How do you grow olives at home?

Olives have a long and storied history going back thousands of years. It was a staple crop in the Middle East, and during the Roman era, they brought it to far corners of the empire. It was eaten as a hand fruit and processed into oil. Olive oil was even used as a commodity currency since it was desired by many and stored very well.

Its one downfall is, of course, weight. It is very heavy to store and carry around, especially in clay pots, adding to the already heavy weight. Literature also has a special place for the olive tree. It was mentioned in the Old and New Testaments of the bible 30 times. But most notably, it is tied closely to the Greek people.

Many of the most-known Greek stories mention the olive and the tree with reverence. It is said that the first Olive tree grew in Athens, where it grew for over 200 years. Maybe a part of me has absorbed part of the cultural significance or maybe the historical importance the olive has played, but it is undoubtedly one of my favorite foods in either form. 

how do olives grow

Image Courtesy: mordorintelligence.com

I have for a very long time wanted to grow my own olive trees. Oddly enough, when looking up some information on olive trees, two questions came up that I found somewhat strange. If someone stumbles across my blog because you looked up one of these questions, let me answer them.

Yes, olives grow on trees, not vines. And yes, an olive is a fruit and not a vegetable. I guess it is not a very popular tree to grow in America, so I assume its familiarity is low. However, in more recent years, olive groves have become more popular in both Texas and California. It is also very commonly used in landscapes due to its visual appeal.

I have bought a couple of what I hope will be many olive trees in years. Most varieties of olive trees do not fruit in Florida, but the arbequina variety does. Many aspects of the tree make it well-suited to Florida. It requires a lot of sun and well-drained soil and is drought-tolerant once established. All of these conditions are present in Florida. When I bought it, it already was producing olives, and it took both the cold and being transplanted fairly well. One thing I didn’t do but probably should have is wean it more slowly off regular watering. It came from a nursery where it was used to a steady water diet. 

As with many fruits and vegetables I am planting, I am figuring out much of what I do as I go. Trial and error is usually the best teacher. Of course, mixing in a bunch of reading and information gathering doesn’t hurt either. But what I want to try and test is its endurance to lower water consumption.

So far, it is holding us well; in the last few weeks, it has started to flush out with new growth. We have received rain several days in the last couple of weeks, which has helped it to also start budding. Given the shock I gave it and its new environment, my first year should be a low-production year. I hope that after it is well established, the production will reach a higher level. I plan to try propagating it later this year, though adding irrigation beforehand will be on my to-do list. 

About Olive Trees

  • Scientific Name: Olea europaea
  • Alternate Names: Continental olive, traditional olive
  • Nature of the Plant: Evergreen tree, either producing fruits or not
  • Growing Zones: Generally 8-11, but some varieties can thrive in zone 7. Established trees, once adopted, can show better resistance to cold.
  • Environmental Preferences: Olive trees favor locations with warm, dry summer seasons and gentle, chilly winters. Fruit production requires a dormant phase with cool conditions, ideally between 40° F to 50° F. Yet, extreme winter cold (below 20° F) may harm or even destroy an unguarded tree.
  • Sunlight Needs: Direct sunlight
  • Dimensions: Stands 15 to 30 feet in height; dwarf types range 6 to 8 feet
  • Expansion Speed: Gradual, growing approximately 1 to 2 feet annually
  • Blossoms: In spring, tiny flowers of pale white and yellow hues emerge.
  • Leaves: The leaves are lanceolate in shape, showcasing a grayish-green top and a paler silver-gray beneath.
  • Fruits: Most fruits transition from green to a dark purple shade upon maturing, with significant differences in dimensions, oil percentage, and taste. Some olive trees bloom but yield minimal fruit.
  • Life Expectancy: Often surpasses 150 years, with some trees known to live beyond 1,000 years.

Everything About Planting Olive Trees

With their rich history and numerous benefits, olive trees are becoming increasingly popular among gardeners and farmers. Whether you’re hoping to enjoy their silvery foliage or harvest their delicious fruit, understanding the essentials of planting these trees can make all the difference in their growth and productivity.

When to plant

Spring is undoubtedly the optimal season for planting olive trees, ideally once the looming threat of frost has dissipated. This ensures the young saplings are safeguarded from the chilling effects of winter during their initial stages. The vulnerability of these young trees to frost is quite pronounced during their first winter, making them susceptible to damage.

If you are contemplating a fall planting, it’s pivotal to ascertain you’re situated in a locale where winter temperatures seldom drop below 30° F. Conversely, the scorching heat of summer can be just as detrimental. Excessive heat can cause undue stress and hamper the tree’s growth, so waiting for milder temperatures is advisable.

How to plant

When preparing to plant, digging a hole roughly equivalent in width to the tree’s root ball is crucial but slightly less deep. This positioning ensures that the topmost section of the root ball remains marginally above the ground’s surface. It’s a common misconception that adding compost or organic matter will aid the tree’s growth.

On the contrary, the nascent olive tree must familiarize and adapt to its native soil. This acclimatization fosters robust root development, laying a solid foundation for the tree’s future growth and health.

Pollination

Interestingly, most olive trees come equipped with the ability to self-fertilize. This is because they host both male and female flowers on the same plant. However, there’s a strategic advantage to planting another variety of olive trees nearby. Introducing an alternative variety in close vicinity can substantially augment fruit production.

The rationale is that cross-pollination between diverse varieties frequently culminates in heightened yields. So, while your primary olive tree might very well be capable of self-pollination, incorporating another variety into the mix can be a game-changer in maximizing your harvest and ensuring a consistent crop yield.

Taking Care of Olive Trees

Olives are a popular choice for many gardeners, not only for their delicious fruit but also for their aesthetic appeal. Native to the Mediterranean region, these trees have a rich history and have been cultivated for thousands of years. If you’re considering adding an olive tree to your garden or are already a proud owner, here’s a guide on ensuring your tree thrives.

Watering

Young olive trees are renowned for their drought resistance. However, consistent watering during the growth period is essential to optimize flowering and fruit production, especially in hotter and drier climates.

  • Spring and Summer: Newly planted trees require deep watering two to three times weekly. Using a soaker hose or a drip irrigation system can be particularly effective. Once the tree matures (around 5-7 years), the frequency can be reduced to once every few weeks, letting the soil dry between waterings.
  • Fall and Winter: These seasons generally require minimal watering. Depending on the rainfall, you might not need to provide additional water at all.

Soil

Olive trees aren’t overly picky about soil, but proper drainage is paramount. It’s advisable to avoid planting them in heavy clay soils. Instead, opt for a well-drained soil that allows the tree’s roots to breathe.

Amendments & Fertilizer

Despite being relatively low-maintenance, olive trees, particularly in nutrient-poor soils, can benefit from occasional fertilization. However, it’s crucial not to over-fertilize, as excessively fertile soils can hamper fruit production. Using a balanced fertilizer with a nitrogen content of at least 10% can be beneficial. For moisture retention and weed control, apply an organic mulch layer around the tree, ensuring it’s a few inches away from the trunk.

Pruning

Pruning plays a dual role for olive trees: enhancing fruit production and improving the tree’s appearance. The approach you adopt will depend on your primary objective. Strategic pruning is necessary to shape young trees, guide their growth, or rejuvenate older ones. For mature trees, selective pruning aids fruit development and simplifies harvesting. Always ensure the removal of dead or diseased branches and any suckers at the tree’s base. Remember, olive trees bear fruit on the previous year’s branches, so only prune lightly if you aim to harvest fruit.

Harvesting

The harvesting period for olives varies based on their intended use. Olives can be picked while still green or once they fully ripen in late fall. Freshly harvested olives, even ripe ones, possess a natural bitterness and need curing—either through brining or sun-drying. Olive trees, similar to apple trees, have alternate bearing years. Thus, expect varying yields year on year. New olive trees might take 4-5 years to bear substantial fruit.

Diseases and Pests

Several diseases and pests can affect olive trees, with verticillium wilt, olive knot, black scale, and the notorious olive fruit fly being the most prevalent. The olive fruit fly is especially harmful, as it can decimate an entire crop by laying its eggs beneath the fruit’s skin. Resources from institutions like the University of California Agriculture can be invaluable for comprehensive information on tackling the olive fruit fly.

How Do You Grow Olive Trees at Home?

I reside in a region where winters can be quite harsh, making it impossible for olive trees to thrive outside all year round. So, I explored the option of nurturing them indoors in containers. It’s worth noting that while this method is effective, the chances of the tree producing fruit indoors might be slim. Based on my experiences, here are some recommendations for successfully cultivating an olive tree indoors:

  • Identify a location that offers a minimum of 6 hours of daily sunlight. I often use a window facing south for optimal light exposure. Given olive trees’ Mediterranean origins, they’re accustomed to drier climates, negating the need for added humidity in most indoor settings.
  • Opt for a compact variety of olive trees that won’t exceed a height of 6 feet. Feel free to prune your tree to manage its height if you find it growing taller. Alternatively, consider raising it as a bonsai for a unique touch.
  • When planting, select a spacious pot with efficient drainage capabilities. I’ve found that potting mixes designed for cacti ensure swift drainage, which is vital for the tree’s well-being.
  • I’ve always advocated for feeding the tree judiciously. I use a gradual-release fertilizer biannually, typically at the start of spring and then again in mid-summer.
  • Once winter subsides and frosty mornings become a thing of the past, you might be eager to reintroduce your tree to the outdoors. I’d advise patience. Allow your tree to acclimatize slowly, increasing its exposure to direct sunlight incrementally.

FAQs

Where do olive trees grow best?

Olives like warmth, typically warm and on the drier. They will do okay in temps down to 22 degrees Fahrenheit. Any place where there are mild winters and longer warm summers. Of course, all the traditional places where we know them to be from meet all the conditions they need: Southern Italy, France, Spain, and areas of Northern Africa and the Middle East. These places have the perfect temperature to grow many varieties of olive trees. In America, that would mean the best places in the US are in Zones 9 & 10. Some varieties will do okay in Zone 8 and humid climates like in Florida. 

What soil do I need to plant an olive tree?

Olive trees like sun, lots of it, at least 6 hrs per day with full sun being the preferred. Many assume that because the areas in which they were traditionally grown are dry, Olive Trees don’t need or like lots of water. That isn’t true. If you ensure they get a healthy dose of watering, olive trees produce fruit faster and far more. They thrive in soil that drains well and is nutrient-rich. They do not do well in areas where water collects and keeps the ground wet. This could have harmful effects on their root system and introduce disease. If you are only looking at them for landscaping, they will do okay with less frequent watering, and they stand up well as a trouble-free ornamental. 

How long do olive trees take to grow?

As long as you provide them with lots of sun, water, and well-drained soil, they can live virtually forever. I mean it; there are olive trees alive today that still produce that can be traced back over 2000 years ago. There are at least 7 such trees that have been identified in Crete. There is no worry that your Olive tree will die and need to be replaced in your yard soon if it is taken care of. 

How much space does an olive tree need?

As with many trees, Olive trees need lots of space to grow. Most grow to between 15 and 30 feet tall and have limbs and branches spread out 20 feet. Based on this alone, you wouldn’t see them growing into each other’s branches. Like many trees, olive trees do better if they have space within them and around them so rain and moisture can evaporate. Having them overlap with any other tree could create areas where moisture would be trapped, and fungus and other undesirable things grow and harm your Olive Tree. The other consideration is root growth. They spread underground quite far, typically 30 feet, to grab nutrients and water. So, keeping them 30 feet from other trees will help them absorb nutrients and rain without competition and grow more trouble-free.

Final Words: Growing an Olive Tree

Olives are delicious to eat, albeit with some processing. They are reasonably easy to grow in many areas in the US and make for a stunning ornamental addition to any landscape. If you never decide to do anything with the olives your tree grows, you and your landscape will be well served with one of these ancient trees working in your landscape. 

Reflecting on my journey with olive trees, it’s been nothing short of enlightening. From the very inception of planting the sapling to watching it stretch and grow, each phase has been an experience brimming with learning and occasional challenges.

I’ve come to appreciate the delicate balance of elements these Mediterranean beauties demand to flourish. While cultivating olives may initially seem daunting, the rewards—scenic beauty and tangible fruit—are profound. For those pondering whether to embark on their olive-growing odyssey, I’d say: dive in.

With a dash of patience and a sprinkle of care, the journey with these ancient trees can be as enriching as their storied history within their gnarled trunks and silver leaves. The story of how olives grow isn’t just botanical; it’s a tale of passion, perseverance, and the pleasure of witnessing nature’s marvels firsthand.