I started to write about green manures, but then I took the dog for a blustery walk to the plot before the light failed. It was sodden, as were we, and I thought, it’s madness to write of sowing when spring is still tucked up in bed. So I came home and ate an overripe avocado. I have a terrible avocado habit, particularly when the days are drab and sad, as they are now. I long not for the soft, green flesh, though it’s a nice byproduct, but for the fat seed. I can never see a pip and not yearn to sprout it. It’s a perfect January distraction.
There is a good book called The Avocado Pip Grower’s Handbook, by Hazel Perper. (It is out of print, but AbeBooks.co.uk can usually find one.) It was written in the late 1970s, when the fruit was all the rage. Perper went on to write several books about grocery store growing – one on citrus pips and another about growing oats and other cereals – all from her gardenless Manhattan apartment. It’s a strange classic of a very slim oeuvre, but it’s worthwhile for the tips on pruning alone.
Getting the pips to sprout is easy. Prick the pip with three or four toothpicks or pins, and suspend it over a glass of water so that the bottom (the flat end) sits in the water. (Start them in soil, if you prefer – the key is to keep it damp enough. Three-quarters of the pip should sit proud of the soil surface, otherwise it’s liable to rot.)
Avocado pips are slow to germinate if conditions are cold, so if you’re growing it in a glass of water, regularly replace with tepid water. They germinate rapidly somewhere between 18-25C. If nothing happens after six weeks, throw the pip away.
You’ll get a root first, and once that’s found some room, a shoot. If you are using a glass, this is when you transplant the pip to a pot. Good-quality houseplant soil is ideal, perhaps with a little grit or perlite, because although mature roots like damp, they resent poor aeration. Avocados drink a lot, so water every couple of days and allow the soil to dry out only barely.
The trick to getting a shapely plant is pruning early on, otherwise it’ll grow like a telegraph pole. Once you have three true leaves and it’s about 30cm tall, cut the shoot back to a lower leaf and it will branch out. Every time a new shoot launches off, pinch it back to a leaf or two.
If you want a large houseplant, keep repotting: these are hungry plants and the more compost you give them the quicker they grow. Don’t expect fruit, though. Avocados are native to Mexico and Central America, can easily reach 20m, and your house is too cold and too dark.
• Follow Alys on Twitter