How to Plant Olive Trees
How to Prepare for Planting Olive Trees
Whether you are planning to plant a few for garden ornamentation, or several hundred for olive oil production, I was advised by my local farming friends here in Tuscany that the wisest first move would be to have a good look around to see which olive trees are doing best in your area.
Varieties range from green to black with various preferences of...
- climate conditions,
- terrain (lower or steeper hills),
- sun-facing directions,
- and more.
The one or two varieties that are doing well in your area are the ones to go for, probably a better choice than any you might make from a text book of explanations. A visit to your local nursery or farmers co-operative, and a conversation about them will confirm their suitability.
What Type of Olive Trees to Plant
How wide the foliage will grow affects spacing between the trees when planting. When the tree has reached its full width, there should be space between it and the next in any direction to facilitate harvesting the olives (mechanically or not) or treating the soil around them via tractor. It's important to distance them far enough from each other so that light and sun can reach all the branches and they can grow healthily.
There are three varieties in the groves adorning our undulating Tuscan hills which have been growing proudly for up to three thousand years (since the times of the Etruscans). A typical grove here today will be planted 94% with the following varieties:
The remaining 6% is planted with pollinators:
Other parts of Italy grow other varieties. It is impossible to generalize. Other areas in the world grow yet other varieties. One simple set of criteria suits all, everyone agrees, is not easy. One of our local Tuscan nursery gardeners originally comes from La Puglia and while beaming a superior smile, says, "We grow La Coratina where I come from." A relative of ours in California grows many other varieties in his farm: Arbequina, Arbosana, Lechen de Sevilla, Cornicabra, Picual, Horjiblanca, Empeltre, and Manzanilla.
When to Buy Olive Trees for Olive Oil
Chose to buy from the most reputable local farmers co-operative or nursery. Having sold and planted-up other farms, gardens, and municipal sites, they have the necessary agronomic expertise, a dependable reputation, and the proper machinery. They might very well have the manpower to hire as well.
If you are planning to produce olive oil, they will advise which varieties to buy and how to plant your groves once you discuss the whys and wherefores of:
- picking olives by hand or harvesting them with machinery,
- if you will be going bio dynamic or organic or not,
- whether there is local labor for this type of work,
- and how expensive that labor is.
These are the factors which influence how many you want to plant, how wide apart they should be, and eventually which trees are suited to your plans and budget.
Olive trees should be two years old and be planted in:
- autumn or spring, when the chances of extreme hot or cold weather are less likely
- in well drained, non-congealing soil (a clay soil is no good, though a little clay mixed with sand is alright)
- on land or hillsides with altitudes of up to around 500 meters (though occasionally they've been known to grow on even higher terrain); the earth will drain and the air will circulate to keep the plant as dry as possible (to prevent fungus)
- south-west facing is most suitable.
- In spring, plow the field with a disc-plow (which overturns the soil 20 centimeters deep) to air it and uproot weeds. Plowing a wet field is not good because the earth will clod and will not break down as it does when it is dry.
- Fertilize to encourage a spring growth and healthy flowering.
- Remove the stones in the field so that when the holes are dug, the ground is ready. The spade won't hit the rocks and time won't be wasted moving them aside.
- Keep weeds and plants away so that all the goodness in the earth feeds into the tree.
- Laying out the ground/field: Plant in squads 6 x 6 square meters. The size of the root formation through the years is as expansive as the tree's foliage.
In a field or area that is now weed-free:
- The roots of the sapling need to be wet, so wet them in their pots before planting.
- Dig holes for the young tree 80 centimeters to 1 meter deep by 1.20 meters wide. The holes are dug manually where I live.
- Make sure the roots of the tree are not meshed up. If they are, tease them apart with your hands gently.
- Cover the planted, wet roots firmly with the earth that's in the field, only. "You don't need to compost or fertilize it," they say in Tuscany. The tree must get used to the earth it's in.
- Stake the small trees with chestnut wooden stakes to encourage them to grow straight, also to keep them upright in the winds.
- Tie the tree to the stake with a rubber thread so it doesn't cut the tree.
- Water if it doesn't rain before the end of the month.
The trees will start producing olives in between 3 to 5 years after planting, and each year they will produce more and more, progressively. In 50 years, each plant will annually be producing approximately 70 kilos of olives for olive oil.
Ornamental Olive Tree Planting
Garden olive trees are decorative since there are no olives. They are massive, historically emotional natural sculptures that look the most dramatic when they are between 80 to 100 years old (that is, when they are between one to two meters high) and at their most magnificent.
The well-drained, weed-free, ideally southwest-facing hole should be 1 to 1.20 meter deep and 2 x 2 meters wide. It will take several people to help and special garden center equipment. Again, the soil will not need to be fertilized since the roots, even at this age, must find their own way.
The value of the plant is between euro 1,000 and euro 5,000.
© 2012 Penelope Hart