch that has sunlight beaming onto it. The more goofy your tree looks, the better job you did- like that funny looking guy on the beach with all the zinc oxide coated all over his nose. No sunburn for him!
See Gary's True Plant Stories Article that seemed to unleash Northern California's avocado planting craze.
And before emailing us or calling with questions regarding avocado culture, variety selection etc., please read on below and also see the FORM LETTER we send to all of those who inquire about our avocados via email (Thanks for understanding):
Gary's Treasured Nabal Avocado from his Lafayette Orchard A freshly planted tree painted white to prevent sunburn
Avocados are native to the cooler, subtropical mountainsides of Mexico, particularly sites of decomposing volcanos in highland locales. They are used to a temperate climate with little or no frost in their habitat. It also never gets too hot because of the higher elevation. Rather, they live in forest conditions of decomposing volcanic soil mixed with decomposing forest leaf litter. They like even moisture to a depth of about 2'. The ground is not unlike a sponge, and the plant prefers soil that isn't too wet or too dry, but is evenly moist. The way to create this in a garden setting is to have a spongy, organic growing medium with lots of mulch on top. You'll need to distribute water evenly around the entire root zone, encouraging the growth of small, white, hair-like roots if you do your job right. Thumb through the mulch and see if you see them. If you have been a good and responsible parent and conditions are good, they will ride right up to the surface happilly living just beneath the mulch layer eating it up like like a dog does cat food.
GERMINATION AND PRODUCTION
Every avocado we sell is a grafted cultivar. When avocados first germinate, they take up to ten years to become sexually active, flower, and thereby fruit. Our avocados, however, are all super horny right out of the gate, created from grafted clones from sexually mature trees, thereby allowing the plant to be able to flower and fruit immediately. We recommend though to pick off all flowers and fruit from the tree until it has at least an inch of caliper to prevent the plant from expending too much of its energies in early fruit production and not growth which inevitably stunts growth thereby reducing future yield exponentially. Avocados can be sporadic in their fruiting. Some years they may have none, other years they may have hundreds of fruit on a big tree. The same sporadic fruiting pattern should be expected on younger plants as well.
OH NO! MY LEAVES ARE TURNING BROWN
If your leaves turn brown or you are upset your tree has not fruited yet, before calling Gary and asking him the same questions that he has been asked a thousand times before, read this first or better yet, watch the video below:
Patience is a virtue for the Bay Area and Northern California Avocado Grower as avocados can be finicky fruiters. My Fuerte tree (loaded with fruit and pictured below) frustrated me for 5-6 years after planting the 5 gallon plant out with not a single fruit, then it set 2, then it set none, then it dominated the grove with the heaviest fruit set of all trees. The next year it set NONE. And this year it is loaded heavier than any tree I have ever seen in Northern California. Go figure. If you want fruit every year for sure, then plant as many different varieties as you have space for (or encourage your neighbors to do so). This is the strategy I employed in my grove. The idea is if any one tree is having an off year, I have others that will have a heavy set thus reliably having fruit all the time. I figure there is no such thing as having too many avocados. Other distress calls we get are in Spring and have to do with leaf browing. The leaves on your tree will likely brown out either partially or completely starting about in February just before the plant sets its new crop of buds, followed by flowers and then new leaves. Avocados are generally termed evergreen but I believe this is a bit of a misnomer. I would rather classify them as semi-deciduous because they often drop many, and sometimes most of their previous year's foliage just prior to this bud set thus freaking out the novice grower thereby spawning a barrage of SOS distress phone calls and emails to me. So when you see this, sit back, take a deep breath, and relax as it is as normal as gravity making an apple fall, or having lime with your shot of Tequila. And did I mention we sell lime trees as well?
A sea of baby Hass avocado trees basking in the hot sun in the growing ground while their proud parents in the backdrop watch over them. Our avocados are grown in full sun and wind exposed conditions their entire life which breeds a very tough final product which is extremely important with avocados when they are brought to the more extreme climate zones of Northern California.
Oh NO! My tree is dying! Watch Gary's Video on Springtime Leaf Drop Below
And don't forget to pick up your planting materials on the way out!
For each tree planted, we recommend 1 bag of avocado/citrus planting mix to blend 50/50 with native soil, our organic mulch to generously top dress with, and a bag of our 100% organic citrus and avocado food to stoke out your tree. Next stop: Endless Guacamole! Gary holds up two avocados next to our typical SUPER SIZE 15 gallon that's as large as a 24" boxed tree at $100 less.
Now, as you embark upon your avocado quest, I want you to stare deeply into the red new growth and flowers of the Fuerte leaves below from my personal orchard that taught me so much about these trees over the past 20 years. The new growth and flowers symbolize health, wealth, and the promise of abundance. This I wish to you with these most wondrous trees- AVOCADO GODSPEED!
Closeup of fiery red new growth on a Fuerte tree in Gary's Lafayette Orchard. Each flower has the potential to make a fruit. Spring is an exciting time in the avocado orchard as you will soon see how much fruit you might get the following year as evidenced by the fruit set in April, May and June, the flowering season. If all goes right, the tiny little blossoms will transform into tiny little fruit. Pray for warm sunny days that will draw the bees out but not be so hot the flowers drop out of heat stress. Hope for soft breezes but not hard winds that result in the same.