Avocados and figs in Taranaki

As I prepared guacamole this week, I realised I have never written about growing avocado trees in Taranaki, despite this fruit being one of our own mainstays. With a lull in the vegetable garden, we are relying on avocado and parsley to give the daily green intake. So herewith the short introduction to growing your own avocados.

1) Avos are frost tender and don’t like the cold so you need to live in a warmer, coastal area to grow them successfully in Taranaki (apologies to all those of you who live inland).

2) Buy a grafted, named variety. While it is easy to grow the seed, it is unlikely that a seedling will fruit satisfactorily, if at all. We have by far the most success with Hass.

3) Avocados are trees. Small trees up to five or six metres but definitely not shrubs or bushes. Give them space to grow and full sun.

4) Drainage is critical. Avocados are very sensitive in the roots and particularly vulnerable to phytopthera. Plant them in a position with brilliant drainage.

5) Be prepared for the fact that some years you will get a very poor harvest, or even no crop at all. The fruit takes around eighteen months to mature to picking stage but is most vulnerable at the time of fruit set when an untimely frost or spell of really bad weather can mean that no fruit is set.

There are brilliant years in between which make up for it when you have avocados for breakfast (a slice of Vogel’s toast spread with a thin layer of marmite and topped with avo), for lunch (sliced over leftovers or served with anything and everything) and for dinner (guacamole or in salads). The tree will pay for itself in one good season. Any surplus fruit, we notice, is gladly received by those around us, especially at this time of the year as the price is rising in the shops and the quality of the fruit is getting better. The oil content of the fruit rises over time and the current fruit was actually set in spring 2007. Be wary of fruit that is picked when immature. We harvest from our two Hass trees from Christmas to August or September. If it were not for the battle with the rats and the waxeyes, we could harvest for even longer.

So the bottom line on avocadoes is that it is well worth growing your own if you have the right position and conditions. Naturally that is predicated on the assumption that you enjoy eating them or giving them away.

There is still an open verdict on figs here. I adore fresh figs and I have never understood why you can buy them on every fruit stall in London but never see them for sale here. It wasn’t until I found some at the roadside stall where I buy my free range eggs that I had even thought of picking them green and letting them ripen off the bush. But of course you must be able to. All those figs I have bought in London can not have been tree ripened. They are not exactly a local crop there and as they become soft and squidgy when ripe, they must be shipped over from warmer climes in a firmer, green state.

I am looking at our Brown Turkey Fig with new eyes. It sets an early crop which reaches full size but the birds always beat me to the harvest. They are quite happy to eat the green fruit. And the second crop fails to mature. Now I am thinking that we need to manage the bush better and it should be manageable.

Most fruiting figs are large deciduous shrubs which clump and sucker. The leaves can be reasonable decorative, especially when they turn golden in autumn but overall they are not aesthetically pleasing plants. If you think about where they grow in the Med and North Africa, you will realize they want maximum warmth and sharp drainage but they don’t need high fertility soils and mollycoddling.

It being a shrub, rather than a tree, I think we should be able to net the fig next year to keep the birds at bay. And it seems to me that we need to actively thin out some of the foliage and the crop of fruit to encourage better ripening and more size to the figs. Added to that, I shall maybe sacrifice my belief in tree ripened fruit and experiment with picking earlier and ripening in the sunroom. Our fig is planted in full sun, up against a dark coloured water tank but you are likely to achieve more success if you have a warm concrete wall close to the sea.

Unlike avocados, you can grow figs easily from cuttings or suckers so you may not have to buy one. Over time, no doubt we will see more selection taking place in this country to choose cultivars better suited to our conditions but let’s face it: mild, humid, wet and fertile Taranaki is never going to emulate Mediterranean conditions so maybe we had better be grateful for any fresh figgy crops. Apparently fresh figs are absolutely divine served with Parma ham and blue cheese (I learned this from National Radio and the morning recipes) but I have not yet had sufficient to warrant laying in the Parma ham. I live in hope.