Branching out

A few years ago it became very fashionable to spend a small fortune on a small olive tree and pop it into a largish pot outside the front door. Sometimes, people paid even more and potted up a pair '“ one at each side.

COLD COMFORT: Container-grown olive trees are best taken indoors when winter approaches.
COLD COMFORT: Container-grown olive trees are best taken indoors when winter approaches.

Olive trees are pretty little things when they’re in pots, but, unfortunately, it seems that Olea europaea wasn’t quite as easy to look after as many people hope. So, now, there are far fewer of these little trees standing outside doorways.

Olives are not fully hardy in a lot of the UK, although in milder areas they are rarely troubled by winter and can be grown outdoors in the soil.

In colder spots, however, they can suffer when the temperature drops below -10C (14F) and that’s why it pays to containerise them in decent-sized pots.

Plant them in a well-drained mix of compost and horticultural grit to help with the drainage, and, when winter comes knocking, take them indoors into an unheated greenhouse or coolish conservatory.

Olives are best planted in the spring. Keep in mind that a healthy, happy specimen, positioned in the ground and in a south-facing, sheltered position, could eventually reach to a height of 30ft with a similar spread.

Once established, Olea europaea is quite capable of looking after itself, although it will always grow better with bit of care and attention. It’s drought-tolerant, but will appreciate some watering and feeding. Container-grown specimens are like most pot plants – they need regular watering and feeding or they will suffer.

Olives usually hold onto their old leaves throughout the winter, shedding them in late spring when new growth begins.

These are trees that grow very slowly, so they don’t require a lot of pruning. Just remove any dead and damaged branches. Container-grown plants may need summer pruning to keep them from growing too big for their roots.

To encourage flowers and fruit, olive trees need eight weeks of temperatures below 10C. Watering during dry spells between February and May is also vital for fruit production.

And as fruit is produced at the tips of the previous year’s growth, it’s another reason not to be too generous with pruning. Thinning the crop will help the remaining fruit to ripen and not drop prematurely. But unless you have a Mediterranean climate, don’t expect a bumper crop.