How to prune olive trees: the best ways and when to prune
It is necessary to know how to prune the olive trees to make them prosper.
Olivier, Olea europaea, are beautiful evergreens, ideal for containers or planted in the garden, but like most plants and other fruit trees you grow, they will need some pruning. With a little tree care, you’ll be rewarded with delicious, juicy olives from the garden.
Among the best evergreen trees for gardens, olive trees are native to the Mediterranean. They have a long life history and have lived for one or even two thousand years thanks to their virtually indestructible root system.
A symbol of abundance, olive branches are an emblem of peace, wisdom and fertility. Olives have been cultivated for consumption for approximately 6,000 years. Either dried and pickled or pressed in oil, these small oval stone fruits are packed with fiber, antioxidants and oleic acid that have many health benefits.
In the United States, olives can be grown in zones 9 through 11, thriving in California, Arizona, Oregon, Florida, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and Maui Hawaii. With summers becoming more susceptible to drought, olive trees are a great choice for dry conditions, but learn when to plant fruit trees for best results.
Once you have planted and established your tree, the next step is to learn how to prune olive trees to keep your tree healthy and beautiful.
How to prune olive trees – getting started
The first step in pruning olive trees is selecting the right pruning tools.
A pair of hand pruners or bypass pruners will work for most branch widths, but if you’re pruning a very large tree, you may need to use pruners or even a handsaw.
When pruning fruit trees, always make sure your tools are clean. Wash the blades with disinfectant between different shaft sizes and don’t forget your gloves.
‘Start with clean, freshly sharpened tools. As a biologically trained horticulturist, I use a natural citrus-based disinfectant, which is very effective against fungal and bacterial diseases that can be passed from plant to plant. I clean my pruning shears and pruning saw between each tree pruning just in case,” says Nicola Hope, horticulturist and landscaper. (opens in a new tab).
Step-by-step guide on how to prune olive trees
When pruning olive trees, first walk around your tree and note its shape. Are there any obvious visible issues?
Cut off any dead, diseased or damaged branches. This will help the tree focus its energy on healthy branches and prevent fungal diseases from spreading through infected stems. Be sure to remove any diseased material from your property, do not compost or mulch, or you will reintroduce these diseases to your soil.
Nicola Hope shares her step-by-step guide for how to prune olive trees:
- “Start by removing the suckers at the base of the tree and any that may appear between the base and the main crown of the foliage.”
- “Then methodically work your way around the crown, removing any dead, damaged or crossing branches. Very often you will find that the tips of the branches are partially dead due to the cold. Bring them back to living growth.
- “I then remove any branches that are facing inwards towards the middle of the crown. This serves two purposes: first, removing branches from the middle of the tree allows for a more open canopy and promotes greater air circulation, which can prevent disease. Second, having less congestion in the center looks more elegant,” says Nicola.
- “Once the tree has a nice structure and an airy center, I turn my attention to the outside of the crown and lightly prune any loose or whipped growth so the crown is neat. It may look pretty bad in early spring, but new leaves will start to appear in the spring and your tree will start to look lush,” she adds.
- “I always end up giving each tree a good food with liquid algae. I continue to feed at least once a fortnight throughout the growing season,” advises Nicola.
When should olive trees be pruned?
Early spring is the perfect time to prune olive trees and thin out crowded branches.
Olive trees don’t need a lot of pruning, but as they mature an annual pruning will help you create the right framework for your tree to thrive.
‘Olives grow well in a sunny spot, but should not dry out. Prune in early spring and remove any damage that has been affected by severe frost,” advises Nicholas Wray, conservator of the University of Bristol Botanic Garden. (opens in a new tab).
The exact time for pruning differs depending on where you live and the climate. “Study the weather forecast before you start pruning. Don’t prune on a frost day or if there are frosts forecast for the next few days,” advises Nicola Hope.
Should I shape my olive tree?
It is up to personal taste whether you should shape an olive tree.
The two common shapes of olive trees are the monoconical “Christmas tree” and the polyconical “vase”. The Christmas tree shape is used primarily for mechanical picking, but for most local olive trees, aim for an open vase shape.
Olive trees are fast growing fruit trees. “The plants grow quickly after a few years and it is important to maintain the desired shape. Prune thin or weak shoots from inside the crown to allow air and light to penetrate through the tree,” says Nicholas Wray.
This is especially important if you are growing olive trees for small gardens, as the light filtering through the tree will help increase the feeling of space.
Should potted olive trees be pruned?
Olive trees are some of the best trees to grow in containers, so if you are growing your tree in a container, pruning and shaping will help it look its best.
“Whether your olive tree is planted in the ground or in a pot, it will benefit enormously from annual or biennial pruning. You’ll be amazed at how much more exuberant it sounds,” says Nicola Hope.
“To limit the size of a potted olive, the plants can be angled by cutting them into a strong side shoot to maintain the desired shape,” says Nicholas Wray.
How to prune an olive tree?
“I prune olive trees for the health, vigor and attractiveness of the tree rather than for the fruit. Any fruit that appears is a happy bonus,” says Nicola Hope.
It is important to keep watching your olive tree throughout the pruning process. Don’t wait until you’ve finished the job to check your work.
“Keep stepping back so you can see well throughout the pruning session. Make sure you have enough space around you to take a few steps back and view your tree from as many angles as possible. This will ensure you have a well-balanced and aesthetically pleasing plant when you are done pruning,” advises Nicola.
How to Prune Olive Trees for Fruit
Olive trees are easy to grow, but getting them to produce fruit in a home vegetable garden can be more difficult.
Olive trees bear fruit on one-year-old wood, so take this into account when removing branches.
Pruning will allow light to access older branches, which should then make them more productive. Many varieties of olive trees take three or four years to bear fruit and after that you may find that they alternate between high and low harvest years.
“Mature olive trees should be kept reasonably open in the center to allow light penetration for better tree health and fruit production. This is best achieved through a sturdy, vase-shaped growth habit,” says Charlie Staka, owner of Santa Cruz Olive Tree Nursery. (opens in a new tab).
Sun is essential for fruit production as well as good watering. Allowing the plant to get too dry has the same consequence as too wet – low fruit yield.
“Although the olive tree is very resistant to drought, in the event of a continuous water shortage, it survives at the expense of the harvest”, explains Charlie Staka.
Olives are carried on branches hanging down and lateral, but rarely on vertical ones. You will find that upright shoots can be prolific producers of foliage but rarely produce fruit.
Can olive trees be cut hard?
Olive trees are surprisingly resistant to severe cutting. Hard pruning may seem harsh, but sometimes it is necessary to rejuvenate an old, neglected or damaged tree.
Always leave enough foliage for the tree to continue photosynthesis and growth, but if necessary, 50-75% of the tree can be safely removed. Be aware that hard pruning will stimulate the tree to respond by sending out lots of dense new growth.
For potted olive trees, a lighter hand is preferable. Lightly prune potted olive trees to maintain their shape and height and ensure a continuous year-long supply of fruitwood.