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Reshaping the olive tree

Last summer I was in Umbria. Not quite paradise on earth but getting close, with its gentle hills, fields of wheat and olive trees, lavender-filled gardens, beautiful hillside towns and hidden hermitages among the woods.

Walking in a grove of well-established olive trees just outside the medieval walls of Gubbio, I took photos to act as a visual guide when I came to cut and shape our lone tree in the garden in New Cairo. There’s some useful guidance on the internet – I’ve followed the Mediterranean Garden Society’s website – but it made a difference to get up really close to the trees to see how pruning works in practice.

We planted our tree as a sapling four or five years ago, and have had no flowers at all. Still, it’s early days. But our gardeners have not done well by the tree. A couple of years ago, one of them bunched it up and tied it to the hedge to keep it in check, crushing the tender shoots and cutting out all the light – quite the opposite of what he should have done.

Sensing its anguish, I eventually undid the offending rope to give the tree back its freedom. Then I looked at the website to see what I should do about shaping it into some sort of form, and set about giving the tree its first pruning.

Now, the Engineer feeds the tree in winter, but cuts it back any which way. This doesn’t work either: come the spring, it turned into a tangle of branches and leaves forming a messy, sprawling heap grown lanky at the crown.
rehab olive tree before 4:14 crop
(Above: Before)

The principle I have chosen to follow is to limit the tree’s height and open up the interior to let in as much light as possible. Like a champagne glass, some say: well, obviously not a flute, but rather the open kind of glass once used for cocktails and such. This means selecting a few main branches and then following a pattern of “out and up” to shape the laterals, cutting shoots particularly from the lower side of the branches but also sacrificing several healthy looking specimens that have zoomed upwards right inside the core of the (potentially) beautiful “glass”.

Having had no previous experience with olive trees – they hardly grew in the Arabian Gulf and I never encountered one in my gardening experience in England – I am not sure if my practice is correct or not; but, as the website tells me all learners under-prune rather than the opposite, I trust that I haven’t done irreparable damage… We’ll wait and see.
Rehab olive after 4:14 crop
(Above: After – too crowded within and still straggling at the edges?)

I do rather wonder what the Engineer is going to say. I fear this is not the best time of year to cut the tree as it’s late in the spring, and I doubt he will get my explanation either. Using a champagne glass as a point of reference isn’t a meaningful option in Egypt. I have made one attempt to explain that the tree should be sufficiently open for a bird to fly through it, but that seemed to strike him as bizarre. So much gets lost in the translation. I don’t think I can try again.

Come to think, I’m not sure that anything other than the tiniest wren could fly through the wonderful olive trees of Umbria. Shapely they were; but also quite densely covered in leaves and fruit when I encountered them. A flight of the imagination, perhaps?
Olive tree Gubbio 7:13 crop
(Above: I wish!)

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Looks good to me! One of the first trees I bought for my garden was a little olive tree, I love the colour of the leaves. Amelia

    April 8, 2014
  2. I think I may be getting the hang of pruning the tree. I stood back a few metres yesterday and surveyed the tree again, as the Med. Garden Society website recommends, and then lopped a few more stragglers out of the centre. I’m waiting for a bird (or even a bee!) to fly through it for the real litmus test.
    If you have experience of pruning your olive, please let me have any tips…

    April 9, 2014

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