How to make your indoor avocado branch out (aka ‘breaking apical dominance’)

If you have tried growing an avocado tree in your home and you live in a cold Nordic climate, chances are you have only experienced the first two of these tree things:

— molding and wilting
 — a long single stem with a toupee of leaves
— actual branches

Growing trees indoors in cold places is notoriously difficult and life isn’t easy for plants that need plenty of sunlight and a fair amount of soil. If you have an avocado plant with a small pot, it will sprout and grow until it has exhausted its pit’s supplies. In places where it’s dark half of the year, this also means the plant is trying to reach for more light and grow as high as possible . Once the plant is too high however, you either have to put it in a larger pot or it will dwindle down because it can’t make water reach its canopy efficiently anymore.

But repoting the tree isn’t your only option for growing a beautiful plant. You can also trim it to get a more ‘bushy’ plant. However, trimming a plant that only has leaves on at its top can be the end of it. Or if your seedling has shed its stem leaves during winter, you might not be able to trim it at all without losing it. And you will definitely kill a sapling that has lost all its leaves.

A sapling that was dying after the winter and had lost all of its leaves. New growth along the stem after trimming away two thirds of the stem. This one was luckier than others.

The physiological mechanism that inhibits lateral (branch) growth in many plant species is called apical dominance and is driven by auxin hormones. Basically, the cells that are actively diving and producing new leaves at the top of the plant release the auxins which prevent any lateral growth along the stem below. This ensure the plant grows towards the source of light in its environment. By cutting the actively growing parts of the plant (the shoot apical meristems in this case) during trimming we call of the apical dominance of the tip and shoot parts of the plants and allow branches to grow from side meristems along the stem. But trimming young avocado saplings also has the inconvenience that while several new buds might appears, one usually quickly establishes a new apical dominance and hinders the growth of the others.

Avoid trimming while the plant is actually putting out new leaves — wait for Autumn / Winter.

So what’s the alternative to trimming in order to remove the apical dominance? Simply bend the plant to make its top parts lower than a portion of its stem. Sounds confusing? I thought so. I made a drawing.

Bend the stem of the plant by placing a weight hanging from a string tight to the top parts. New buds will form at the top of the arc formed by the stem within one week. You might also see new buds burgeoning all the way to the bottom of the stem.

That’s it! This solution is deceptively simple (although you are going to need some space to achieve this) and it allows you to leverage the liveliness of the other leaves which will re adapt to the new configuration and realign with the light source and gravity.

A fresh bud stemming out of the main stem which was kept horizontally for two weeks. Note the old leaf node below the new growth.