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Olives have been cultivated commercially for more than 5000 years, since well before Socrates pondered the meaning of life as he wandered through the groves of Athens.
Individual trees are themselves capable of living more than 2000 years, entitling them to oversee not only generations but entire civilisations. Planting one in your garden offers not only delicious pickled fruit, but a link to the past, and way into the future.
Gardener-cooks love olives for their tasty pickled fruit, and superb oil. Garden designers love them for their silvery foliage, and their stoic ability to prosper in even the most difficult of sites. Olives can also make a striking potted feature in a themed courtyard and are a hardy tree in a minimal-effort orchard. They prefer long, warm summers and cold winters. They are resistant to strong winds, salt spray, the heat and the cold, and remain evergreen in even the blackest frosts.
The tree will tolerate harsh conditions, including steep stony soils, where few other plants will survive. However, they do not like heavy soils that hold water and prefer neutral rather than alkaline soils (a pH of 7.0-8.0 is optimal).
Prepare the site (3x3m) with one wheelbarrow load of manure and one barrow load of crusher dust, a road aggregate that is available from landscape suppliers. Add lime if necessary. Keep the root ball intact when planting: olives don’t like having their roots teased.
Olive trees are drought-hardy but produce more fruit if irrigated, especially at flowering and fruit set in late spring, and during the last stage of fruit growth. Apply fertiliser, in the form of composted manure (well-rotted chicken manure is good) and rock phosphate (crushed rock minerals), during the autumn. The manure mulch should be 25mm thick and extend to the drip line. Monitor soil pH and apply lime when required.
Prune after harvesting. Cut the branches that cross in the centre of the tree to open up the canopy to allow light and air through. This will help fruit ripening and reduce the risk of fungal disease. Cut off any branches too close to the ground, remove any dead branches, and reduce the overall size of the tree by half to make harvesting easier.
Olives can take up to seven years to fruit. They are partially self-pollinating, and benefit from other olives growing nearby. A 10-year-old tree can be expected to bear 50-100kg of fruit each year. Olives can be picked green and unripe, or left to ripen until the skin and flesh are purple-black.
Olives have a strong resistance to most pests and diseases. They are mildly susceptible to black scale (treat with Eco-oil), phytophthora and anthracnose (treat with fungal copper spray). Tree trunks also benefit from whitewashing to rid the trunk of pest eggs such as scale.
Frantoio/Paragon: There are two names for this Italian variety, which is desirable for its high-quality oil. Mid-to-late season fruiting. Prolific, small fruits.
Kalamata: Greek origin. One of the most popular pickling olives with very large fruit.
Barouni: Large fruit. Good for pickling, consistent cropping from a spreading tree. Good tolerance for cold winters. Mid-to-late season bearing.
Manzinello: Medium-sized fruit, good for oil and pickling. Heaviest bearing tree.
UC13: Egyptian origin. Almost-round fruit on a medium-sized tree, with big harvests.
Where to buy
Mail order from Daley’s Fruit Tree Nursery, www.daleysfruit.com.au
Phone: (02) 66 321 441