Avocados are fruits commonly confused for vegetables because of their savory flavor and unusually high-fat content. They have leathery skins and buttery mesocarps (that’s the edible flesh) with large pits in their centers. Avocados grow on tropical evergreen trees native to Mexico and Central and South America but are also farmed in California, Florida, Indonesia, Spain, Ethiopia, and dozens of other countries.
Avocado trees prefer warmth—60 to 85 degrees—and moderate humidity. While germination takes only about two to six weeks, it can take years (sometimes more than a decade) for a tree to produce fruit. Here’s everything you need to know about planting and caring for avocado trees.
How to Plant an Avocado Tree
Avocado trees are sunshine worshippers, growing only in USDA Hardiness Zones 8 through 11 and in loose, sandy soil. You can grow them from seed (i.e., the pit) or a cutting.
Growing From Seed
Remove the seed from the fruit without cutting or damaging it, then rinse in warm water to clean off the flesh. Find the top (the pointier part of the avocado pit, where the seed will sprout) and the bottom (the flatter part, where roots will emerge), and pierce the pit with three toothpicks evenly around its equator.
Submerge the bottom half of the seed in water, propping it on a glass or pot with the toothpicks, and place it in a sunny window, changing out the water at least weekly or when it gets murky. Seeds can take eight weeks to sprout. When the stem reaches six inches, cut off the top half to encourage new growth.
It’s time to plant in a container when that stem reaches six inches again. Pot it in soil with the top half of the seed exposed. Water it two or three times weekly.
Growing an avocado tree from a cutting is a more certain method than growing by seed. Take the cutting in early spring—it should be the top roughly six inches of the stem cut diagonally. Pinch off leaves from the bottom third of the cutting, then make two small cuts on either side of the base. Dip the base in root hormone (optional), then plant directly in soil, burying the lower third of the stem. Water the cutting and place in indirect light. Cover loosely with a plastic bag to increase humidity. It should develop roots within about three weeks.
Avocado seedlings should be transplanted after developing roots so they have room to grow. They should live in containers for the first few years of life before going into the ground. If planting in the ground, pick a place in your garden that gets full sun but not a lot of wind. Clip any roots that are twisting in circles and loosen up the soil around the roots before planting. They should be spaced no less than eight feet from any buildings or other trees.
If you don’t live in the right environment for avocado growing, transplant into large (15- to 25-gallon) containers as early as possible to reduce the stress of repeated repotting.
Avocado trees have a sweet spot when it comes to watering. Too much can lead to root rot—especially during fall and winter months—but too little can dry them out completely. Avocados require a couple deep waterings a week at least for the first year. After that, you can usually reduce watering to once weekly.
To encourage growth, prune regularly by pinching off the top two sets of leaves for every six inches the stem grows. This will lead to more shoots, more leaves, and more opportunity for fruit in the future.
How to Harvest Avocados
If you’re lucky (and patient) enough to get fruit on your avocado tree, let it darken in color before harvesting. It can be tricky to know when to pick avocados because they’ll be rock-hard at the time of harvest, so pick just one to begin with. Allow it to ripen at room temperature for a few days. If, within a week, it’s soft enough to eat and tastes good, then you can assume it’s time to pick the others.
How to Store and Preserve Avocados
Avocados should be stored at room temperature until ripe. If they become ripe before you’re ready to eat them, stick them (uncut) in the fridge in an airtight container or crisper drawer. Avocados are known for how quickly they become overripe, but the fridge trick can widen the one-day window of ripe perfection by three days or more.
While it’s possible to freeze in chunks, freezer preservation works best with mashed avocado; it doesn’t work well with whole avocados. Scoop out and mash the flesh, add a touch of lemon or lime juice, and freeze in an airtight container for use within six months.