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By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening” on 970WFLA Live on Sunday’s 7-9am

How to Grow Olive Trees in Central Florida

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Many homeowners have been looking for a replacement for their citrus trees devastated by citrus greening. However, trying to plant something other than mangoes or avocados that will grow in our Florida soil and still produce fruit, can be a daunting task. In this article, I think I have found a great replacement that you can grow in your landscape that will produce a salty treat for you for years to come. Of course, I am talking about olive trees. Yes, you can grow olive trees with their attractive silvery foliage throughout the Tampa Bay area and Central Florida. Best of all, you will not have to improve our native soil or continually feed the trees with fertilizer. If growing olives seems interesting to you, then let me go over a few things that you will need to know such as which varieties to plant, their growth habits, the time the fruit, and how long before you harvest! Let’s get started.

Probably the most important thing you should know about selecting an olive tree for your landscape is to make sure you pick out a self-pollinating tree. There are two cultivars I recommend. Try to find the cultivar called “Arbequina” from Spain. This tree produces the pollen necessary to fertilize its own flowers and set fruit independent of other olive trees. You can also try the cultivar “Mission” the common black table olive, which is also self-fertile. However, if you decide to plant the Arbequina, then you will need to plant a pollinator that can help your tree produce fruit more regularly. This is very important for people looking for maximum fruit production every year. By planting the cultivars “Koroneiki”, and “Arbosona”, your fruit production should increase as both trees seem to help in the pollination of the Arbequina. Most nurseries in the Tampa Bay area will carry at least one of the cultivars I have listed above but call around and see if you can find one of the others or ask your nursery professional if they are able to order one for you.

Once you have selected your trees, you will have to find a place in the yard to plant them. Look for a sunny area that is high and dry. Stay away from areas of the landscape that you have seen water pooling in the past. Remember, you must make sure that if you have bought two trees as I mentioned above, then you should plant them relatively close together to receive the most benefit from cross-pollination.

The next thing you are going to love about olive trees is that they prefer sandy soils that are not improved. Olives tend to thrive in the natural soils we all share, and they only like to be fed light applications of low nitrogen fertilizers. Adding too much fertilizer tends to make the trees produce sucker growth at the sacrifice of flowers and fruit. Watering is only necessary when first establishing your trees. Keep your olives on the dry side as wet soils can cause diseases like root rots. If your trees receive too much water during flowering time, then you may witness a flower drop from excessive moisture. Another benefit to growing olive trees is their cold tolerance. You only need to protect your trees if temperatures fall below twenty degrees. If you are a brown-thumb gardener who does not want to do too much work after planting, then this tree is for you.

Olive trees take three years in the landscape to begin fruiting. Be patient if your tree only blooms every other year as some trees are alternate bearers. This is the reason I ask you to plant additional cultivars of olive trees near your tree. You should also be prepared to prune your trees during the flowering season. In March or April, you should be able to see the flowers forming on the tree. Do not be alarmed if your tree blooms early or late as this will depend on your tree. When the tree is in bloom, look for non-flowering branches and remove them to encourage new flowering growth next year. Remember, olives will never bear on the same branch twice, so pruning is essential to keeping your trees healthy and productive. During a heavy fruiting season, you will need to thin your crop by removing all but three healthy fruit per foot of branch. This will help your tree to produce bigger healthier fruit and help to keep diseases from attacking the tree.

Now that your tree has produced a healthy harvest, you have probably tried to eat one. If you did, then you most likely noticed that they were not what you were hoping for. Fresh olives contain oleuropein, a bitter compound that needs to be removed before you can enjoy your crop. You can do this by curing the fruit with water, oil, or a brine. Green immature olives are normally water-cured for a week before they are put into a pickling-brine. Pickling-brines give the olives a salty taste. Brine-curing involves using the green, purple, and black olives and letting them sit in a salt and water solution for at least a week or longer to intensify the flavor. Please note, I have only touched on two of the methods I have listed for curing olives and all the procedures require much more explanation than I have stated here, and it would take another entire article to go through the full process of curing the olives. However, the reward is well worth the work, and you should give it a try.

Having another crop to grow in your landscape gives you additional options for the palate and can be considerable fun for our children to learn how to harvest them. With the loss of many of our citrus trees from the backyard garden, olives can give you a great replacement fruit tree with little work in preparing the site. Because olives like our sandy soils and dry sites, you can place at least two in your yard, and you will not have to work hard at caring for them. When cold weather hits our area, olives will be one of the last trees you have to worry about. Good luck growing your garden and remember, without plants, we would not be here.

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