How to grow olives

How to grow olives

This article has been checked for horticultural accuracy by Oliver Parsons.

The olive tree, Olea europaea, is a classic Mediterranean tree that we might associate more with holidays than our own back garden. However, being slow-growing and usually only reaching a modest size, it makes a good garden tree in the UK. They can be grown in borders but make good trees for pots, too. There are now many cultivars that tolerate cooler temperatures to choose from, although a sunny, sheltered location will get the best results. You might even be lucky enough to get your own crop of olives – perhaps not enough for a bottle of olive oil, but certainly enough to cure and serve up as an appetiser.

How to grow olives

Grow olives in free-draining soil or compost in a sheltered, sunny site. There’s no need to feed olives growing in the ground but they may need protection from frost in winter.


Where to grow olive trees

How to grow olives - where to grow olive trees
Olive tree foliage

Olives are Mediterranean plants so thrive in conditions closest to the hot, dry climate of their native habitat. Choose the sunniest and most sheltered spot available – a south-facing spot with a brick wall behind it will work well.


How to plant olive trees

If you’re growing your olive tree in a border, dig a hole and add mycorrhizal fungi to help the tree establish quickly. If you have heavy soil then add plenty of grit to aid drainage. If growing in a container or raised bed, prepare a soil-based mix of compost and grit, with added some organic matter.

Most olive trees are supplied pot-grown, so they can be planted at any time of the year, unless the soil is frozen.

It’s possible to grow an olive tree from seed, but this is a long process and when grown, your plant will revert to a wild variety, rather than its parent cultivar. You need heat to get seeds to germinate – sow undercover in a propagator in spring.


Olive trees in pots

Young olive trees in pots on a terrace. Photo: Getty Images.
Young olive trees in pots on a terrace. Photo: Getty Images.

Olive trees lend themselves well to growing in pots as they do best in free-draining soils and can benefit from being moved to a porch or other sheltered spot for winter. Terracotta pots are more breathable than plastic pots and therefore create drier soil conditions, they can also look stylish and work perfectly for a Mediterranean-style patio display.

When choosing an olive tree to plant in a pot, opt for a compact variety so it won’t outgrow its space. Use a loam-based peat-free compost such as John Innes No.3, and add a few handfuls of horticultural grit to aid drainage.

You’ll still need to water and feed your olive tree regularly through the warmer months, as the roots don’t have as much space to search for water and nutrients. Avoid letting the compost dry out completely, and use a liquid seaweed feed once a fortnight from April to September to keep it growing well. However, you mustn’t let the pot get waterlogged, particularly in the winter as the plant won’t be in active growth and the water is likely to freeze around the roots. Standing the pot on pot feet will allow the water to drain freely.

When planting, use a slightly larger pot than the one your olive tree came in, and ideally plant in spring so it has the whole season to settle in before winter. You may need to move your potted olive tree to a sheltered spot for winter, or use horticultural fleece to wrap around the canopy to protect it from frost.


Olive tree care

How to grow olives - wrapping an olive tree for winter
Wrapping an olive tree for winter

Olive trees are fairly drought tolerant, but if they’re growing in pots they need to be kept well watered. Dry spells during early spring can affect flowering and fruiting, so if you want to grow a crop of olives be particularly watchful. Potted plants also need feeding regularly with a liquid feed every two weeks during the growing season.

In severe winter weather, you may need to protect border-grown trees with horticultural fleece. A winter mulch around the base of the tree also helps in this regard, while also boosting soil nutrients and helping to regulate soil moisture through the year. For trees in pots, wrap the container with a layer of bubble wrap to protect the roots from frost, and the upper parts of the plant with breathable horticultural fleece.

Olive trees are slow growing and do not need much pruning other than to keep to the desired size and shape. Prune in late spring to midsummer to remove dead, diseased or dying branches. Thin branches to allow more light into the centre. Although evergreen, olives do shed leaves, mostly in late spring as older leaves make way for new growth.


Harvesting and storing olives

How to grow olives - immature olive fruit
Immature olive fruit

A new tree will take around four years to bear fruit, and if conditions are not warm and sunny enough, it may not do so at all. However if yours does, it’s best to harvest the olives in late autumn.

If you’ve ever eaten an olive straight from the tree you will understand why they need to be cured – they are extremely bitter to taste. To make them palatable, soak them in a brine solution for up to six weeks, changing the water regularly.


Olive trees: problem solving

Olives can be affected by extremely cold weather, below -10°C. This can cause damage to the foliage and bark. However, plants should recover, although they might suffer in terms of fruit production the following season.

Extreme wet can cause leaves to drop and may weaken the tree. This can allow other diseases, such as verticillium wilt or phytopthora root rot, to take hold. Olive trees can also be affected by honey fungus, so don’t plant in areas where this disease has been found.

Olive scab is a fungal disease that causes spots on the leaves, excessive loss of foliage and poor fruit production.


How to propagate olive trees

Olive trees can be propagated by taking semi-ripe cuttings in summer or hardwood cuttings in winter.


Advice on growing olives

  • Choose between a traditional, natural-looking olive tree or one that’s been shaped as a standard into a lollipop tree
  • As olive trees are slow growing, it can be worth buying the largest size tree you can afford
  • Olives are host to the disease Xylella fastidiosa, which has been decimating continental European olive plantations, so only buy olive trees from a reputable supplier, with an appropriate Plant Passport
  • Check for signs of other pests or diseases before planting

Where to buy olives

Olive tree varieties to try

Olea europaea ‘Arbequina’ – a Spanish variety from Catalonia, small but vigorous, with good tolerance of frost and poorer soils.

Olea europaea ‘Cipressino’ – a southern Italian variety from Puglia, this has an upright, compact growth habit, making it a good choice for smaller gardens or for growing in pots. It is hardy and good for coastal gardens.

Olea europaea ‘Frantoio’ – a classic Tuscan olive tree, self-fertile and the source of many bottles of olive oil. Easy to grow in the UK and a good choice if you want a reliably productive tree

Olea europaea ‘Leccino’ – a reliable Italian variety that does very well in the UK climate.

Frequently asked questions

Help! My olive tree has white spots on the leaves

White spots on olive leaves are most likely leaf scale. Pot-grown olives seem to suffer from it more than trees growing in the ground, particularly if they have been left to get too dry or in very poor soil. Olive trees in the ground can draw nutrients and water from the soil, and typically need more water than you think. 

Give your olive tree a really good soaking, allowing the water to drain out of the bottom and repeat – if the compost/soil remains dry you might need to do this several times – then give it a feed of liquid seaweed or similar. Wipe off as much of the scale as you can. Your olive should perk up.

Help! All the leaves are dropping from my olive tree!

Leaf drop on olive trees could be caused by a number of factors, including over- or under-watering, nutrient deficiency, or if the pot your olive tree is growing in is too small. Firstly, push your finger into the soil to check its moisture levels. If it’s dry, give your tree a good soaking but allow the water to drain (you may need to do this several times before the soil becomes moist). If it’s wet, check that the pot can drain properly and and that the drainage hole at the bottom isn’t blocked. If you haven’t fed your olive tree for a while, give it a liquid seeweed feed or feed with a proprietry olive feed, following the instructions on the packet. If there are roots growing out of the drainage hole then you will need to repot your olive tree into a peat-free, soil-based compost like John Innes Number 2. With moist but well-drained soil and a good root run into nutrient-rich compost, your olive tree should have everything it needs and will stop dropping its leaves.

Help! My indoor olive tree has curling leaves

Olive trees do best outside, and most don’t thrive when grown indoors. If you must grow it indoors, grow it near a window where it will get as much light as possible (although a south-facing location may cause leaf scorch). Keep the olive tree well-watered but allow the water to drain from the compost, and feed regularly with a proprietry olive feed. If you have a balcony or patio garden then your olive tree will do much better here.

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