For thousands of years, humans have been growing olive trees, harvesting them, and eating them. They’re valuable for their fruits and oils, but not all olive trees will bear fruit. So-called fruitless olive trees are actually sterile, so they flower and make a great ornamental addition to your front yard landscape, they will produce no or few viable fruits.
Also, it’s very easy for you to look at the huge selection of olives at a gourmet grocery store and imagine it’s easy to grow any of these olive tree varieties. However, you’ll usually only find a few available in your local garden center or through mail order. If you live in a dry, warm climate that falls in zones 8 to 10, you can successfully grow a range of fruiting olive trees to press for their oil or serve.
We’re going to outline how you can grow olive trees below, and we’re also going to list several different varieties of olive trees that you can plant in your own yard with their ideal planting conditions. This way, you can easily recreate them in your own yard or indoors to ensure you have success and a fruitful harvest.
Growing Conditions for Olive Trees
Olive trees do best if you live in a planting zone where you have hot, dry, and long summers with cool and moist winter months. Olive trees hail from the Mediterranean climate zone, so you want to get as close to this as possible. They love to be in limey or sharply drained calcareous soil. However, they can also tolerate coastal, salty locations without an issue too. Many olive tree varieties need cross-pollination to bear fruit. So, you’ll need at least two different varieties of trees to get the tree to bear fruit.
In order to produce olives, they’ll need between 200 and 300 chill hours. This means that these 200 or 300 hours have to dip below 45-degrees Fahrenheit during the winter months. This makes it a great plant for zones 7B to 11. Most olive trees can’t survive freezing temperatures below 25 to 30-degrees Fahrenheit.
Since most olive trees aren’t cold hardy, it’s possible to bring them indoors during the winter months. Some trees are semi-deciduous, and this means that it’ll lose some of the grey-green leaves during the cooler winter months. Also, some olive trees won’t bear fruit every year. Instead, some trees bear fruit on alternate years, and you can increase your yield by introducing another variety to ensure cross pollination. Olive trees are disease and pest-resistant, and they’re especially resistant to fungal diseases.
Once you establish your olive trees, they usually require very little in the way of care of maintenance. They’ll start to bear fruit between three and six years after you plant them, so you do have a bit of a wait in the very beginning. However, you stand to get a huge amount of olives once they start fruiting.
Growing Olive Trees Outdoors
Ideally, you’ll find a spot in your yard that gets between six to eight hours of sunlight every day at a minimum. The perfect conditions are full sun all day, every day. If they don’t get enough sunlight, it can negatively impact how much fruit they produce when they reach maturity. It can also stunt their growth overall.
The soil is another consideration you want to keep in mind when you’re looking for a spot to plant your olive trees. The soil should drain very well after you water it each time since these trees don’t tolerate wet root systems. The soil can’t be clay-based or heavy because it’ll retain a lot of water, and this isn’t good for these trees.
Start by diggin a hole that is twice the width of your tree’s pot. It should be right around the same depth. Take the plant out of the pot and gently straighten out and neatly trim any coiled roots before you put the whole root ball into the hole you dug. Make a point to not bury the tree deeper than it was originally in the pot. The goal is to have a few inches of soil above the tree’s root system without disturbing the roots too much.
At this time, you’ll skip adding any slow-release fertilizer to the plant. This will come later. Backfill in the hole with your native soil before watering it deeply. Get mulch and spread a layer between four and six inches deep over the root zone and slightly beyond it. Avoid piling your mulch directly against the olive tree’s trunk.
The olive tree will take up to six months to establish itself. During this time, you want to make a point to water the tree very deeply two or three times every week. You can also set up a drip irrigation system instead to help the tree’s roots take off and improve how much fruit each tree produces when it does start fruiting.
Since you need to plant more than one tree to get fruit, you’ll want to space them out. Depending on the tree, it can get up to 20-feet tall and 15-feet wide. Ideally, you’ll space all of your trees 10 to 20-feet apart when you plant them to prevent crowding. You want to have dry air around the trees.
Pruning Olive Trees
You will eventually have to prune your olive trees, and this can be a tricky process when you’re first learning. You want to go slow and take your time to prevent cutting away too much with your shears. Don’t prune the tree the first year you plant it because it’s still establishing itself. During the second year, you’ll prune it to train it to grow to your desired mature shape. As a general rule of thumb, you’ll prune each year after that to help your tree stay the same size and shape.
When you prune, leave a central leader on the top of your tree, and make sure it has three scaffold side branches by it. After a few years go by, you can perform an annual pruning session of the secondary scaffold system on the first three side branches you left from the previous years. If you prune annually, you’ll promote heavy olive production.
It’s important to note that olive trees will bear fruit on the growth from the previous year, and it’ll never bear fruit on the same wood twice. Set aside time to prune your trees in the early spring months. Remove any shoots that had olives in the previous year. Carefully leave any new shoots that just developed the year earlier. Remove water sprouts and suckers whenever you happen to notice them.
Most olive trees will alternate the years they bear fruit. So, you’ll get heavier fruiting every other year than you had the previous year. On the off-years, it’s important that you prune any non-flowering branches you see during the flowering period. This encourages heavy fruit production the following year.
When the olive trees reach maturity, they’re very drought-tolerant. You’ll want to give them around an inch of water every 7 to 10 days during the early spring and summer months. This will encourage them to produce larger and more olives per tree. Getting your trees on a regular watering schedule will help the root system establish itself much quicker.
No matter if you plant your olive trees in the ground or in a container, you’ll have to fertilize them. You do want to have a balanced fertilizer like a 10-10-10 formula that contains a host of micronutrients. Get this fertilizer and fertilize your olive trees every two to four weeks starting during the tree’s second spring.
If you get a 10-10-10 formula, apply one cup of fertilizer for each year of the tree’s age. So, year two will get two cups, year three will get three cups, and so on. Make sure you follow the bottle’s directions, and don’t allow the fertilizer to touch your tree’s trunk. Stop fertilizing your trees in the late summer months. This will discourage any new growth that could get frost damaged.
You should see fruit after three years. You can get plants that are already two or three years old, so they can start producing the year after you plant them. Olives generally turn green when they first appear, but they’ll turn a blackish-purple color when they mature. Depending on the tree you get, you can get table olives for eating or oil. Some species are better for oil production. Ripened olives have a very bitter flavor until you bring them when you let them get ripe on the tree.
Caring for Indoor Olive Trees
If you don’t live in the correct planting zone for olive trees, you can grow them indoors rather successfully. This is especially true if you live in warmer areas of the United States like Southern Texas or Southern Florida. They also do well in climates with colder weather. The trick is to plant your tree in a place where it gets a good amount of shade during a warmer winter. If you’re in Florida, your trees will do best in Central or North Florida. However, they can tolerate several climates with the correct care.
To cultivate your olives indoors in a container in a planting zone that is too cold for the tree to be outside all year-round, you want to pick a pot that is larger than the pot it came in. It should also have big drainage holes in the base. Get a potting mix that drains very well, and mix in some sharp sandy soil or gravel to make it drain even better.
Place your container into a location that gets full to partial sun during the dry summer. Water your plant when the potting soil feels dry to the touch. You might end up watering it every day, but take care to not overwater it. Make sure the potting soil dries out between watering sessions and continues to drain well. This may involve routinely cleaning out the drainage holes.
When the temperatures fall below 25-degrees Fahrenheit, bring your container indoors. Place the container in a western or eastern facing window to ensure it gets full sunlight. After the plant has a few years to grow, you’ll want to repot it in a larger container. When you do, replace as much of the potting soil as you possibly can. Once the frost passes, you can carry the container back outside.
Keep in mind that your potted olive trees will grow much slower than they would if you planted them outdoors in the ground. They may take four to five years to produce fruit, and you still need more than one plant for them to bear fruit. You’ll prune and fertilize them as well.
Harvesting Ripe Olives
Harvesting olives can be a very tricky project when you consider that the olives will ripen at different times and the trees can get quite large. Generally speaking, you’ll harvest your olives by hand. This ensures that you only pick ripe olives and that they don’t accidentally drop to the ground and get bruised. It can be a time-consuming and expensive project to take on. However, depending on the tree’s variety and size, you can get between 20 and 100-pounds of olives per tree, per harvest.
Once you harvest your olives, it’s time to cure them in brine. This process can take up to a whole year, but it sweetens them for eating. You can also dry-cure your olives using salt, rinsing them out, and then curing them in olive oil. There are other ways to cure your olives, but you’ll typically see them in commercial-based operations instead of at home.
Nine Fruiting Olive Tree Varieties
There are several kinds of fruiting olive trees available, but some produce more than others. Since we want you to have as much success as possible, we’re going to list out several different varieties you can consider growing in your own yard.
1. Arbequina (Olea europaea ‘Arbequina’)
This is a popular olive tree variety that comes from Spain’s Catalonia region. It’s very popular for people who want to grow olives in containers because it has a small growth profile when it’s contained. This is also one of the most cold-tolerant varieties of olive trees available, and this makes it very hardy. The fruits on this tree are light brown and small, and they have a firm texture with a fruity, mild taste.
For the best results, you’ll plant this tree in zones 7 to 11. It does require full sun exposure to grow to the full height and produce a lot of fruit. It can get between 15 and 30 feet tall and wide, but it’ll stay much smaller in a container. Make sure the soil drains well between watering sessions, and make sure any containers have larger drainage holes.
2. Manzanilla (Olea europaea ‘Manzanilla’)
This is one of the most popular olives available in the United States, and they’re very large and green. They’re native to Spain as well, and they’re brine-cured. It’s not odd to have them stuffed with pimentos or tossed in garlic. This is a very attractive olive tree for landscaping purposes because it offers a gnarled trunk with a billowing crown, and it’s slightly more slow-growing.
This is a very popular shade tree that can help you create a forest garden too. It can get damaged due to diseases and cold weather, and common diseases include verticillium wilt and olive knot. Plant it in zones 8 to 10 for the best results in a space that gets full sun for the majority of the day. It’ll get between 20 and 30 feet high and 10 to 20 feet wide. Make sure the soil isn’t clay-based and that it drains well.
3. Mission (Olea europaea ‘Mission’)
Unlike a lot of olive trees that can’t tolerate cold well, this variety is slightly more cold-tolerant. Although they’re thought to be native to Spain, growers in California have had them since the 1700s. Franciscan missionaries planted them there, and they’ve been growing there ever since. This olive tree is primarily used for oil, but they also work as a mild-flavored, fresh snacking olive if you oil-cure them when they’re black or brine-cure them while they’re green.
Plant them in zones 7 to 10 for the best results. As for sunlight, they’ll need a minimum of six to eight hours of bright, direct sunlight every day. The more sun they get, the better it is. The soil should drain very well between watering sessions. They’ll get larger at 25 to 30-feet tall and just as wide, so proper spacing is essential to ensure the health of the tree.
4. Nocellara Del Belice (Olea europaea ‘Nocellara Del Belice’)
You’ll get bright green olives with this variety, and they get marketed as Castelvetrano olives. However, they actually get grown from Sicily’s Nocellara del Belice cultivar. They have a very buttery texture with a mild flavor profile to them, and this makes them popular all over the world as a table olive for snacking. The tree itself is very resistant to diseases and pests, and this makes maintaining them easy.
When you plant this olive tree, it’ll grow a dense crown that makes it a popular small shade tree. Plant it in zones 8 to 11 for the best growing conditions, and make sure that the soil is native and drains well. It requires full sun to thrive like most olive trees, and it can get between 15 and 20 feet high and just as wide with the correct conditions.
5. Kalamata (Olea europea ‘Kalamata’)
One of the easiest olives to identify is Kalamata. It’s a very popular Greek olive that comes with an almond shape. They have a dark purple skin too, and it’s common to find them preserved in olive oil, red wine vinegar, or red wine. They hail from Southern Greece, and they give you a slightly fruity and smoky taste profile when you eat them. You can substitute them in any recipe that calls for traditional black olives.
This olive tree gives you an upright spreading habit. However, the leaves on this tree are slightly larger than a lot of tree varieties. It doesn’t do well in very hot conditions, so plant it if you’re in zones 7 to 10. It does need full sunlight, but it also requires drier and more tepid temperatures. It can easily get between 20 and 25 feet tall with an impressive spread.
6. Amfissa (Olea europaea ‘Amfissa’)
Native to Central Greece, this olive tree will give you a purple-brownish coloring. You’ll get a very mild fruity flavor with this variety if you brine-cure them. Another possibility with these olives is to put a citric acid brine instead of a traditional brine to give the olives a sharp citrus-like flavor profile. This is a very fast-growing variety of tree that has a spreading habit that means you have to space them carefully. It’ll start to give you fruit within three or four years.
Since this tree is native to Greece, it does best in zones 9 to 11. Plant it in an area that gets full sun, and the more sun it gets, the better the tree will do. The soil should drain well and be slightly limey. It can get between 20 to 30 feet tall, and it can spread out just as wide. The leaves are a medium-green color.
7. Frantoio (Olea europaea ‘Frantoio’)
Originating in Tuscany, Italy, this olive tree will give you very dark oval fruits. You can eat them, but they also work very well for creating olive oil. This is another fast-growing type of olive tree. However, it offers visual interest to your landscape due to the pretty silvery-grey foliage. You’ll get edible olives in just a year or two after planting it, and this is significantly faster than most cultivars.
This olive tree is best planted in zones 8, 9, 10, or 11. Make sure it gets full sun every day to encourage the rapid growth and fruit development. The soil should drain well and not be clay-based, and you may find yourself mixing gravel in if you have a heavy soil. It’ll get between 20 to 25-feet tall and wide at full maturity.
8. Niçoise (Olea europaea ‘Niçoise’)
This type of olive is a staple in France, and it comes from Italy originally. You can use it in tapenade and salads because it imparts a very smoky, strong, herbal flavor. This olive is considered to be native to France, but there are Italian Liguarian olives. They get harvested when they reach the dark brown state and brine-cured using a range of herbs. The trees do best in very dry and hot conditions, and they offer weeping branches with green leaves that are much broader than most olive tree types.
When you get the planting conditions right, you’ll get edible olives in as little as two years. They grow best planted in zones 8 to 11. They require well-drained soil with routine fertilizer and full sun every day. They should get between 25 and 30-feet at full maturity, and this refers to both the width and height.
9. Picholine (Olea europaea ‘Picholine’)
If you’re going to grow your olive trees in containers due to your climate, this is a good option to pick out. This olive tree comes from France originally, and it has a spicy and nutty flavor with a crunchy texture. It’s one of the most common olives available in France, and it works well for snacking. It also does well when you cook it, and it makes a very mild-flavored oil. You usually harvest the olives when they’re green to eat or black if you want to use them to make oil.
You’ll need to ensure your container has good potting soil with gravel mixed in to encourage good drainage. Additionally, the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot should be larger and routinely checked to ensure they don’t clog. Put them in an area that gets a full sun for six to eight hours a day. They can grow from 20 to 30-feet tall outside, but they have a smaller habit in containers.
Planting your olive trees and growing your olives can be tempting. However, the number of fruits, sheer size of the trees, and the work you have to put in for years to keep the tree healthy until it establishes and fruits can be intimidating. Since the olive trees can easily outlive you, you want to seriously think about whether or not this is for you before you plant them. If you decide you want to give it a go, you can use this guide to create the best growing conditions and pick out the best olive trees.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.