Before talking about growing olives How many of us come home from a Mediterranean holiday with intoxicating memories of watching the sun go down with a glass of good wine and a dish of the local olives? How we daydream of growing our own olives at home, reaching out to pick a few from a gnarled old tree, while we relate our adventures to bemused friends.
The friends may bring us back down to earth, but the olive tree could be a reality. With a little patience and good gardening, olive trees can be grown and will fruit here, especially in the warmer south-western areas of the UK.
They are Hardier Than You Might Think (growing olives)
The essential factor is good drainage. Olive trees (Olea europaea) can withstand temperatures as low as -5ºc providing the roots are not waterlogged or frozen. If your olive tree is planted outside it can be protected from extreme cold by wrapping it up in layers of horticultural fleece or bubble plastic until the temperatures rise again.
They do of course need the maximum amount of sunshine you can afford them, and can be grown successfully in containers and brought into a conservatory or frost-free greenhouse in the cooler months.
It’s possible to buy small olive trees that are only a year or two old and be very patient. And it’s equally possible to buy fruiting specimens that are hundreds of years old.
It depends how brave you feel, and how much you want to spend. If you choose the cautious route you will find that young trees will grow faster if they are potted on each year in late spring. They dislike being over-potted, so move your tree on into the next size pot only. When you reach the final pot size that you can manoeuvre comfortably it can remain in that pot and will need feeding regularly with a seaweed-based fertiliser to keep it in good condition. And to encourage it to think more maternally, and produce those olives.
It pays to buy a variety of olive that fruits well in our cooler conditions. There are specialist nurseries who can give you good advice and sell you a reliably hardy cultivar that is self-fertile. This means that you will not need to grow a different, pollinating variety alongside in order to produce fruit.
Olea europaea ‘Frantoio’ is renowned in Tuscany for its rich, fruity flavored olives. It will not make a tree that could outgrow your greenhouse and is self-fertile. And from Andalusia comes O. Europaea ‘Picual’ that also makes dark aromatic oil and is self-fertile. This variety is larger, but it can be pruned hard into the old wood and will still re-grow.
All olive trees respond well to more gentle pruning if it’s carried out in early summer to allow the wounds to heal and the subsequent young growth to harden off before the onset of winter.
And when those hard little green olives start to form, will it have been worth the wait? Yes, and no. The waiting is not over yet. The olives need to be cleansed, pickled and then soaked in brine before they are ready to eat.
And then, finally, your very own olives will be ready to enjoy with a glass of wine as the sun goes down.
The recipe for preparing olives
- Select the ripe black olives from the green and treat them separately.
- Wash them in cold running water, then add boiling water and soak them for 24 hours.
- Repeat this procedure for 3 days.
- On the fourth day drain the olives and put them in sterile jars.
- Mix 3 parts brine (100gms/liter, salt to water) with 1 part white wine vinegar.
- Fill the jars and top them off with a layer of olive oil to seal them.
- They will be ready in 5 weeks and can be stored for 6 months.
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