Olives Galore

Now I feel foolish buying olives. I recently returned from visiting Israel where there were olive trees everywhere. Irrigated plots of greenery thrived in the broad expanses of the otherwise grays and browns of the desert. Trees popped up here and there in backyards and front yards of homes in streets lined with apartment buildings as well as along cobblestone streets in rural areas. Trees were even prominent in city parks, either as self-sown wildings in less tended areas or as formal plantings.
Woman harvesting olives in Jerusalem park
And oodles of ripe or ripening olives were clinging to branches or littering the ground. Need some hand lotion? Just pluck a ripe olive, squeeze it gently, and spread out the fresh oil that drips onto your hand. 

Want some olives for eating? Not so fast. Fresh-picked ripe or green olives are extremely bitter (due to oleuropein). That bitterness is removed with brine, multiple changes of water or lye solution followed by fermentation. My favorite olives are “naturally, sun-cured,” which, I imagine, means left hanging on the tree a long, long time. The dried, ripe olives I found still-clinging to branches tasted awful!
Green olive fruits
I was tempted to harvest some olives to bring home. A few other people had similar ideas, as evidenced by one woman on a ladder in a park in Jerusalem. Of course, these people were only miles or less from home; I was 5,000 plus miles from home. I let the olives be.

I actually grow olives here in the Hudson Valley, in a large container that spends summers outdoors basking in sunlight and winters in my cold basement near a large window. I should say that I grow an olive tree, rather than olives. My maximum harvest has been a half-dozen olives — which I did let hang for a long, long time, at which point they tasted delicious.
My potted olive treeMy olive harest-3 fruits
Olive fruits are borne on one-year-old shoots. This year, before moving my tree to the basement, I pruned more severely than usual. That should stimulate more one-year-old shoots this spring, to, I hope, yield more fruit.


Another of my favorite Mediterranean fruits also growing in abundance in as many guises as olive in Israel was pomegranate. Unfortunately, I just missed the harvest of this fruit. All that remained on wild plants were a few red arils still clinging to darkened portions of skins.  Fruits must have been ripe somewhere because ripe fruits and fresh squeezed juice were available in markets and and street carts everywhere. 
Pomegranate espalier, IsraelPomegranate display, Israel
I, of course, also grow pomegranate, similarly to olive except that, being deciduous, this plant does not need light in winter. It spends those months in a dark, walk-in cooler. 

Sad to admit, my yields of pomegranate fruits have been even less than my yields of olive. As in zip, zilch, zero. The plants flower every spring and with a small brush I’ve transferred pollen from the anthers of male blossoms to the stigmas of female blossoms. (Plants each have separate male and female blossoms.) Bases of female blossoms begin to swell hopefully. Then they drop.

Every year I threaten my plant with a walk to the compost pile — to no avail.


The third plant of the triumvirate of my favorite Mediterranean fruits is, of course, figs, which I saw in abundance in Israel mostly in wild settings. The plants lacked fruit, except for a few with small, green figlets that will either drop or ripen next spring. Fig is rather unique in its fruiting habit, able to bear fruit on one-year-old wood as well as on new, growing shoots, and the latter crop just keeps forming and ripening as long as growing conditions are to its liking.
Wild olive tree in Israel
One old tree growing in a courtyard in charming town of Sfad was hosting an old friend  — or, rather, enemy — of mine, fig scale insects. I’ve battled it one my greenhouse figs.

Figs were available in the markets but I was reluctant to even try them knowing that figs must be dead ripe to taste good. At that, stage they can hardly be transported more than arm’s length from hand to mouth.
Figs for sale, Israel
Figs are one Mediterranean fruit that I grow with great success, both in my greenhouse (minimum winter temperature 37°F) and, wintering in my walk-in cooler and summering outdoors, in pots like my pomegranate. Figs are generally easy to grow because of their unique bearing habit, their lack of need for pollination, and their general tolerance for abuse.

My last day I broke down and, against my better judgement, bought some figs. Mine are better.
Me eating one of my figs


 Curing my Olive Harvest

   My olive harvest, about which I recently wrote, was such a success that I want to up my production beyond this year’s bountiful 6 fruits. Those 6 fruits, once cured, were truly delicious. (Yes, the halo effect — my assessment of them veiled by my having grown them — could come into play.)
    Part of the reason for the fruits’ high quality was how I cured them. Not very complicated: I just let them sit and dry out. After about two weeks, they had lost their bitterness, and, without the distraction of salt, oil, or spices, their rich, olive flavor shined through.

New Roots, New Shoots

    Part one of my twofold plan to increase production is to put the plant into a larger pot. A larger pot makes for a larger plant; a larger plant has more branches on which to hang more fruit.
    Looking more closely at the plant told me that re-potting was necessary immediately! New flower buds are already beginning for the next crop. Because the plant is moving up to a larger pot, no root pruning is necessary. I put some potting soil in the bottom of a pot, set the exposed root ball on top of the soil, loosened some roots along the outside of the root ball, and packed new soil in the space between the root ball the the side of the pot.My potted olive tree, pruned
    With soil firmed and a thorough watering, the roots have a happy home — for a year or two, when root pruning and re-potting become necessary. If moved up to a yet larger pot, the plant would be too unwieldy to muscle indoors and out.
    Part two of my plan to increase production is pruning. To prune any fruit plant for best yield and quality, you  have to know something about how the particular plant bears its fruits. For instance, peaches are pruned very differently from apples because peaches bear only on one-year-old wood and apples bear on wood a couple of years old on up to a decade or older. One of the goals in pruning peaches is to coax enough new growth this year for a good crop next year.
    To figure out how to best prune an olive, I referred back to The Pruning Book (which I wrote, and also details pruning of apples, peaches, and just about every other plant). “Fruits form in leaf axils along, but not to the end of, the previous year’s stems (and sometimes from dormant buds in one- or two-year-old wood).”
    So olive fruits something like a peach, on young wood. Actually more like an apricot, which bears fruit on wood from one to three years old.
    My ploy was too shorten some stems, focussing on those making the plant look gawky. Without sacrificing yield, shortening stems has the benefit of encouraging new, branching growth. More branching will make the plant look prettier and provide more young stems on which to hang fruit next year.

Sleep, Sweet Fig

    Going from the sun-drenched window, in front of which my olive tree basks, all the way down to the basement, I check out another Mediterranean fruit, my potted fig trees. What’s happening with them? Nothing, I hope.
    Now is a crucial time of year for a potted fig tree. The goal is to keep them dormant. Unfortunately, just a bit more warmth or a bit more light and they’ll start to awaken. If awakened, new growth will be soft and sappy, even if the plants sit in front of a sunny window. Then, when the plants finally go outdoors, intense sunlight, wind, and cooler temperatures are apt to burn back such growth.
  Figs buds, still dormant in basement  Temperatures stay relatively consistent and cool (40-45°F.) in my basement and it’s dark down there, so the plants generally stay dormant until sometime, probably next month, when I can set them outside. Keeping the plants slightly on the dry side also helps hold back growth.
    Last year was perfect. I moved the dormant figs outdoors while the weather was still cool without temperatures dropping too low below freezing. (Dormant figs tolerate temperatures down to the low 20s.) Growth began in synch with increasing temperatures, culminating in branches draped with soft, ripe figs by summer’s end. I’m planning for a repeat performance.


What To Do With This Year’s Harvest?

Olive harvest will begin — and end — here this week. Yes, it’s late. After all, the harvest in Italy was in full swing weeks ago, back in autumn. But this is the Hudson Valley, in New York. What do you expect?
    I’m talking about harvesting real olives, not Russian olives (Elaeagnus angustifolia) or autumn olive (E. umbellata), both of which grow extensively in a lot of places, including here. Too extensively, according to some people, which is why they’re listed as “invasives” and banned from being planted in some regions. (But their fruits are very tasty, their flowers are very fragrant, their leaves are very ornamental, and their roots enrich the soil with nitrogen from the air, all of which garnered them a chapter in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.)Olive tree in a sunny window
    Present harvest here is of the true olive (Olea europaea), unrelated to the previously mentioned olives. Temperatures in the Hudson Valley, and beyond, would spell death to an olive tree, which is cold-hardy to about 14°F, so my tree is planted in a pot, just like my other Mediterranean-climate plants — fig, pomegranate, feijoa, black mulberry, bay laurel, kumquat, black mulberry, and Golden Nugget mandarin (tangerine). I can handle only so many potted, small trees, so it’s lucky that my olive doesn’t need a mate to bear fruit; it’s the self-fruitful variety Arbequina. The plant I got a few years ago from Raintree Nursery started bearing its first season!
    Unlike my fig, pomegranate, and mulberry, olive is evergreen, so it needs light year ‘round. Fig, and company, are in a dark corner of my cold basement, dormant. The olive is in a cool room basking in sunlight from a south-facing window.
    Two years ago, after an auspicious start, only one olive remained on the tree in late summer. I think my duck ate it.
    This past fall, the harvest has increased many-fold — to almost a dozen fruits. What with being knocked around when moved indoors and the change in environment, about half that number of fruits now hang from the branches.
    I like my olives fully ripe, black, so have let them hang as long as possible. Some are beginning to dry and shrivel, so it’s time to harvest. Fresh, the fruits are unpalatable, with a bitterness that comes from oleuropein. That bitterness is removed by curing and fermentation using lye, salt, and time. I’ve had naturally cured olives that use only the last ingredient, time, and that’s how I’m going to try mine.

For More Than Just Olive Fruits

    A few years ago, I almost got rid of my olive tree. After all, it wasn’t making a dent in my olive consumption. Then someone pointed out that the olive, for thousands of years, has been a symbol of peace. That alone should be enough reason to keep the tree, and it was.
    Also, the tree is pretty and long-lived — thousands of years, as documented by radiocarbon dating.

Secret Soil Recipe, Divulged (Again)

    In preparation for the upcoming gardening season, I brought pails of frozen potting soil, compost, and soil in from the garage/barn. Soon I’ll need to trim back roots and repot some of those Mediterranean-climate fruits, including my Arbequina olive. Not my Meiwa kumquat, though, some of whose green fruits are showing hints of yellow, foreshadowing ripening to begin over the next couple of months. Trimming back its roots would cause branches to let go of fruits.
    Potting soil will also be needed for the first seeds of the season, to be sown indoors in the next week or so.
 Mixing potting soil   I will now divulge my recipe for potting soil. The main ingredients are garden soil, compost, peat moss, and perlite. I thoroughly mix together equal volumes of these four ingredients, then add a cup of soybean or alfalfa meal (for extra nitrogen). If I’m feeling generous, I also throw in a half a cup or so of kelp meal (for micronutrients, although it’s probably superfluous with the panoply of nutrients from the compost). Perhaps also a half a cup of dolomitic limestone (for alkalinity, calcium, and magnesium, also probably superfluous with the buffering action and richness of the compost). Using wooden frames onto which I’ve stapled 1/2 inch hardware cloth, I sift together the mixture.
    Ten gallons of potting soil should carry me through winter until the compost piles and the soil have defrosted.

Olive Curing Update

Olives harvested and cured.

Olives harvested and cured.

   It’s now some days after I first wrote the above. Olives received no other treatment except being left to dry and wrinkle. Tasted them today —  delicious! (I’m going to plan for bigger harvests for the future.)