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Smooth-skinned, bright green: South Texas grower finds niche in avocados

With the growing popularity of Mexican cuisine, the lowly avocado has been brought to the gourmet table, too. Over the nearly 40 years that Joe Garza has been growing avocados, he has seen their popularity soar.

The harvest of Garza's 100 trees goes mostly to local restaurants and residents who seek out his orchard in Weslaco, Texas, for the finest avocados available. A typical tree will produce 300 to 400 avocados in a season, depending on the weather and availability of water.

Most of his avocados are the Lula variety. Popular with restaurants because they don't turn black, the Lula is a smooth-skinned fruit, bright green in color, and is harvested from November through January.

They all get ripe about the same time. “It's pretty much timing,” says Garza, but points out the tiny pinpoints of yellow that can be spotted on a mature fruit. He harvests them using a metal basket on a long stick that he rigged up himself.

Although firm when picked, avocados are ready for the table in three to four days if left on the counter. The longer they stay on the tree, though, the sweeter they get.

Besides the fact that the Lula retains its green color after being cut open, there is another advantage to this variety: “It has only 50 percent of the calories and fat as the black, knobby-skinned Haas.”

Garza also grows a specialty fruit that, because of its creamy texture, he calls the “butter avocado.”

“I don't know of anyone else growing these avocados,” says Garza. “There were a few in Mexico some time back, but the ‘89 freeze got them.”

These are a very unusual variety since they have no seeds. Thus the only way to grow them is to splice a butter avocado sprig on to another tree's roots.

Norman Maxwell, Texas A&M horticulturist, now retired, first got Garza started with the grafting procedure in 1967.

Unusual, too, is the size of the butter avocado — only about as big as a jalapeño pepper. Since they are eaten skin and all, they are perfect to slice into a salad or to pop into a mouth.

“The skin tastes a little like licorice and adds to the flavor,” says Garza.

Although he has only two trees of this variety, they produce plenty of avocados. “One tree gave us 1,000 this year.”

Although this is unusual, they still are plentiful producers. This variety comes ripe in the summer.

Garza also grows a West Indian variety, the trees producing avocados that weigh 300 50 400 pounds, but usually only about two dozen per tree.

“The West Indian variety is the kind I use for root stock,” says Garza, because they naturally filter salt from the water, making the fruit creamy and rich.

Garza's fully grown trees are hardy and vigorous. “The first two years with a tree, though, it's touch and go.” They don't start producing until they are three or four years old.

A mature tree will grow 10 feet in a year's time and have to be topped off periodically. This doesn't hurt the fruit, though, since the sweetest can be found closest to the ground.

Although Garza lost his trees in the 1983 and 1989 freezes, they came up again from the grafts, not the root stock. He now has a thriving avocado orchard.

Though most of his advertising is word of mouth, South Texas residents will manage to find his place and enjoy his avocados most of the winter season.

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