Those Kooky Permaculture People: An Avocado Tree Grows in Seattle

Look, I’ll be honest: sometimes the Permaculture community makes claims that seem….well, kooky.

Grow pineapples in Seattle? With enough heat-sink big rocks, we can do that!

Plant invasive weeds all over your garden? Heck ya, that’s nature’s own deep mineral mining company, right there!

Build weird snake-shaped ponds that act as giant solar reflectors to increase light intensity, temperature and humidity? Well, of course! Ponds are nature’s own solar panels, yo, and you get trout out of the deal, too!

See, kooky. Plus, all Permies have hippie beards. Fact.

Well, kooky they may be, but I think these Permie People are tapped into some deep garden juju. Here’s my evidence:

That, my friends, is a two foot tall avocado seedling. I found it growing in one of my Permaculture-approved hugelkultur beds as I was doing the fall clean up last weekend. At casual glance I assumed it was yet another alder sapling attempting to take over my yard so I ripped it out of the bed. Only then did I notice that this was something different.

It looks like the chickens snipped the tip of this sapling off, and the leaves didn’t appreciate the 35 mile per hour wind gusts that shook up my yard over the weekend, but that’s not really the point.

Distance from Where I Live to Where Avocados Grow: huge. Around 1,200 miles, a full day of driving, multiple climate shifts and two-and-a-half USDA hardiness zones.

So what in tarnation would inspire an avocado pit left for half-finished compost to not just germinate but to actually take off, make leaves and start to grow into a real, honest-to-goodness tree? In Seattle? It’s certainly not because I’m some Avocado Whisperer, despite what the lovely people at Reader’s Digest might claim.

The hugels are clearly staying substantially warmer than my traditional raised beds, which have never, ever attempted to grow me an avocado. I attribute this to the heat generated by the decomposition of the large hunks of woody material that underly the beds and the chicken litter I used to top everything off.

I have already seen how the hugels promote rapid and early germination of seedlings that are close to the soil and are therefore benefiting from the radiant heat this composting process releases.

This photo of my hugelkultur’s soil temp, for example, was taken on April 9th. Locals know that Seattle soil temps several inches down rarely hit the high 70s even in late August, so this is a small miracle for seed germination possibilities.

However, even knowing that the hugel soil-temps were warmer than average, I did not expect the beds to be warm enough to promote sustained growth of a sub-tropical plant like the avocado.

Clearly I was wrong.

The hugels have demonstrated some advantages over my traditional beds beyond soil temp. As I cleaned up and pulled spent corn stalks and squash vines from the ground, I noticed that the soil in the hugelkultur beds was loose but rich, free draining and dry at the surface but moist at the root zone. It was friable and resisted compaction even where a gaggle of kids tromped all over it in an effort to pick the last of the season’s runner beans.  It was, in short, perfect. And this isn’t because I’m some master soil builder: fully half my traditional beds appear to be made of concrete mixed with Western Red Cedar rootball. It’s amazing I get anything to grow at all, actually.

And here’s the thing: I haven’t done anything to these hugelkultur beds. I barely watered them – maybe half a dozen times over the summer we turned an overhead sprinkler on, compared to the clockwork 3 times per week system-controlled drip irrigation watering the main beds got. I harvested but I didn’t weed. I took but didn’t add. There was no side-dressing, no fertigating, no pest control, no fussing.

That’s what Permaculture promises. Work with nature, it says. Employ a few techniques that mimic nature, and you’ll get better results with less work. My experiment of just one small patch of land, grown for only one season and using only one of the more common Permie techniques suggests to me that the Permie Promise is real.

The first time I read Gaia’s Garden, that inspirational classic of urban Permaculture garden design, I got mad. I mean really, truly angry. “If you are right about this,” I said to the book (because I often talk to inanimate objects), “then I’ve just spent the last 8 years of my gardening life doing everything completely wrong! I’ve worked way harder than I’ve had to!”

I fear that reaction, while overblown, was accurate.

I’m don’t consider myself a Permaculture gardener because I don’t consider myself any particular kind of gardener: not Square Foot, not Biodynamic, not French Intensive. I do what works for me, pulling from any source I can to get to a better result. When something shows potential in my own garden, I keep at it.

Looks like I’ll be keeping at Permaculture. Maybe one day I’ll even have avocados to show for it.

Do you employ permaculture techniques in your garden? Do you consider yourself a follower of any particular gardening “system”? What has worked and what hasn’t for you?

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Comments

  1. We grew bananas in zone 8 when up against a white wall and fronted by a pond. Permaculture works! It’s how natives of the Americas grew for years, and still grow — the few Uncontacted Tribes we have film of have cultivated obvious food-bearing trees and shrubs near their villages.

  2. Can you suggest a few books that are good introductions to permaculture? I would like books that are not just theory, but have practical projects to start with. Thanks.

  3. “There are no mistakes in the garden, only experiments”, Philips. This year I was too sick to garden in my p-patch so I did container gardening out my back door – next year, bigger containers.

  4. I don’t mean to rain on your parade, but I once found an avocado sprout about the same size as that one in my regular old boring totally non-hippie scientist designed compost heap. I was surprised too, but I think the truth is tht it doesn’t take all that much heat to get them to germinate and sprout. Keeping it alive to tree size and -especially – getting it to fruit would be a totally different story.

  5. Thank you for sharing your experiences with this technique. I was curious how it would turn out. I don’t follow any particular system of gardening. Each year I try to refine from the previous year learning from my successes and noticing things that could of been better. I also read a lot to get new ideas, both books and great blogs like yours. I do use permaculture techniques as much as possible and find it a valuable resource. (Our local permaculture guru is a great friend and, sure enough, he does have a hippie beard!)
    One of our great successes this year was everything in the nightshade family. The key was the use of our bunnies manure as a deep mulch. For example, from 16 tomato plants we harvested about 300 lbs of tomatoes! Last year we put in 40 plants and got under a 100 lbs.
    Our big flop was all things squash. They get so ravaged by bugs that we got maybe 3 squash fruits total this year. Let me know if you have any ideas about more bug resistant varieties besides the butternut.
    Thanks and happy gardening!

  6. Keep in mind, avos are hardy down to about 28 degrees. Getting one to sprout isn’t hard; getting it to live through the winter is.

    That being said, deep mulch is pretty miraculous! I use it on my potatoes. This year, I watered on planting, then didn’t water again. Ever. Even though it was 105 degrees much of the summer with zero rain. I still got something like half or 3/4lb harvest per square foot. All that “make it like the forest floor” stuff really works!

  7. I love the “work less, harvest more” philosophy. (I mean, how can you not?).
    I plant intensively, and successively, and vertically. Ex: I start with lettuce/spinach/kale in the spring, and then plant broccoli starts in the middle of “greens bed,” by early summer. The broccoli shades the greens as it’s getting too warm for them. And then, by July, as we’ve harvested the greens, beans grow up a trellis just south of the broccoli, giving the broccoli partial shade. And now, after several frosts, the beans are ripped out and the broccoli gets full sun, putting out many gorgeous side shoots.

  8. I do what you do, try what works. I’m a master gardener so we demonstrate and get training on all sorts of gardening techniques. What works best for one person, might not be the best solution for others, so its always good to experiment. Regarding your avocado… I get avocado pits growing in the compost all the time (in Western Maryland). Unfortunately I read somewhere that they won’t produce sizable fruits unless they are grafted. Oh well… its way too cold here for them to survive anyway, and no greenhouse :(

  9. I’m working on becoming a permie, but dammit! I don’t want a full beard. That might get kind of awkward.

  10. I have tried to grow avocado from leftover pits. I planted them in the spring (I’m in NY zone 6a) in a pot with beautiful compost enriched soil and nurtured it all summer. I was so impressed with myself. I dragged the plant in the house in the fall and nursed it all winter. Finally warm weather came and I moved it outside. A few days later a chipmunk came and ripped it out and ate it!
    I am a lazy gardener and do some permaculture things. I loved Gaia’s garden and use many ideas. I’m really impressed by the hugelkultur. I never heard of it until your post. I did a really half-assed version and when digging my potatoes couldn’t believe how beautiful the beds turned out. This fall I’m going to set up more hugel beds.

  11. Well, since you asked…
    No permatculture – no not even any composting. I know, what kind of hippie doesn’t have a compost heap? One who has dogs, who also has a local green recycling place that takes all yard waste for a small monthly fee and turns it into compost for an additional fee. And yes, they use biodiesel in their collection trucks.
    I used to think I was a square foot gardener – till I actually read the book. I have a single gigantic raised bed that is my garden, and no there are no little grid lines just paths of no planting (that turned into strawberry runners and canteloupe beds, since the zuchinni took over their homes! ;)
    Now I’m armed with a little bit of knowledge (and A LOT more confidence), so I’m sure I’ll get way in over my head again :) It’s gonna be fun!
    I know that vegetable gardens are ‘supposed’ to be messy – but I want a really pretty one. Cause really (again, can I still call myself a hippie after this?), aesthetics matter.
    And thanks for the flour tip – I was about to go buy some landscape paint, but I already have flour…

  12. My permaculture course was the most life-affirming thing I’ve done in a loooong time. I think a motto like “work with nature, not against nature” is good for fixing just about everything in our gardens….and our culture, and our planet, and on…!
    I hope your hugulkultur swale continues to rock! Here’s a music video of our class making one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ke4Oo1j99cE

  13. Great post! I, like you, have learned from many different sources and am creating a system that works for me, BUT I’ve felt something was missing. I am working WAY TOO HARD to accomplish my end goal. SO… I’ve begun my permaculture journey for it does seem to answer many questions that I haven’t found answers to yet. No beard. I don’t even look like a hippy. I do desire to learn from this amazing Creation all about us and work with it, not against it. Toby’s Permaculture Design Course began in Seattle this past weekend. My brain is full and trying to digest alot of information and for the next 6 months I will be an active, focused student hoping to learn and grow and expand my idea of what “edible” gardening/farming will look like as I continue the journey.

  14. I reconditioned my hugelkultur garden beds yesterday (one of which had invasive ‘edible’ weed growing like crazy in it… not on purpose though) and am pretty pleased with the state of the soil in them after 2 years, and the wood is getting quite spongy/ breaking down too. Am about to go out and plant pumpkins/ squash and sunflowers in them.

    Permaculture to me is not only about ‘working with nature’ but embracing what works for you. I think I’ve said this here before, but besides swales & hugelkultur & closed loop systems, what I take from my (novice) permaculture learnings is… if you make stuff too hard, you won’t do it anyways.

    My husband has a goatee… does that make us half-kooky-permies??!!

  15. I compost in place because it feeds into my natural laziness and desire to piss off my mother in law. But soil temps like that make me want to make new beds. Jealousy rears its ugly head.

  16. I also compost in place and found a germinated almond in my flower bed, left over from trail mix. (No one really likes the almonds so they sometimes get mixed in with the scraps.) I transplanted it and it has been growing under lights for the past two years.

    Who knew I would get an almond tree growing in Anchorage, Alaska?

  17. I compost in place as well, and have made several hugel beds since I read about them in Gaia’s garden a few years back. This spring my garden was so overwhelmed with weeds I tried the Ruth Stout deep mulch method of blanketing everything in 8-12 inches of hay. She was all about being a lazy gardener and doing what works. It worked great for me. I literally had to run the lawn mover over my garden before I laid down the hay. It smothered almost all of the weeds and only watered the squash, tomotoes and basil 3 times all summer. Everything else went without extra water and did just fine. (OK, the garden might have done better if I watered more, but I don’t like to do it.) I live in Olympia, WA where we basically had no rain from the end of July until this weekend.

    I’m going to stick with it. We just got 24 more bails of hay. The kids built a fort out of them, but now that the rain has come I’ve started stealing them away. I bought a few of her books as well. It is kind of an interesting peek back in time. And I love the titles, e.g. “Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy and the Indolent”.

  18. How nice that in places where you might not have thought life suddenly grows something. I do not know where you are, but I have seen cases like this in my country. And it is something to admire. In http://www.agronet.gov.co/BibliotecaDigital.html can find very interesting things about agriculture

  19. I found an avocado plant volunteering in my compost pile 2 years ago! I moved it indoors and it is now about 8 feet high – but looking kind of leggy and wimpy. I think its time has come, but it was a fun experiment. My newest experiment: I found a sprout growing on some ginger root in my pantry, so I planted it in a pot. So far it is growing an inch a day!

  20. So permies only think they know everything, do you realise that? Study some ‘Horticulture’ and you will realise all the permies know a bit, but really not that much! Find yourself a real horticultralist and they will make a permie look like a dirty hippie…which is pretty much all a permie is a want to be Horticultralist ;)

  21. The hugel tomato bed worked a treat this summer. Watered it deeply a few times during the summer, and all the plants made it through the drought more or less OK. Yep, those wild-eyed permies sure is crazy.

  22. So I kind of sucked at gardening until I took on a more permaculture-esque approach. I got interested in an e-book called “Food 4 Wealth” by this Australian ecologist name Jonathan White. It’s pretty cheesy and homemade, but it’s totally great. I followed his method pretty closely and got really awesome results. Virtually no pest problems, no weed problems, and a garden that was very drought resistant. This fall I sort of veered off course and started planting a little more traditionally, and all of the sudden I knew what a pain gardening could be. I’ve gotten serious caterpillar and slug infestations for the first time, powdery mildew…you name it. I almost lost every one of my kale plants. I’ve come within a hair’s breadth of giving up on my winter garden five times over. Next spring I’m going to go back to my roots and do it he right way. Otherwise, It’s just too much work for me to stay interested.

  23. know next to nothing of permaculture… looking forward to learning your 1/2 assed ways!

    As far as avacadoes… I got my 1st harvest this year!!!
    In central CA- 1 block from montery bay…. fog city central!
    tips- don’t grow from a pit- get one from a reputable nursery- there should be one that works for you- (cannot remember the name of mine- think it started with a Z- it seems Haas like… but not so creamy- but not watery like the smooth skinned green ones either)
    my tree came from a friend who grows them in big sur -at 2000+ elevation with a bit of snow most years- (and the luxury of HOT summers- I have no snow- but no summer either)
    keep trimmed- mine is only 8 feet tall- I hear they only bud on new growth
    from what I’ve noticed from observing others avos- wind seems to be the enemy- I am thinking it blows off newly pollinated buds
    also some of my avos got sunburned! (again- I live in fog land!)
    I am thinking more people can grow avos than you might think! getting the correct variety for your climate (like apples or anything else!) is key!
    again- do NOT grow an avocado from a pit if you want a productive tree!
    break down & buy one! I am sooo glad I did!

  24. I am growing over a dozen avocados in my one bedroom apartment. Two of them which I planted in the summer are about two and three feet tall. the leaves are a beautiful green! I just need some help grafting them and I have yet to find an adult avocado tree in this area. I’m thinking of going to California and bringing back some tiny branches to graft my trees here, but I don’t know how I would go about that or if it would even work.

    have you made any progress on your avocado tree? any info helps, thanks.

  25. First of all, I enjoy your blog. I follow similar random techniques until I find success.
    Avocados do not need to be grafted and can produce fruit from seed. My friend planted a seed 5 years ago and this year harvested 200 avocados! Mind you, this is in Florida where it’s warm all the time – but it is possible. Most avocados can handle mild frosts.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] bed. Seriously, I’m tired of double digging. And after seeing the success of Erica’s half-ass hugelkultur bed (even though she lives in a very different climate) I am convinced that I need to do this. If the [...]

  2. [...] and piled on chicken manure, compost, and other debris, then buried it.  And here is the follow-up post 7 months later raving about how well it was working, including that just one month after she made [...]

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