Olive orchards can be cultivated on nearly all homesteads, no matter where they are located or how much acreage they sit upon.
While these fruit trees are subtropical, dwarf versions can be cultivated outdoors (except during the winter months when they must be moved into a greenhouse or indoors).
Starting an olive orchard also brings the possibility of making all-natural homemade olive oil on your homestead. While making this healthy cooking oil in large batches does require large and expensive equipment, small batches can be made with common tools that are likely already in your kitchen.
History of Olives and Olive Oil
Olives have been grown for food, oil, for soap making, and as a natural home remedy ingredient since at least 300 B.C.
They are believed to have first been grown in Syria. As the popularity of olives grew, cultivation efforts spread to ancient Greece and Rome.
Olives became so ingrained in the daily life of ancient people that Homer declared olive oil to be one of the most vital aspects of the Greek culture.
Despite the intense popularity of olives and olive oil, the tasty and beneficial little fruit did not arrive in America until 1803. California was the first (and for a long time only) place that olive tree orchards were cultivated.
The first known commercial orchard was not created until 1871. Olive were only harvested and processed into olive oil for a few decades.
Due to the incredibly cheap price of imported olive oil from Europe, the California growers stop making oil and focused only on cultivating table olives.
The change in production mode allowed the orchard businesses to not just survive, but thrive.
It was not until the final years of the 1900s did olive growers once again turned their attention to making olive oil. A small group of growers were determined to seize the opportunity created by the demand for “gourmet” olive oil fostered by high end restaurants and professional chefs. Today, more than 10,000 acres in California are being used for olive oil production.
Simply because California is the location where commercial olive production is centered and thriving, that doesn’t mean you cannot add a few trees or even a full orchard of them on your homestead.
Olive cultivation is not a complicated process, you merely need the right ground and weather conditions to achieve a bountiful harvest. Sounds pretty much like the recipe for success with anything else you grow on the homestead, right?
When you purchase an olive tree and can keep it alive, the homestead could be reaping the benefits of your planting efforts for generations.
Olive trees have been known to live for hundreds of years – with some claims of trees that last for an entire millennia.
The recommended outdoor year round USDA Growing Zone for olives is 9 through 11. Some cultivators specific varieties can be grown outside the entire year in USDA Growing Zone 5.
For the best chances of success outside of the noted recommended growing zones, purchase dwarf olive trees that can be grown in pots and rotated into a greenhouse or inside your home during the cold weather months.
Olive trees are an alternate bearing fruit tree. Each season a blossoming fruit crop appears on new wood growth. Olive trees, regardless of variety, have shallow roots.
The growing pattern of olive trees permit it the strength to grow and support the weight of a heft yield. But, when excessive new wood growth develops that almost always means the bumper yield you get that year will be the last such great bounty for at least one growing season.
Pruning the tree back when a lot of new growth has occurred will keep olive production far more stable.
You may also need to prune back an overabundance of new flower blossoms to keep the yield ratio in check. The pruning process is essential when experiencing unusually wet or cold weather or when a lack of pollinators are present.
Olive trees are more than capable of thriving on rugged terrain and in poor quality soil where other fruit trees (and many vegetable plants) cannot.
They are incredibly drought hardy, but highly susceptible to excess rain and moisture. The one sure fire way to kill an olive tree – even a mature one, is to subject them to too much water.
For this reason, you can employ a clever yet cheap drip irrigation system for your trees. It goes like this…
First, you need a 1.5 inch in diameter hose that should reach the vicinity of each of your olive trees like this one:
Then, from the main hose, you should have thinner .5 inch hoses going directly to your olive trees, providing a steady supply of water:
While olive trees are equally pest and disease resistant, they are also intensely temperature sensitive. If the thermometer inches below 22 degrees F (-5.5 C), an olive tree will sustain likely deadly frost damage.
Both young and developed branches will be equally impacted by the cold weather. Cold weather exposure that does not kill an olive tree may still ruin the taste of both the fruit and the oil it produces.
When subjected to temperatures as low as 15 degrees (-9 C), olive trees will likely be irreparably damaged in less than 24 hours. Even the hardiest varieties of olive trees cannot tolerate temperatures at this level. If exposed to periods of excessive heat, the trees may produce less bountiful crop for the year.
Olive trees are wind pollinated. When the weather during the spring through the first days of summer is unusually windy, the pollen the trees need to produce will not likely hit, and remain on the trees long enough to facilitate the proper growing process.
Olive Tree Varieties
Research the types of varieties that have been grown in or near your region before purchasing trees. If a local or regional nursery actually carries olive trees, odds are buying what they are selling is hardy to your climate.
Finding olive trees at a local greenhouse or nursery is fairly uncommon in many areas. Dwarf trees are especially difficult to locate outside of large online nurseries.
When browsing olive tree varieties, the description of the tree starts often details some information about the taste or type of olive oil it is known to produce, as well as if it is best intended to grow table olives or olives to create oil.
Some trees are equally good at both jobs, but others are better suited to create just one or the other types of produce. Most top quality olive oils are created from a combination of barely ripe to just ripened olives.
Olives range in color from several shades of green to black, depending upon the tree variety chosen. If the chosen tree variety produces olives that boast a somewhat pepper like smell, as some do, the oil will also carry this same fragrance.
10 Best Olive Tree Varieties
- Arbequina – This is a small tree that fruits early – in only four years and grows to 15 feet (4.5 meters) tall, on average. Arbequina olives boast a lot of flesh and a tiny pit.
- Arbosana – This is a semi-dwarf variety. It is a vigorous grower, and develops into more of a busy tree. Arbosana olive trees produce a medium sized olive. Both this olive tree variety as well as the Arbequina variety hail from Spain.
- Chemlali – This is a rather large olive tree that grows well in excess of 20 feet (6 meters). The Chemlali is also a vigorous grower, but produces a small fruit. This olive tree variety is from Tunisia.
- Coratina – This olive tree variety does not self pollinate successfully like those noted above, it requires a pollinator. The Coratina, which hails from Italy, grows to over 30 feet tall, produces a large fruit, and is a grayish to green color.
- Frantoio -This Italian olive tree variety is exceptionally hardy, also gray to green in color, and produces a large olive fruit. The Frantoio partially self-fertilizes.
- Leccino – This olive tree from Italy also requires a pollinator to produce a bountiful yield. The Leccino olive tree grows larger than 30 feet (9 meters), has leaves that are gray and leathery in texture, and produces a medium size fruit.
- Pendolino – Both the fruit and the leaves of this Italian olive tree are small. It does not self pollinate, but it is used as a pollinator for other types of cultivars. The Pendolino tree grows to produce a weeping style canopy.
- Picholine – This French olive trees produces a medium fruit. The Picual is a vigorous and tall grower that partially self-fertilizes.
- Picual – This self-fertilizing olive tree from Spain is short to semi-dwarf. The Picual grows in a busy fashion, produces large olives, and has somewhat gray leaves.
- Santa Caterina – This Italian olive tree has a vastly spreading canopy, and grows to large heights. The Santa caterina requires a pollinator, and produces a large fruit.
If you are lucky enough to find any, the seeds from wild olives can be grown to produce root stock for both planting and grafting.
Dwarf Olive Trees
While you can prune any olive tree to dwarf it, several online nurseries, like Gurneys, sell dwarf olive trees in pots. Common Dwarf Olive Tree Varieties:
- Little Ollie
- Mediteranean olive tree
How to Grow Olive Trees
- The blossoming flowers on olive trees most frequently develop to their best potential when subjected to temperatures no lower than 45 degrees F (7 C).
- Plant olive trees during just before or when the flowers are starting to blossom during dry and moderate weather conditions.
- Richly fertile soil is neither needed nor recommended for olive trees. They thrive in soil with a pH level of 6.5, but can also successfully grow in soil with a pH balance ranging from 5 to 8.5.
- Olive trees absolutely have to be planted in soil that drains well. If a young tree or even the roots of a mature tree that is planted in soil that does not drain quickly will perish from rot or mildew in a short amount of time.
- Legume vegetables varieties are excellent companion crops for olive trees. Plants of this type release ample nitrogen back into the soil.
- These fruit bearing trees require between 40 to 100 pounds (18 to 45 kgs) of nitrogen per planted acre to reach their full potential.
- Historically, olive trees were planted between 30 to 60 feet apart. Today, commercial orchard tend to favor high density growing techniques are place trees only 8 to 20 feet apart. When growing olive trees in the ground on your homestead, planting them 10 to 15 feet apart should be sufficient for space conservation while still allowing enough growing room as the hardy fruit trees mature.
- When planting olive trees in the ground for a permanent orchard, space the rows roughly 15 to 25 feet apart.
Common Olive Tree Diseases and Pests
To stave off plant diseases and protect your olive trees, do not expose them to excessive water, fully inspect them regularly.
Also prune the trees to keep them short enough for easy viewing of all the branches, so any type of pest infestation or developing disease can be spotted and treated rapidly.
- Parlatoria scale
- Verticillium Wilt
- Black Scale
- Peacock Spot
- Apple weevil
- Olive lace bug
- Peacock spot
- Olive Knot
- Rutherglen bug
- Fruit Flies
Olive Harvesting Tips
- In nearly all varieties, olives are usually ripened enough for harvest during the middle to latter weeks of October. Depending upon the growing zone, some varieties may be able to continue growing until December.
- To harvest the olives, place a fine piece of netting around the base of the tree. Make sure it is as large as the diameter or the wide branches. Shake the tree branches or use pneumatic raeks to remove the fruit.
- If the olives are allowed to remain on the tree past ripening stage they will soon begin to deteriorate. The olives must be used or properly preserved after picking or they will start to compost and develop “fustiness” – a soggy state that diminishes both their texture and taste.
Tara lives on a 56 acres farm in the Appalachian Mountains, where she faces homesteading and farming challenges every single day, raising chickens, goats, horses, and tons of vegetables. She’s an expert in all sorts of homesteading skills such as hide tanning, doll making, tree tapping, and many more.