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Cultivating a dream

Newcastle gardener has avocado trees — and they’re flourishing
By: Gloria Young, Home & Garden
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Avocado trees in the foothills of Placer County? Numerous local gardening experts say it’s not likely. But Newcastle’s Bruce Dodds is proving them wrong. For his efforts, he has a couple of towering avocado trees and recently added two more. Dodds, a devoted green thumb who grows many kinds of fruits and vegetables on his five acres, said he always thought he could do it, and became convinced after he heard about a 45-year-old avocado tree nearby. Lore puts the tree somewhere near Interstate 80 and Indian Hill Road. So far Dodds hasn’t found it, but he hasn’t given up the search. He started his experiment with avocados about eight years ago, planting two trees beside a lake on his property, thinking the air would be warmer near water. But the trees didn’t survive. “Cold air and drainage,” he said about why they failed. “The key is finding warm spots in microclimates. Cold air settles. That’s why hilltops and south-facing hillsides can be so much warmer than just the other side of the hill.” So, he tried again, this time planting two trees on a hill on the warm side of the property. “I planted them in the spring,” he said. “They grew through the first winter and the following year, they bore fruit.” That was four years ago. This season, they produced a bounty. Encouraged by the results, Dodds recently brought in a Hass and a Zutano variety. He credits his success to the quality of the soil. “The best advice I have heard in the gardening business is, ‘If you have $10 to invest in the garden, invest $9.50 in the soil,” he said. Choosing a hardy variety of avocado is important, too. For example, Hass, the most common type of avocado — the kind sold at supermarkets — is the most frost sensitive. The Fuerte variety can handle temperatures down to 28 degrees, and the Bacon is hardy to 24 degrees. Another variety, the Mexicola, is hardy to 18 degrees, according to Kerry Beane, mail order manager for Four Winds Growers wholesale nursery in Winters, which specializes in citrus trees. Beane met Dodds a couple of years ago at the Fair Oaks Garden Festival and she is amazed at his success with avocados. “I would say Bruce is a trailblazer and a pioneer and he is figuring out how to do it in his region,” she said recently. So far, Dodds is the only person she knows who’s had success with avocados this far north. But Dodds cites another grower — Bill Graham, owner of Graham’s Pear Shed in El Dorado County. Graham was an avocado farmer in Southern California and decided to give it a try when he moved to his acreage at 1,700-feet elevation in Gold Hill. “Gold Hill is a microclimate,” Graham said. “It is one of the warmest spots in the county.” The early years were successful and he even sold avocados to area supermarket chains. Then came the 100-year freeze in 1990. “We had two weeks of freezing temperatures every night,” he said. “One day it didn’t get above 27.” That, plus extreme rainfall, which causes root rot, brought an end to his commercial growing. But Graham continues to cultivate avocados, planting the trees in various locations to find the best spot. He’s had the best luck with the Susan variety, the most hardy, he said. These days, his harvest is just for family and friends. He also grows mandarins and other citrus that he sells commercially. For Dodds, Graham is a source of knowledge and inspiration on avocados. With the growing season similar to citrus — fall and winter — Dodds still has a few avocados on the trees. Once you have a well-rooted specimen, the picking season can stretch out a couple of months, he said. But it can be tough knowing when it’s time to pick the fruit. That’s because avocados need time to ripen after they’re off the tree. “The way I can tell is when they get big enough that they look mature, I start wrapping them in the paper treatment,” Dodds said. He explained that the best way to ripen avocados is to put them in a paper bag on the counter for a few days. This year his Bacon avocado tree had about 200 pounds of fruit, he said. Last year the Fuerte variety produced an avocado weighing 22 ounces — but the tree produced only four avocados. “This year there were a hundred or more, but they weren’t nearly as big,” he said. He has sold a few at Newcastle Produce in Newcastle. “I’ve never seen a local avocado for sale in the county,” he said. “These may be the first.” And he foresees the day when he’ll sell even more. “When they’re as big as oak trees and producing hundreds of pounds, I’ll have to (sell them),” he said. “You can only give so many to kids’ school teachers.” Dodds’ gardening is a sideline. He is a licensed massage therapist specializing in the Bowen technique and works out of an office at his home.