First lessons in olive pruning

Despite the forlorn sight of the butchered olive trees, the garden still has some things that delight and surprise me, such as these dried seed capsules of an early spring bulb, Dipcadi serotinum. I’ve gathered a few and put them in a bamboo basket, a present from Okuyama-san, our mentor in Yuzawa, Akita, a long time ago.

I am still smarting from the mistreatment of my olive and other fruit trees — I cannot forget, as until they recover next spring (if they do), I shall be confronted with their sorry state every single day. The biggest lesson learned from hiring this unknown gardener is that I should have trusted my own gardening instincts. Although I have no experience with olives other than eating them, I do have several decades of gardening experience and knowledge of plants. I should have said no outright when he suggested pruning the olives, and stuck to the original tasks I had hired him to do – clearing the thatch from the palm tree, clearing the jungle of sarsaparilla vines, brambles, and ivy from the pines. Before assigning something as complex as pruning, I had wanted to see first what kind of worker he was. Additionally there was one warning sign that I ought not to have ignored: faced with a cherry tree, this gardener, or perhaps more accurately — garden maintenance person — did not recognize it. Quite simply, he does not know his plants. And that is a serious failing for one who bills himself as a gardener. Anyhow… this was an extremely painful lesson to have learned.

My advice to gardeners starting out with an inherited garden, and which I had at first resolved to do, is to do nothing for the first year. (This is an obvious case of do as I say, not as I do.) Certainly no pruning until one has read up on the particular needs of existing trees.  By all means, tidy up brambles and weeds, bearing in mind that some weeds or wild flowers do have their uses (more on this later), but the most productive activity in the initial year is observing.  Observe which plants are growing well, which ones are not thriving, where the sun falls at different hours of the day, the wind directions, and what type of soil there is.

In my garden the plants that are doing well are the pine trees, both the mature ones and some young ones, and an oleander hedge, now blooming profusely even without watering. We are surrounded by pine forests, so it seems highly likely that this property might have been a clearing made in the middle of pine woods and planted to olives, perhaps dating back as much as 60-70 years, perhaps more (says M), judging from the oldest olive trunks.

The garden faces south, but a grove of tall pines on the east side shades the olive trees there, and the oleander on the south side seems to affect rather adversely the growth of olives nearby. There are very young citrus (lemon and orange), arbutus, and a loquat planted under tall pines. Only the two arbutus trees seem to be doing well – they have a few fruits. The citrus and loquat are struggling: the citrus flowers dried up before they could form fruits. The trees in the shade of the pine — the arbutuses and the loquat — lean conspicuously away towards the light. There is a cherry beyond the pine canopy which flowered this spring and fruited, but its leaves are now riddled with pinholes from insects (which insect is responsible is still to be determined). The loquat is similarly infested. I am speculating that this vulnerability to insect attack may be due to allelopathic effects from the pine roots.

Winds come from the west and east: the west ones quite fierce, especially in late winter and early spring. Planting tall and medium-height evergreens to slow down these winds is a must. The soil is red sticky clay. Although I have yet to make a proper soil analysis, the wild flowers that abound are those that prefer calcareous soil of low fertility, the outcrops of limestone and terraces of limestone rock obviously determining the general pH of the soil. There are some pockets of acidity from fallen (acidic) pine tree litter.

Of the 25 olive trees, 4 were bearing fruit (the fruit-bearing branches now gone). The rest of the olives seem to have received rejuvenation pruning sometime within the past 5 years, which is how long the previous owners had been in residence. Previous to that, the garden had been neglected for many years. When we moved in, the olive trees did not look very robust, and the scars left by the past rejuvenation pruning mirror the unsightly hacking of the other day. There are stumps of olives at ground level, a few as much as 50 cm in diameter, full of suckers growing on the perimeter. These stumps could have been olives killed by frost or an extended period of cold, or the trunks might have been purposely cut to the ground within the past 5 years.

How to treat the olive trees now after their grievous maltreatment? I found The Mediterranean Garden Society website articles written by Brian Chatterton and others on olive cultivation very helpful. Ditto the 10 basics of pruning fruit trees from the University of California, written by Peter Vossen.

Here I share my initial lessons on olive pruning:

  1. Why prune at all? If fruits are desired, then pruning is imperative. If plentiful fruits are not the objective, ergo there is no obligation to prune. One can just enjoy the olive tree for its own sake and beauty.
  2. Olive flowers need strong sunlight to set into plentiful fruit. For good oil production, direct sunlight must hit every olive fruit at least part of the day (Chatterton).
  3. Pruning is best done between late winter and early spring. Summer pruning tends to slow down growth (Vossen).
  4. “An old tree can be chopped and hacked with impunity and will rebound with enormous vigour from the energy reserves in the roots and trunk. The young tree will not.” (Chatterton). This heartens me, but Lesson 7 (see below) does not.
  5. Select 3 to 4 branches that are growing horizontally (called laterals) to form the basic structure. If you have an old, neglected tree, try to do the shaping over two or three years, not all at once, “or there will be nothing left of your tree.” (Chatterton). This is the state of some of my trees now (sigh).
  6. An old neglected tree that has grown too high needs to have its height reduced to enable the lower and shaded parts of the tree to fruit.
  7. About 20% of the previous year’s growth can be pruned  (Vossen). Some of my trees have had over 80% of their canopy and branches severed.

Olive hacked

In an organic olive farm in Canakkale, Turkey, Chevrel Traher reported that it took 5 years to bring neglected trees into fruiting shape – the first year focused just on reducing height. Succeeding years alternated between thinning the new growth and setting the basic structure of productive laterals.

If only I could turn back the clock… but there is nothing to be done about this situation now, except hope for the best and have faith that the energy reserves of these old olive trees will get them through the horrid “hacking with impunity” that they’ve been through.






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