Updated: Oct 24, 2022
Snip snip snip. It’s pruning time. This year we’re cutting deeper than most, hoping to goad our plants into pushing back with vital force for a strong harvest in 2023 (and a significant bump in October of this year).
Given the occasion I invited friends far and wide to join me in learning to prune and chopping up the grove. My old pal Jay actually took me up on the offer, and was our guest for all of last week, alternating Zoom calls with students and colleagues at Schumacher College, where he teaches sustainability, with laying waste to errant branches and bushy overgrowth.
Bushy being the key notion here (or rather the contrary notion). As explained to me by Stefano Rovida, one of the gentlemen charged with keeping our more than 400 trees in decent shape, olive trees are large bushes, really, and assume tree-like shapes only if regularly bullied by human minds connected to hands and secateurs.
Why not let the blessed bushes be? Coupla reasons, the most important being the quality and quantity of olives produced, as well as the ease, come harvest time, of getting them off the plant quickly. As noted in this helpful article each individual olive needs regular exposure to direct sunlight to mature properly, and a bushy plant doesn’t let much sun in. And since one of key determinants of a good-quality oil is minimizing the time your olives spend off the plant before they are pressed, a plant that‘s open, relatively free of tangles and low to the ground makes picking quicker.
The above-cited article quotes a maxim from folklore: "you prune the olive tree until it is open enough for a bird to fly through it". Ok feathered friends, try flying through this:
It's astounding how many shoots and leaves an olive plant will put on in a year or three; our trees clearly need quite the haircut this winter. Innumerable vertical shoots (known to be unproductive energy hogs), lateral shoots heading towards (or already crowding) the center of the plant, as well as dense hanging branches blocking light from underlying layers of still more branches are all on the chopping block.
The below photo shows the pile of cuttings from just the above tree, situated directly in front of Begonia, to which this year's guests will have front-row seats as it "rebounds" through the spring, summer and early autumn (harvest is generally late October).
As you can see Jay and I, even with the modest goal of shaping the 60 or so trees nearest the fienile, had our work cut out (we got through about 22 plants together). That leaves almost 40 plants for me to tackle in March, but I'm up for it, and who knows, more friends may yet join in the fun. Although I will say this: once you get going snipping, a Zen-like flow takes hold, and you just might miss a Zoom call.