Olive trees are one of the world’s oldest cultivated trees, dating back to ancient Greece. They’re tough, drought hardy and famous for their delicious, plump fruit, which can be picked, pickled and enjoyed, no wonder these beauties are still popular today. Think of olive trees and one visualizes the warm sunny Mediterranean, but olive trees can be grown in North America as well. How To Grow Olive Tree?
Growing olive trees is relatively simple given the proper location and olive tree care is not too demanding either.
These trees are evergreen and can grow to 25-30 feet tall, with a spread just as wide. Their oblong leaves are silver green and grow from branches emanating from a gnarled, twisted trunk. Most olive trees take about three years to come into maturity and begin to set noticeable amounts of fruit. To increase fruit set, it is recommended that you plant more than one cultivar close together.
Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean, so they thrive in a climate where the summer is long, hot and dry and the winter is cool (they’re quite frost tolerant). These trees require warm summer temperatures as well as about 200 hours of winter temperatures below 45°F. But nothing below about 20°F, mind you. The tree will grow in USDA hardiness zones 9 or warmer. These regions include southern Texas, Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Louisiana and California as well as Hawaii.
Plant in full sun where the tree will receive at least six hours of direct sunlight. Preferably give it a position out of strong winds or stake well. The good news is that, even if you cannot grow your tree outside in your area, you can still grow it in a container and move it indoors during the winter months.
These trees can survive on poor, low nutrient soils. However, they will produce better fruit if planted in well drained, fertile soil. If you’re growing in pots, use a top quality potting mix. Olive trees can survive a number of years in a pot but they will eventually have to be planted in the ground.
Dig a hole the size of the olive tree’s container. Leave the root ball alone except to remove or cut any circling roots. Do not add soil medium, compost or fertilizer to the newly planted olive tree. Also, avoid adding gravel or drainage tubing. It is best for the young olive tree to acclimate to it’s soil.
Water new trees regularly until they’re well established. Mature trees are very drought tolerant but will produce better fruit if watered well. Once your new olive tree is planted, it is a good idea to provide drip irrigation as the tree will need water every day, especially during the summer months throughout it’s first year.
Once you begin to see a quantity of new growth, feed the olive tree with nitrogen rich compost, conventional fertilizer or concentrated organic which feeds the plant and enriches the soil, too.
Minimally prune during the first four years, only enough to maintain shape. The young olive tree may need to be staked right up against the trunk to assist with stability.
To encourage growth, prune out suckers and low branches during winter, and remove the tips of stems that have grown too long.
Once the tree is four or five years old, it will start to bear fruit. Harvesting generally takes place from late August through November depending upon the region, variety and desired ripeness. For green olives, pick your fruit when it turns from dark green to light green, or you can wait for them to turn black, but still firm, for black olives. They can be picked by hand or, for the more serious pickers, spread a sheet or tarpaulin on the ground underneath the tree, then shake the tree vigorously to free the fruit.
Olives aren’t plagued by many pests, although scale can be a problem. You can prune off infected stems, or treat these greedy critters with non toxic neem oil. For twenty years or so, California olive growers have been plagued by the olive fruit fly, which lays its eggs inside the developing fruit, destroying it. Management of fruit flies is difficult, and best achieved via clean gardening practices. Some home gardeners have had luck with fly traps. Trees can also be affected by olive anthracnose, a fungal disease. Treat this problem with organic fungicide.
The type of tree you select will depend on what you hope to get out of it. Different cultivars produce different flavors of olives and oil, of course.
If you have the patience of Job and don’t mind starting out small, consider this petite ‘Manzanillo’ plant. At maturity, it will reach 30-40 feet with large, great-tasting fruit that are also excellent for producing oil.
‘Arbosana’ is a cultivar that is suited for smaller spaces, growing to be 12-15 feet tall with a spread of 12-20 feet. This Spanish native produces large crops of small fruit with a high oil content that are very flavorful.
If you’d like the beauty of an olive tree without the hassle of the fruit, consider ‘Wilsonii’ a fruitless variety.
Pick the variety that fits, water it heavily until it’s established, watch out for olive fruit flies, and soon you’ll be sharing your homegrown olive products with friends and family.
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