Garden Basics with Farmer Fred

140 Avocados for Marginal Climates. How to Be a Better Observational Gardener.

September 24, 2021 Fred Hoffman Season 2 Episode 140
Garden Basics with Farmer Fred
140 Avocados for Marginal Climates. How to Be a Better Observational Gardener.
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

One Garden Basic we need to stress more on this podcast is this: to head off major plant problems, observe your garden, carefully. Retired college horticulture professor Debbie Flower talks about some mental exercises she taught her students to become better observational gardeners.
Plus, we discuss growing avocado trees in marginal climates.
And, tips for moving giant pumpkins that might be taking over your backyard.
It’s all on episode 140 of the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast, brought to you today by Smart Pots.
And we will do it all in under 30 minutes. Let’s go!

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GB 140 Observe Your Garden. Avocados in Marginal Climates. Moving Giant Pumpkins.



Debbie Flower, Steve Zien, Farmer Fred

Farmer Fred  00:00

Garden Basics with Farmer Fred is brought to you by Smart Pots, the original lightweight, long lasting fabric plant container. it's made in the USA. Visit slash Fred for more information and a special discount, that's 

Farmer Fred  00:20

Welcome to the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast. If you're just a beginning gardener or you want good gardening information, you've come to the right spot. 

Farmer Fred  00:32

One garden basic we need to stress more on this podcast is this: to head off major plant problems, observe your garden! Retired college horticulture Professor Debbie Flower talks about some of the mental exercises that she taught to her students in order to become better observational gardeners. Plus, we discuss growing avocado trees in marginal climates. And we have tips for moving giant pumpkins that just might be overtaking your backyard. It's all on Episode 140 of the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast, brought to you today by Smart Pots. And we'll do it all in under 30 minutes. Let's go. 

Farmer Fred  01:16

When it comes to garden basics, and that's the name of the show, obviously, there is probably one really, really basic garden technique for ensuring that you have a successful garden. Debbie Flower is here, our favorite retired college horticultural professor. And Debbie, you said this back on episode 129. When we were talking about pot size, about the size of containers, you just threw this in as an aside. And you said, "I taught introduction to horticulture for 25 years. And it's an introduction. And I don't expect them to know anything, meaning your students. So there's always a lot of questions. And what people I think need to learn to to do is to observe."

Debbie Flower  01:58

Yes, I'm a little embarrassed that I said I don't expect them to know anything. I expect them to gain some information. I sure hope they have. Well, they come in to you in a raw state, though they do. And you have to take them where they come.

Farmer Fred  02:12

Yeah, exactly. Well, it turns out, you're not alone in your beliefs of observational success when it comes to the garden. Here is Steve Zien, who was on a recent episode, and we were talking about, I believe that the subject turned into foliar feeding. And Steve had this to say:

Steve Zien  02:32

"Another thing that I really like about foliar feeding, is it gets you out in the garden and landscape. And so you're looking at your plants. And if you do this once a month, which is what I did commercially for my clients, I looked at the plants very carefully as I was spraying them. And if they didn't look quite right, I put my sprayer down. And I went over there and looked at the leaves and examined the stems and looked for pest problems, looked for symptoms of disease. And that way you can often catch the problem before it gets to be a serious issue. And you can deal with it as necessary.

Farmer Fred  03:10

Very good advice. Just keep looking while you're working. And you'll find something else to do in the garden that day.

Debbie Flower  03:16

Yes. Steve and, I disagree on the value of foliar feeding. I don't think it will ever harm the garden. I just don't think it does much to fertilize the plants, except in extreme situations. But he is absolutely right, that anything that gets you out there looking at those plants is desirable. Not only will you necessarily find diseases and insects, but environmental issues, like something has changed and the plants are getting more light or less light, or there's not enough water and it's wilting plants that aren't getting enough water. If they were shiny, they lose their sheen. If they had deep colors, they start to lighten up they become sometimes more blue, sometimes more yellow, and that can all happen before the plant actually wilts. And then of course it will wilt as we probably have all seen, the wilting.  Yes, in pest management, one of the very first classes, I brought in a lot of bananas. Sometimes it was peanuts. And I made each student take one and they couldn't mark the banana or the peanut. But they could take notes. They had to examine it. We think all bananas and all peanuts look alike, but there are subtle differences. And then we do something else and then we come back and they all had to find their own banana and their own peanut and they could. 

Farmer Fred  04:47

This is a peanut in a shell?  

Debbie Flower  04:49

Yes, yes, a shell. Yes, right. So it did try to show the power of observation. So I like to go out certainly once a week, to do the whole yard. Other sections, like the group of plants I have in pots outside the kitchen, every other day at least, and look through them, check for the one that's wilting or has is losing its leaves, or has lost its sheen, or has curled up leaves. You need to look close look at the stems, as Steve said, and you need to step back. To preface it all, really, you need to know what the plant looks like when it's healthy. So make sure you get that in your brain as well.

Farmer Fred  05:34

I'm still thinking about bananas and peanuts. But I think if you're doing homeschooling, What a great little experiment to do, oh, yeah. And have your kids pick out  their own banana?

Debbie Flower  05:45

Yes, yes.  You can do it from afar, you can, especially with trees, things like redwoods, which here in in the Sacramento region, often get to a size where they can't keep themselves hydrated anymore. And so the problems are going to start up in the top of the plant, or failure in a tree can start up high, where the branches start to push against each other. And you'll notice that the branches might be a little bit lower. I had a tree,  a valley oak actually, that was pruned extremely poorly, because it was right under the power lines. It was probably a volunteer I inherited when I moved into the house, it was actually pruned into the letter T. And one day I went out and thought that these branches are lower over my head than they were the other day. A few days later it collapsed. Oh, the whole plant collapsed. Yeah. So you can pick up... I didn't pick up fast enough on that one. So I lost the tree. But you can trust your senses. This is something to consider, something to be confident with. When I worked, I would come home from work and get a beverage and change into comfortable clothes and then just walk the yard. It was a good decompression for me. And it showed me the landscape. My neighbors on one side have Wisteria on the fence. And on another side grapes, both of those are vines that will grab on to something nearby, I purposely did not plant right up against the fence, there's a pathway between them but I go out, I have to go out regularly, because those vines will start to climb up the plants that are four feet away, vines grow towards shade. And so they grow towards the plants that are nearby, and they start to climb them. And that's not beneficial for my plants. So I have to cut them off at the fence line. So you get to know what and where your problems are. And then you can tend to them.

Farmer Fred  07:46

That is also the strategy of one nursery owner who has a rather fabulous personal estate. And when he comes home from work, and he has a drink in one hand and his Felco number two pruning shears in the other. And he's just walking around, thinking about the day at work or whatever. But when he sees something that's not right, the pruning shears go to work.

Debbie Flower  08:05

Yes, I often forget, I put them in my back pocket, but I forget that they're there, I'm walking around in the house with pruning shears in my pocket. The other thing you can do is carry a marker and some wooden sticks, they don't have to be very big or very thick. They could even just be plant labels, although I find they get lost too easily. So I use like one foot tall sticks that are just about an eighth of an inch thick and a little point at the bottom. And if I think something should be moved, I'll say move this to... and I'll suggest the place. This is right now, it's not the season to move. But this is when I see that it is in the wrong place. Or "add something here," "add something that's very dark evergreen here" or "add some color here". Or this is a wet spot or this is a dry spot. And I will mark things. You think you're going to remember those things, but no, you know you don't. So having some of those and putting them out is another good thing to do.

Farmer Fred  09:03

And that's a very common piece of advice for people with blackberries or raspberry plants is to maybe carry some twisties with you or something and to mark those, maybe with  a little white paint and mark those branches, those berry branches that have fruited, Yeah, to remind you to remove them come fall or winter.

Debbie Flower  09:23

Right. Because you're not necessarily going to remember that when it comes time.

Farmer Fred  09:26

You also implied that having another set of eyes can help you out and I think that's a great idea where if you have company over, you know, take a walk through the garden. Sometimes they'll see things that you don't see. Yes, I remember I think it was last summer you were over here we're walking through the backyard. And you said, what's wrong with those pepper plants? And sure enough,  I had noticed that some of the pepper plants were getting kind of tired looking. They were sagging a little bit and I looked a little bit closer and the water valve was off and it's a drip irrigation system. So all I needed to do is give it a quarter turn and it's back open. But thank you for that. You saved the plants. 

Debbie Flower  10:05

That happens to me too. I have my vegetable garden on a hose bib timer, but it has, it has the Y. And I leave the valve open all the time. And I use the little on-off switches on the Y to control what's going to the vegetable garden and what's going to the hose. But if my husband goes out and uses the hose out of habit, he often shuts off the valve. And he doesn't say anything. It's a habit. You know, I'm not faulting him. It just happens. But I'll go out, notice  it, and then I have to turn it back on.

Farmer Fred  10:38

The things you learn when you're married. Yes, yeah, the things you get in a habit of doing. Yeah, we could do a whole show on that. But, basically, yeah, check your water lines, not only for breaks in them, but just make sure that there's water flow.

Debbie Flower  10:53

Yes, I recently went out and thought, Why is that plant wilting, it's on drip, that I had had a timer failure, but the hard wired on the wall timer failed, it just stopped working. So I had replaced that, everything hooked up, the timer was working fine. But this plant was still wilting. So I turned on the valve. And this is something you should do regularly as well, especially as your drip system ages or any irrigation system ages. And then walked around and used my ears and found three places where the the line was slit. I don't know what slit it, but anyway, it was slit and so I had to go back and replace those parts of the tubing.

Farmer Fred  11:35

Yeah, it's bad enough, those garden gnomes are taking off all the plant name tags from the plants and tossing them around. And now they're slitting the hoses.

Debbie Flower  11:44

I think they were thirsty, you know, wanted, some are hot, they wanted a shower.

Farmer Fred  11:49

Well, that's another whole show we could do on squirrel proofing your drip irrigation system and rat-proofing. Observe! Get out there with your garden and you're going to end up doing more than you intended to do. The hard part is remembering to do what you originally went out to the yard. That's true.  Sometimes it gets pushed to the back of the list when you go out there. And you see that there are other issues. So you might even just write it down in the house before you set you set foot in the backyard is write down what you intend to do. Stick that piece of paper in your pocket and then go outside. And then towards the end of the day, you'll remember, Oh yeah, what was that I was gonna do? Oh, yeah. Yep. And then you do that?

Debbie Flower  12:27

Yep. Yes, I have lists in the house. Prune this, prune that, move this, move that, yes.

Farmer Fred  12:32

Yeah. make lists. When you wake up in the middle of the night. Write it down. Yeah. 

Debbie Flower  12:35

Then you can get back to sleep and not worry about it. Yes. All right.

Farmer Fred  12:40

The Successful Garden is an observed garden. Yes, absolutely. So take closer looks, and have people help you out on that as well. It's a garden basic. Debbie Flower. Thanks so much. 

Debbie Flower  12:51

You're welcome, Fred.

Farmer Fred  12:56

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Farmer Fred  14:06

We like to answer your garden questions here on the Garden Basics podcast. We bring in Debbie Flower to help us out. Debbie Flower, retired college horticultural professor. And this one we will call "all gardening is local" and "the right plant in the right place". Debbie.  

Debbie Flower  14:20


Farmer Fred  14:20

And this is from Doug who lives in Auburn, California. Auburn is in our foothills, the altitude there is about 1500-2000 feet, depending on which part of Auburn you live in. And Doug, where you live, it's kind of a transition zone, I guess really, depending on which side of Auburn you live on there. You're on the warm side or the cold side.

Debbie Flower  14:40

A low spot or high spot too.

Farmer Fred  14:41

Yeah. So I think we're fairly safe to say Zone nine, USDA zone nine for that, but it could be zone eight

Debbie Flower  14:52

or seven. Yeah. 

Farmer Fred  14:53

And Doug writes in and says, "I enjoy your podcast. I'm growing in water troughs and I'm growing avocados. I'm wondering if I can combine growing avocado trees with growing in water troughs? I think I have a good location in my yard for a couple of avocado trees. But it's really close to a couple of water lines from my well to my house. If I plant in the ground on a raised mound, will the avocado tree roots seek the buried water lines? If so, can I plant in a water trough with drain holes in the bottom of the trough? If not that, can I plant in a water trough with no additional drain holes in the bottom of the trough? My wife and I eat avocados all year long. They're really expensive, especially organic avocados. What do you suggest?" Move to San Diego. Doug, if you want year-round avocados, Doug, I got a question for you. I know you can't hear me or you can hear me but you can't respond, Doug. How many avocado trees are growing in your neighborhood? That would be the first thing I would do if I moved to an area and I get this hankering for growing something that I don't normally grow. I would look around and talk to my neighbors and see if it's growing here.

Debbie Flower  16:05

Where's your sense of adventure?

Farmer Fred  16:07

I know, I know. And here's a guy that planted, me, planted avocado trees that we're dead in the first year, but I had to try. 

Debbie Flower  16:14

Yes, you have to try. I'm the same way I have to try. Yeah, I guess. So. I applaud Doug for wanting to try. And there are some cold tolerant of avocados, typically the Mexican ones, Mexicola and there are several types of Mexicola. The Stewart, the Zutano, the Bacon, but not the ones...

Farmer Fred  16:37

 Jim. Jim, Jim. Oh, Jim, Jim. J. I am. Hi, Jim. Hi, Jim. 

Debbie Flower  16:43

Okay. I didn't know about that one. But not the ones you find in the grocery store. These are typically going to be smaller fruits, and thinner skins. So that's one thing to consider. You're not going to get the avocados you're used to eating. As far as planting them in the ground and having them seek out the water line: That's not going to happen. 

Farmer Fred  17:05

These aren't willow trees 

Debbie Flower  17:07

Well, and roots don't seek water. Roots just grow very well where they're getting water and oxygen. If that pipe has a crack in it and is leaking, then it's creating a wet place and the roots will grow into it. They will not seek it. It's the pipes' fault. Sorry, but it is. All right. So yes, you can plant them in the ground. Yes, you can plant them in a trough instead. I'm not sure how big they'll get, avocados can get to be 20 feet tall, they will not get that big in a trough because they don't have the root system that they would have in the ground. And they are not as well insulated. The  roots are actually the most sensitive portion of a plant to cold and they will not be as well insulated in the container. So there may be a little more die back in the winter, Mexican types of avocados can take about 20 degrees cold. If you get colder than that, you're going to need to add heat in the winter. laying the cloth over the top of the plant adding the light bulbs, that kind of thing. These avocados also, they have they their stems their trunks typically sunburn, you're going to want to protect those from the light. So put some diluted, one to one. Paint it. Latex paint in a light color on the trunk.

Farmer Fred  18:25

 Interior latex paint. 

Debbie Flower  18:27

Yes, that's important. If you've used exterior, then it'll suffocate the plant, they need wind protection. So that's something to consider.

Farmer Fred  18:35

They also have mysterious moisture requirements in that the soil must be moist, but well drained. Yes, how you do that?

Debbie Flower  18:43

In a container, that's where you start adding like lava rock. To open it up, something big, that's not going to decompose. If you just use container soil, it will decompose, it will get very tight and it holds lots of moisture, and that will kill the plant.

Farmer Fred  18:57

But definitely drain holes. 

Debbie Flower  18:58

drain holes. right. So  the water troughs have typically one big drain hole because they are water troughs that you need to empty and clean. That's on the side, that's on the side. So drilling some extra holes across the bottom would be a thing to do.

Farmer Fred  19:13

And then raise it off the ground so that trough is not in contact with the ground. And even though troughs, the bottom of a trough may have a half inch clearance from the ground, that's pretty darn close and soil can build up to it. And if those roots sense that, "just outside this hole, there's more soil let's go!" Right, you just clogged up your holes.

Debbie Flower  19:34

Right so you want to lay it up on something higher. Yeah.

Farmer Fred  19:37

So on two by fours, or bricks or something, just to get a little bit more clearance.

Debbie Flower  19:41

I think to try to put it in the soil is is your best bet. Growing in containers is always more difficult, takes more human interaction, more checking, does it need fertilizer, they're pretty heavy feeders. They're pretty heavy nitrogen feeders so you have to  fertilize them pretty regularly. That's harder, there'll be even more of a need in a container. Check their moisture, check the temperature of the media, that kind of thing. And then the media breaking down and holding too much moisture is another problem.

Farmer Fred  20:11

I would also suggest that you head to a local nursery, Doug, and ask the nursery people who work there, the old timers, ask them, "Do you know anybody growing avocados up here?" If they don't laugh, then go ahead, try it.

Debbie Flower  20:27

Or try it anyway. Yeah, just know that it may not work. Yeah, exactly. And it'll take several years if it's successful, it lives through the winter. It takes several years, three to five years, before you'll get any fruit. 

Farmer Fred  20:40

The areas where I have seen avocados growing successfully in marginal climates for avocados, and the Sacramento area is really marginal. It's not a commercial crop here.

Debbie Flower  20:53

No, it's not. And that's an indication that it is marginal. Yeah.

Farmer Fred  20:57

Commercially, avocados grown in California are grown, basically, along the coast in Central and Southern California. Not much inland, although they are developing varieties for the inland Valley. They haven't hit the market yet. And they're going to be tied up in agriculture for a while before they get to the home market. But down the road, I could see a cold tolerant, heat tolerant avocado plants for a wider area. And that's coming down the pike.

Debbie Flower  21:29

So you're saying that they're growing where the climate is very mild, winters are warm and summers are cool. There's humidity, there's not much change from day to day.

Farmer Fred  21:40

It's where it very seldom gets above 90 during the day in the summertime, very seldom drops below 40 in the wintertime. And where I have seen avocado trees grown successfully in marginal climates, they have, like you mentioned, a lot of buffering situations around them. Usually they're near a west or south facing wall. They're on or near a concrete patio that reflects heat back up into it in the winter time. And there's some sort of windbreak to protect them from dry winds especially. And you may want to grow more than one variety to help in pollination, although that is in dispute. Now. Because I've talked with commercial growers who say, Listen, if you're trying to grow an avocado tree where you live, it's going to be so stressed it's going to put out both the A flower and the B flower that it needs for effective pollination. Go ahead, try, whatever.

Debbie Flower  22:34

Try and let us know. Yeah, yeah.

Farmer Fred  22:36

But you know, drop by the nursery, go to Eisley's Nursery, they're in Auburn, Doug, and talk to them. 

Debbie Flower  22:42

which is now Green Acres. 

Farmer Fred  22:44

 I don't know what the official name of it is. 

Debbie Flower  22:46

Now, Eisley's by Green Acres, maybe something along those lines,

Farmer Fred  22:49


Debbie Flower  22:52

Yes. Talk to the Eisley's. They're very knowledgeable people. Yes.

Farmer Fred  22:55

And see if they bite their tongue.  All right, Doug. Good luck with that. Debbie, thanks for the avocado.

Debbie Flower  23:02

My pleasure.

Farmer Fred  23:12

Because there are so many demands on your time these days, I like to keep the Garden Basics podcast to under 30 minutes. Still, there is a lot more to tackle on all the garden subjects we bring up on the podcast. So, for that, and a lot more, we’re starting up The Garden Basics with Farmer Fred newsletter, on Substack.  It’ll go into more details about what you just heard on the latest podcast. For instance, the Aug. 31st newsletter has more Japanese beetle control information. And for those of you here in California and other parts of the West who think you are seeing Japanese beetles, well, it’s probably a much bigger relative, the green fruit beetle. Information about that pest, is in the newsletter.  Also, we will also have a picture of the Plant of the Week, the Oxblood lily.  And just for the heck of it, a lot of maps, explaining USDA gardening zones, as well as a more complete reference for figuring out what can grow in your region, the Sunset national Garden Zones.  As the newsletter grows, so will the subject matter. So, yes, it will be a good supplement for the Garden Basics podcast, but there will be a lot more garden related material and probably pictures of my dogs and cats, as well. It’s the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred Newsletter on Substack. And best of all, it’s free! There’s a link in today’s show notes. Or, just go to, and do a search for Garden Basics with Farmer Fred. That’s The Garden Basics with Farmer Fred newsletter. Did I tell you it’s free? It’s free.

Farmer Fred  24:12

If you're growing giant pumpkins, there's a lot of things to consider. Sometimes you overlook it until it's too late. Debbie Flower, our favorite retired college horticultural Professor, talks about an experiment they did in one of their college classes that, well, shall we say, it got a little heavy.

Debbie Flower  24:30

You're gonna grow a giant pumpkin. Think about how you're going to move it once it gets big. Yes, just a heads up. Having been there done that like oh, no, what do we do? So. yeah.

Farmer Fred  24:42

Well, I guess that comes back, then, to putting your giant pumpkin garden into a location that you can easily drive a pickup truck to. And then, as that pumpkin forms, put it on a pallet. And then get a forklift. 

Debbie Flower  25:03

That's how they'd have to handle it. Ours  was only 250 or 275 pounds, but it was still a surprise. We hadn't thought ahead that far. What do we do now?

Farmer Fred  25:15

Yeah, pallets and pickups and football teams, that's all you need.

Farmer Fred  25:24

Garden Basics comes out every Tuesday and Friday. It's brought to you by Smart Pots. Garden Basics is available wherever podcasts are handed out. And that includes Apple, Iheart, Stitcher, Spotify, Overcast, Google, Podcast Addict, Cast Box, and Pocket Casts. Thank you for listening, subscribing and leaving comments. We appreciate it.

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Smart Pots!
Avocados for Marginal Climates
The Garden Basics Newsletter
Moving Giant Pumpkins