Houston, we have lift off! Or at least olives. Finally, decades after I planted my first olive trees. Olives of many shapes and colours varying from almost white through green to purple black.
Olives are extraordinarily hardy, needing a hot, dry climate and tolerating minimum winter temperatures of as low as -12° C. They will grow on any rocky, sun-filled hillside, but, like most fruit trees, they grow faster and crop better on good, deep soil with regular water. They will start to fruit in good conditions when they are between four and six years old, but they may still be bearing hundreds of years later.
The first olive trees I planted were seedlings. They grew well. And grew, but failed to produce olives. Possibly they never would have – some olive seedlings don't – but more likely they just needed a pollinator. The wattle trees grew up through that grove of olives. A few are still there, too shaded to ever fruit.
My next olive grove was made up of grafted trees, with pollinators. They fruited after about five years, with perhaps two crops before they were hit by a small, weird, very narrow tornado. They did sprout from the roots, but the last time I looked the wallabies were munching the shoots.
The third attempt involved two compatible trees, one of which died just at fruiting size, attacked by a vicious grevillea that grew through it and made it overbalance, uprooting it on its steep slope. The other, unpollinated, tree is a lovely size and shape, but still no fruit.
Attempt number four: we planted pollinators for that tree, plus another olive grove down by the cottage. The ones up here are growing, but slowly as we don't get much sun. It's possible that, like saffron crocus, we are just too shady here to get a crop.
But finally, down at the cottage, with the trees only as high as me: olives. Lots of glorious, wonderfully varying olives, of about six varieties. Typically, I've forgotten what ones I planted, though they were all multi-purpose, a couple good for oil, another couple for best eating, including Kalamata, but which others I cannot say.
If you want to grow true-to-type olives, buy grafted trees, or grow them from cuttings: take a 40cm piece of hardwood, and stick it deep into damp sand. Keep moist in dappled shade and plant out after a couple of years.
If you have fresh olive seeds you can grow seedlings then graft them (something I have never managed, like crochet). You can also try scattering fresh seed or fresh olives in the soil along a fence: in about 10 years' time you may have a hedge, which may or may not produce olives, and probably won't unless your olives came from cross-pollinating varieties.
They also won't produce if your winters are too warm – too warm depends on the variety – but the trees will probably grow.
Olives also make beautiful potted trees – use a large pot, and trim well. They are excellent topiaried. Make sure they have sunlight, regular water and slow-release plant food. There is no need to prune fully-grown olives, but light pruning will ensure more new wood, and thus more fruit. A firm pruning of both top and inner branches will keep the tree low enough to net to keep out birds - birds adore olives - and also make the tree open enough to make picking easier and more even ripening.
Black or green olives
Olives start green or white then eventually ripen to black. Some black olives that you buy are green olives dyed to make them appear black – these are usually cheap and unpleasant to eat. Olives to be used for oil are usually left on the tree until they are at least slightly black - I think. My olive oil knowledge is several decades (or even several thousand years) old, and processes may have changed.
Most olives will both produce oil and can be eaten as table olives. There are a few varieties that are grown just for their pickled fruit and have very little oil, but most are multi-purpose.
The old way of picking olives was to spread a cloth under them and shake the branches, or even the whole tree, till the olives fall. This is the way I still do it but there are undoubtedly far more modern ways to do it.
And then press or process to remove the inedible bitterness. Try the recipe below at your own risk, as if you make a mistake there is a very, very slight chance you may end up with botulism and the editor prefers that their gardening articles do not lead to the death of their readers. Pickling olives is nearly always safe – but it's that "nearly" which means I am being cautious.
But only in print. This week we'll be shaking the branches and choosing which of several extremely ancient ways I'll process them this time. After that they will be marinated in olive oil, some twigs of thyme and just possibly a sliver of lemon rind and garlic cloves. And then eaten, with gusto and with triumph.
Easy Olive Processing
Pick when evenly ripe (purplish black). Wash off dust and passing insects. Slit down one side with a sharp knife and pack into a plastic, lidded container with coarse salt (non-iodised).
The salt will draw out vast quantities of extremely bitter juice. Every week or so rinse an olive or two and taste for bitterness. Once the bitterness has disappeared, wash well to remove the salt.
Store in olive oil in a cool, dark place with herbs like thyme, rosemary, or oregano, plus perhaps a few shreds of orange or lemon zest, garlic cloves, or chillies. Throw out if they change colour, look or smell odd, or grow mould.
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