How to Prune Olive Trees

Updated on January 24, 2018
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Penelope is retired but teaches English to business people in Rome part time. She is a published feature writer, playwright and poet.

Pruning Suckers with a Saw

Pruning the Suckers with a Saw
Pruning the Suckers with a Saw | Source

The Olive Tree in Tuscany

In Tuscany we know that the best olives are produced by the healthiest trees. Here's how to prune olive trees to keep them in tip-top condition all through the year.

The video stars an olive tree and Franco, a local Tuscan olive-tree-man who's showing how to prune olive trees. It is his last day of pruning this year before the tree begins to flower.

Franco talks about 'succhioni'. He means 'suckers' in English - which is another word for a shoot!

My article shows you

  • How Franco, prunes olive trees (it's his culture!).
  • What equipment you need
  • What time of year to prune
  • How to prune olive trees
  • About their vase shape

Franco was born and lives among the olive groves of Magliano in Toscana. Growing olive trees for olives and for olive oil, pruning and maintaining them is an essential part of his life, not just his job. He's maintained the secular olive trees growing on his land since he was a child. It is a lifestyle in this Tuscan region that is centuries old.

Immense olive trees stand on the slopes of his village which the Etruscan peoples planted more than 3,000 years ago. There are olive groves everywhere you look; dotting the hills, lining the lanes, sculpturing quiet corners. Aside from the old groves there are hundreds of new fields being planted (which are called orchards); rows upon rows of olive trees that aren't 15 years old yet.

Growing olive trees, maintaining their growth and production is a real day-to-day part of the Tuscany culture. It's a way of life at which they are naturally expert, which they love. It's as though the internal workings of the olive tree ticks symbiotically inside them.

Franco Olive Grower from Tuscany with PruningTools

Franco Olive Grower from Tuscany with Pruning Tools
Franco Olive Grower from Tuscany with Pruning Tools | Source
Franco's Secular Olive Grove
Franco's Secular Olive Grove | Source

How to Prune

Though there are many different schools of thought on how to prune olive trees in olive growing countries around the world - depending on your climate and which country you come from - this video shows how olive trees are pruned in our area of Tuscany by Franco. Everyone here votes him the number one olive tree pruner!

For annual pruning of the inside of a tree, where the vegetation is dense, he explains that you will need the following basic equipment to remove the shoots or 'suckers'.

  • Disinfected hand saw - about 0.38 inches in length (for 76 mm diameter 'suckers')
  • Pruning shears (for the shorter suckers)
  • Ladder to lean against the tree
  • Some sort of coverall
  • Goggles (a good idea)
  • Reliably strong footwear (for a good balance on even ground and on the ladder).

Pruning trees that have not been pruned for more than 2 or 3 years is a much more demanding job. The growth is considerable. You would need to be very physically fit.

"It's important that you've had experience with operating a chain saw in difficult positions for hours at a time before attempting to prune the trees."

He said that in addition to the above items, you would certainly need the following equipment too.

  • Light chainsaw with a 0.35 mm blade for sawing wider branches
  • Work Gloves (leather).

Working with a companion is a sensible idea. Franco usually usually works in a team with two or three mates.

An Olive Tree with Shoots to Prune

An Olive Tre with Shoots to Prune
An Olive Tre with Shoots to Prune | Source

When to Prune Olive Trees

The general rule of thumb, (a green one we hope) is to prune olive trees once a year, though they can be left for two years if there is a shortage of labor.

The best time to begin pruning is, when winter lets up, when spring starts, and the likelihood of frost and freezing winds are over. Pruning can go on until May 1st, which is when the trees show singns of flowering, but no later.

I've noticed later pruning here in Tuscany because winters can be quite harsh and long, sometimes very cold in March.

In areas where winters are mild, pruning begins earlier.

"Olive trees must not be pruned when they are wet or if it is raining" advises Franco, who watches for the fungus la fumagine. (spilocaea oleaginea)

"If there is fumagine, which is black, then the tree needs to be cut back to where there is no sign of it on the branches, even if you have to cut back the full branch, or more". The fungus, which spreads, robs the tree of its energy and affects growth very seriously.

The branches will be cut right back too if ice, or freezing winds have gotten at them and killed them. They appear dry and dead.

How to prune olive trees

The video above shows how Franco hand saws off shoots (called 'suckers' or 'suchioni' in Italian) from the branches of the inside of the tree in order to open the tree up to the light, the sun and the air, in order to keep it airy and dry - leaving outside vegetation.

The 'suckers' need to go because they suck the nourishment out of the trees "that needs to go into the growth of the plant and into the fruit" he says.

A guide to where to prune:

  • Cut all growth that grows upwards because it blocks the growth from the light. Leave only branches that grow downwards, on the outside of the tree. These will be the producing branches.
  • If there are two downward growing branches, cut one of them in order to re-enforce the single branch. Some pruners leave two of them "in case something goes wrong with one of them".
  • If ice has killed off of branch, then cut the whole branch at the fork.
  • If the branch is only partially damaged, then cut back to the second 'sucker' which Franco calls a buttoni, (just exactly as you might prune back your rose bush).
  • The scruffy looking vegetation at the foot of the tree needs to be cut away every year, to keep the energy inside the growing tree.

The trimmed 'suckers' and branches used to be piled up in a corner of a field and burned but because there are so many olive groves now, the trimmed wood is collected and ground for sawdust and for fertilizer.

Pruned Branches Growing Downwards on the Outside of the Tree

Pruned.  Branches Growing Downwards on the Outside of the Tree
Pruned. Branches Growing Downwards on the Outside of the Tree | Source

A Vase Shaped Olive Tree

A Vase Shaped Olive Tree
A Vase Shaped Olive Tree | Source

The Vase Shape

In Tuscany, the vase shape is the traditional shape, one that you see in all the groves.

Franco calls it a 'round shape'. It is encouraged from when the tree is two years old. Four principal branches are encouraged symmetrically from a single trunk.

The Vase has a greater surface to volume ratio, with less of an empty space in the middle, a more evenly distributed canopy.

He is proud to explain that he pruned the olive tree in the picture when it was a small plant and has kept his eye and his ladder on it since then.

Ancient Tree in Tuscany Pruned to let in Air and Light

3, 000 Olive Tree in Tuscany Pruned to Let in Air and Light
3, 000 Olive Tree in Tuscany Pruned to Let in Air and Light | Source

© 2012 Penelope Hart


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    • profile image

      Janice 7 months ago

      Hi I have an olive bush rather than a tree.It's about 6yrs old and in the ground.I don't want olives from it, just like the look.It doesn't seem to have a central trunk, just 5 branches coming from the base.I would like to prune it as it's getting big and is surrounded by other plants.Any tips about what I might do would be a great help.I live in Brittany France, very harsh winters.I don't mind trying to dig it up and replant if at all possible.Many thanks janice

    • profile image

      Helen 10 months ago

      Where is the video?

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

      I don't have an olive tree, sadly, but if you ever feel like producing a calendar with olive tree photos, I'll happily buy it - they are so interesting and beautiful.

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 5 years ago from Rome, Italy

      The 3000 year trees are stunning. I wish I could get my arms round them. I try. I love them too.

      Thank you so much for commenting.


    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      It's amazing that an olive tree can live 3000 years. I found your article and video very interesting. I love olives and olive oil and it was nice to learn more about the trees.

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 5 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Glad you like the photos too Kathie!

    • profile image

      Kathie 5 years ago

      What a great, informative article. Great photos.

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 5 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Yes! Very careful up the ladder. Hi! Nice you came to the olive groves to make a comment and thanks so much.

    • theraggededge profile image

      Bev G 5 years ago from Wales, UK

      Wonderful - meraviglioso! These olive tree Hubs are fascinating. BUT... you be careful up that ladder!

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 5 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Janis. There is a sacred sensation inside the Etruscan groves. Anything that's 3,000 years old has got to be sacred. Thanks for comments and nice to here about your Okanagan Valley peach trees

    • Janis Goad profile image

      Janis Goad 5 years ago

      Interesting hub, GoodLady. I love the pictures and the sardonic touches of humour!! In the video Franco is pruning the olive tree the way they prune peach trees in the Okanagan Valley near here--into a vase shape to let in air and light.

      Why do you call them "secular" olive groves? Are there sacred groves too?

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 5 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Thanks twinstimes2

    • twinstimes2 profile image

      Karen Lackey 5 years ago from Ohio

      I felt like I was in Tuscany! Great job, Goodlady!

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 5 years ago from Rome, Italy

      angela_michelle. Thanks so much for your kind comment

      writer20. Olives love heat and sun and a well drained maybe! Thanks for stopping in.

    • writer20 profile image

      Joyce Haragsim 5 years ago from Southern Nevada

      Great hub, now I would like to get an Olive Tree. I'm not sure if it would grow with our heat. I'll check into it.

      Voted up. awesome video and interesting, Joyce.

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 5 years ago from United States

      This is very informative and very thorough! Great job!