How to Grow and Care for Olive Trees

Olea Europaea

Are you up for a challenge that is extraordinarily rewarding? Grow olive trees!

Of course, if you’re located in the US and you don’t already live in certain olive-friendly parts of California, Texas, Georgia, Florida, Arizona, Oregon, Alabama, or Hawaii, you’ll have to move there.

These trees require warm summer temperatures as well as about 200 hours of winter temperatures below 45°F. But nothing below about 20°F, mind you.

Close up of raw green olives growing on a tree.

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At around 17°F, you’ll see leaf and small stem damage, and the tree will likely be killed to the ground at temperatures below 10°F, although mature trees may regrow from the roots.

Anyway, are you settled in your new home, or already based in an ideal location? Good! In this growing guide, we’ll learn more about this Mediterranean import that gifts its caretakers with fabulous fruit, healthful oils, and an attractive addition to the landscape.

Here’s what’s covered in this article:

We’ll share everything you need to know to grow Olea europaea, the tree beloved by ancient Greeks and Romans, and whose fruit has been popularized in the modern age by Italians, Greeks, and Spaniards.

What You’ll See When You Survey Your Orchard

Olive trees are evergreen and can grow to 25-30 feet tall, with a spread just as wide. Their oblong leaves are silverish and grow from branches emanating from a gnarled, twisted trunk.

A row of olive trees growing in a grove, with a brown dirt road between the rows, and a light blue cloudy sky.

Some experts believe that more space between trees – about 16-20 feet – will yield better fruit production. If this isn’t practical for your new parcel of land, consider a dwarf variety, which we’ll discuss in a bit.

Olive branches with narrow gray-green leaves, growing in bright sunshine with a vibrant blue sky with a layer of white clouds in the background.

Mind you, if an expansive orchard isn’t at all what you were after, you should know that the olive makes a fine specimen tree that you can plant and enjoy simply for its beauty, with nary a thought to harvest and curing and pressing and whatnot.

Which Type Is Right for You? (And Where to Buy)

The type of tree you select will depend on what you hope to get out of it. Different cultivars produce different flavors of olives and oil, of course.

You might sample various oils at a farmers market, for example, to select a variety that appeals to you.

‘Mission’ is a variety well-suited to home gardeners who wish to press or cure their harvest. Bob Wells Nursery offers this variety, and it’s available via Amazon.

2-Year ‘Mission’ Trees

The tree they’ll ship to you is two years old.

If you have the patience of Job and don’t mind starting out small, consider this petite ‘Manzanillo’ plant, available from Wellspring Gardens via Amazon.

‘Manzanillo’ O. Europaea Live Plant

They’ll ship you a three- to eight-inch seedling in a three-inch pot, along with a fertilizer sample. At maturity, it will reach 30-40 feet with large, great-tasting fruit that are also excellent for producing oil.

‘Arbosana’ is a cultivar that is suited for smaller spaces, growing to be 12-15 feet tall with a spread of 12-20 feet. You can find this type at Nature Hills Nursery.

Square image of two clusters of light green 'Arbosana' olives growing on a branch, with a grassy field and trees in the distance in shallow focus in the background, against a white sky.

‘Arbosana’ in #1 Container

This Spanish native produces large crops of small fruit with a high oil content that are very flavorful. You’ll receive a tree in a 2.3- to 3.7-quart container.

If you’d like the beauty of an olive tree without the hassle of the fruit, consider ‘Wilsonii,’ a fruitless variety available from High Desert Nursery via Amazon.

Fruitless ‘Wilsonii’ Live Rooted Plant

You’ll receive a 16- to 20-inch tree, or several if you want to take advantage of one of their package deals.

Most cultivars are self-pollinating, though some are not. Furthermore, some self-pollinating varieties produce heavier yields when a pollinator – such as ‘Pendolino,’ ‘Maurino,’ or ‘Leccino’ – is growing nearby.

No Additives, Please

As we mentioned above, O. europaea is native to regions that have mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers.

You’ll want to place your trees where they’ll get full sun all day.

Green olives growing on a branch with narrow leaves, with setting sunshine that has a golden hue lighting the scene.

These trees are tolerant of a wide variety of soils, including those with somewhat high clay content, as long as there is good drainage.

Planting a young tree in the fall gives it a chance to become well-established. But this is an option only if temperatures in your area won’t drop below 30°F, or if you can protect the tree.

This is because container-grown trees are susceptible to frost damage during their first winter outdoors.

If waiting until spring seems more prudent, hold off until all danger of frost is past. Planting in the heat of summer is not recommended.

Small potted olive trees in two rows, on a tile floor.

Dig a hole about the same size as the container, and about an inch shallower. Water the tree thoroughly, remove it from its container, and untwist or cut any circling roots.

Set the root ball in the hole. Use soil you removed from the hole to build up about an inch of soil on top of the root ball, and grade down from the trunk to the surrounding soil.

Don’t add compost or other soil additives; the plant has to learn to love the native soil. But do top the planting area with mulch.

Prune for More Fruit

Water young trees two or three times a week during their first summer. Give them a good four inches of water at each watering, and hydrate again when the soil dries out.

Once established, they need little supplemental water.

A young olive sapling growing in a green lawn.

Keep weeds removed from within at least a three-foot diameter of the young tree.

Fertilize newly planted trees in the spring, after new growth begins. They only need a small amount of nitrogen, which can be delivered via compost, as well as conventional or organic fertilizers.

In its first four years, prune the tree only as needed to maintain its shape.

Closeup of shiny yellow-green olives on a branch with long, narrow silvery green leaves.

As your tree matures and begins fruiting, you’ll discover an olive oddity: they never bear fruit in the same place on a stem, so new growth each year is necessary for flower production and fruiting.

Starting in the fifth year of growth, you’ll want to prune not only to increase airflow and maintain height or form, but also with future fruiting needs in mind.

A Bit More on Fruitlessness

If you’d rather not have an established tree set fruit, you can apply a plant growth regulator, or use a strong spray from the hose to blast off blooms.

Vertical image of an olive tree growing in light brown soil, with a road in the background.

Some gardeners do this only to areas of a tree that overhang a paved area, in an attempt to reduce the mess from falling fruit.

But, because Mother Nature is persistent and these methods don’t always work, if fruitlessness is truly your goal, you might be better off purchasing a fruitless variety such as the one described above.

Pests and Disease

Olives aren’t plagued by many pests, although scale can be a problem.

You can prune off infected stems, or treat these greedy critters with neem oil, such as this one from Bonide, available from Arbico Organics.

A close up of the packaging of a bottle of neem oil for controlling pests in the garden.

Bonide Neem Oil

This 32-ounce spray bottle is ready to use.

For twenty years or so, California olive growers have been plagued by the olive fruit fly, which lays its eggs inside the developing fruit, destroying it.

Management of fruit flies is difficult, and best achieved via clean gardening practices. Some home gardeners have had luck with fly traps, such as these from Terro, available via Amazon.

TERRO Fruit Fly Trap (Pack of 3)

Trees can also be affected by olive anthracnose, a fungal disease. Treat this problem with a fungicide, such as this one from Garden Safe, available through Amazon.

Garden Safe Fungicide3 Concentrate

This 28-ounce container connects to your hose end for easy distribution of the concentrated product.

Young and Bitter

If you’ve provided your olive tree with a happy home, it will begin to bear fruit when it’s around five years old.

Bear in mind, however, that it’s perfectly normal for olive trees to produce fruit only every other year, or to produce alternating heavy and light crops from year to year.

When you harvest your olives depends on what you intend to do with them, and what flavor you seek.

All olives start out green before turning a purplish color, and then deepening to black. The younger the olive, the more bitter it will be.

An old olive tree with gnarled wide trunk and small green leaves, growing in a bright green lawn with yellow flowers.

Typically, olives are harvested at their green stage if their intended use is for the table, although some varieties are best when black.

Purple olives growing on a blanch with narrow green leaves, and green foliage in soft focus in the background.

If a pressing is in the cards, the fruit is at its oiliest when it’s in its purple stage.

Olives must be processed – more on this in just a minute – within three days of harvest.

An old olive tree with a gnarled trunk that is very wide at the base and narrowing towards the top, with green foliage, growing in a patchy green lawn.

You can either handpick the fruit from your tree, which is quite time-consuming, or you can place a tarp under the tree, and shake the limbs with a rake or other garden implement to dislodge the fruit onto to the tarp for easy pickup.

Preparing Your Olives

Raw olives are not tasty. They must be cured to dispel their inherent bitterness, which is caused by the chemical compound called “oleuropein.”

Inventive humans have developed a number of ways to banish the bitterness from these otherwise tasty little ovals, curing them in oil, water, brine, lye, or simply salt.

None of these methods is particularly difficult, but the olives do have to marinate in your chosen mixture for several weeks – so don’t plan for an appetizer spread complete with homemade tapenade immediately after harvest!

A pile of green olive with a few purple ones scattered here and there, with a wood scoop and a few branches with long green-gray leaves, on a brown natural wood background.

If it’s oil you’re after, you’ll find as many extraction methods as there are days in a month.

At its most basic, the process entails:

  1. Cleaning
  2. Mashing
  3. Squeezing the mash to extract juice
  4. Separating the oil from non-oil liquid and particulate matter

It can take anywhere from 40-90 pounds of drupes to make one gallon of oil. A mature tree will produce between 30-100 pounds per season, though the giant ‘Chemlali’ may produce close to a ton per year.

Recipes and Cooking Ideas

You’ve planted, harvested, brined, and pressed. It’s time to savor the fruits of your labor! We don’t have to tell you that a galaxy of recipes await the olive-laden, but we’ll share just a few to get you started.

Begin your meal with a classic Greek salad like this one, from our sister site, Foodal. Made with homegrown cucumber, bell pepper, tomato, red onion, basil, oregano, and parsley, this is truly a garden-fresh delight!

For removing those pits, explore Foodal’s guide to the best cherry and olive pitters.

A glass pitcher of golden-colored oil with several green olive and a branch of long, narrow green leaves.

If you’re looking for picnic fare or a light meal, try a Sicilian pasta salad with zucchini, green beans, and marinated artichokes. You’ll find the recipe for this one on Foodal as well.

From Vintage Kitty comes this delightful recipe for an asparagus salad, which features a lemon and light olive oil vinaigrette.

And while we’re on the subject of lemon-olive pairings, consider this chicken recipe from Sugar Love Spices. This rustic delight evokes the Italian countryside.

And for dessert, how about a citrus olive oil cake, also from Sugar Love Spices? This confection utilizes a full cup of extra virgin oil, as well as a variety of citrus juices.

Quick Reference Growing Guide

Plant Type: Small, evergreen tree or shrub Attracts: Bees and other pollinators
Native To: Mediterranean, Asia, and Africa Tolerance: Drought
Hardiness (USDA Zone): 8-11 Maintenance: Low
Season: Fruits ripen are ready from August through November depending on cultivar, desired ripeness, and location Soil Type: Various loamy soils including sandy loam, clay loam, silt loam, and silty clay loam
Esposure: Full sun Soil pH: 7-8
Time to Maturity: 3-12 years depending on cultivar; most around years 5-6 Soil Drainage: Well-draining
Spacing: Minimum of 12 feet between trees in an orchard environment; 6 feet for hedge type planting Companion Planting: Other Mediterranean plants including thyme, lavender, oregano, various grasses, and bulbs
Planting Depth: Same as nursery pot, or set crown of bare root stock just below the soil surface. Family: Oleaceae
Height: 25-30 feet tall at maturity Genus: Olea
Water Needs: Moderate; usually irrigated in commercial plantings Species: Olea europaea
Pests & Diseases: Fruit flies, aphids, olive moth, and black scale

The Right Setting, The Right Tree

So, what are you thinking? Is it time to add an olive tree to fill that blank spot in the backyard?

Pick the variety that fits, water it heavily until it’s established, watch out for olive fruit flies, and soon you’ll be sharing your homegrown olive products with friends and family.

Gray-green olive leaves with a brown tree trunk in the background, and small pale green fruits growing in the foreground.

Do you have an olive tree? Which variety? Tell us about your adventures with O. europaea in the comments section below.

And if you decide a different fruit tree of the pitted variety is in your landscape plans, read these guides next:

Product photos via Bob Wells Nursery, Wellspring Gardens, Nature Hills Nursery, High Desert Nursery, Bonide, Terro, and Garden Safe. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock. First published July 9th, 2018. Last updated May 3rd, 2020.

About Gretchen Heber

A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.

31 thoughts on “How to Grow and Care for Olive Trees”

  1. My grandparents had an olive orchard that now passed to my mother and father. It stands beautifully up on a hill in the Italian countryside. That is why olives for me are very important. This is a beautiful post with gorgeous pictures and very informative. Thanks for including two recipes that I love!

    Reply
  2. I just planted 2 arberquina olive trees in South Florida. It might not be cold enough for long enough time down here. They were on clearance at Lowes. 2 trees for $20. So not a big investment. One is 4 ft tall other is about 2ft tall. I’m getting new growth on them already, planted 3 weeks ago. Time will tell.

    Reply
  3. Very valuable info. If possible, just 1 question. When do the leaves appear for the first time on an olive tree? In three weeks, one month or two?

    Reply
  4. This is Kenneth in Boise ID. I’m finding that it’s too cold to plant an olive tree in Southern Idaho. Would a greenhouse or covering the tree in the winter months be a solution to having an olive tree until it ages enough to withstand 0° temperatures?

    Reply
  5. I recently purchased 4 olive trees for my grandfather from a local olive orchard. We’re located in central Florida just north of the Tampa Bay area. When would you recommend that I plant them? They are all about 2to3ft tall. We have picked out a suitable location for them. Also was wondering how far I should space them. I purchased the following varieties; Mission, Picual, Manzanilla, and Arbequina. Thanks in advance for any tips or advice.

    Reply
    • What a lovely gesture for your grandfather, Matt. He’s a lucky guy. You should be able to plant them now. Fall is a great time to plant trees, and I don’t think you’re expecting a frost any time soon, right?

      Reply
  6. Nice article. I planted 2 arbequinas here (NC outer banks) 3 years ago and they are doing well. We even had an extended period of sub-20 degrees 2 years ago and they came through with no damage. We are 100 yards from the ocean, on sand, and they seem to do fine in all sorts of extremes. Last year we had fruit – maybe 100 olives – but brined they were delicious. This year both trees, now 6-7 ft tall, are covered in blossoms. As far as we know, we have the only olive trees in the outer banks.

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  7. I just planted 2 Arbequina olive trees in massive pots near my pool. They were purchased in 5 gallon nursery buckets. We do get pretty decent winds here in the Dallas area. As you can see for my pic, I have braced the tree(s) with string and a heavy weight. I also have large rocks inside the pots near the trunk. Do you think they’ll thrive in pots? Will I have to eventually transplant them into the ground? I planned on pruning them so I could try to keep them in the pots. Thank you for any insight.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your questions, Karin. Olives can do well in containers! For awhile, at least.

      You’ll need to ensure that they have well-draining soil with sufficient drainage holes in the pots – olives don’t like wet feet.

      You can continue transplanting to larger pots every 2-3 years or so, gradually increasing the pot size. From what we’ve heard, some gardeners have done this successfully for a decade or more! But keep in mind that transplanting will tend to become increasingly difficult as these trees continue to grow. This was a good choice of cultivar, as ‘Arbequina’ tends to grow to a shorter stature than some other types, typically reaching 8-12 feet at maturity (which can be kept in check further via pruning).

      Container-grown plants also require water more often than those grown in the ground, and additional protection may be required in the winter and during periods of high winds. But like you said, as long as you keep on top of pruning and maintaining ideal growing conditions for your potted trees, they should do well. Some gardeners who grow these in containers also recommend periodically pruning the roots. We’ll cover container-grown olives in more detail in a future article.

      Reply
  8. I bought a mission olive last year at Trader Joe’s. No surprise, they sold out really fast! I live in Vancouver Washington, 8b on the agricultural climate scale. It’s now about 2 feet tall, and is covered in blooms, or rather buds. Currently it’s in a one gallon pot. When I repot it, can I plant it in a giant pot for it to grow into, or is it better to up-pot to slightly bigger pots until it can fit the big pot…? I’m thinking we’re not quite warm enough here to plant outside – what are your thoughts?

    Reply
    • Hi! First I’m going to answer your question about planting your olive tree outside, and then I’ll get to the repotting question.

      Are you set on getting it to produce fruit again or are you ok with having it just be an ornamental?

      If you’re ok with it growing as an ornamental, you may want to keep it in a container.

      On the other hand, if you want to try to get it to produce fruit, you’ll have a better chance of this outdoors where the tree will get both the heat and the chill it needs to produce fruit – although this will be a bit riskier for the tree.

      Let’s cover heat first. When situating it outdoors, the best location would be against a sunny, south-facing wall where it gets sun all day long. The wall will radiate heat back to the tree – olive trees like it hot! If you have any other spots that are hotter than others on your property, these would work too.

      If you have a cool, chilly summer as sometimes happens in the PNW, your tree will not set fruit that year.

      OK, now let’s deal with chill. Olive trees need 200-300 hours below 45°F in winter in order to set fruit. A quick search tells me that you get more than enough chill hours to meet that requirement.

      Olive trees are supposed to be hardy in zones 8-10, but if you experience any colder than normal winter temperatures, you’ll need to protect your tree. One way that olive growers protect trees on cold nights is to spray them with water so that a layer of ice protects the tree. You can also wrap it in horticultural fleece.

      In particular, ‘Mission’ is supposed to withstand winter temps down to 8-10°F.

      However, young olive trees can be killed by temps of 25°F or lower. Larger trees withstand cold better.

      Since your tree is young, you may want to keep it in a pot for a couple more years, letting it develop a bit more hardiness, and then decide whether you want to plant it in the ground or not.

      If you decide to keep it in a container, put it outside during summer, and then store it in a protected location for winter where the temperature is cooler than room temperature (a range between 32-45°F would be ideal). A porch or unheated but well-lit sunroom may work well.

      And finally – as for your question about container sizes, it’s best to just go one size up at a time. An overabundance of soil in a pot that is too big can easily become oversaturated.

      Hope that helps!

      Reply
      • Thank you Kristina for this great reply! Super helpful! I live in Portland, OR (right across the river from Vancouver, WA) and just bought an Aberquina olive tree to put in a container and was looking for more specifics on my area. You shed some light on many of my questions! I am now thinking that maybe I should plan to put it in the ground in a couple of years… we shall see!
        Thanks again for all the information!

        Reply
  9. I have 2 olive trees that has survived 1 Canadian winter. They are together in a pot and I would like to know a little more about the care of this type of tree in our cooler climate. This particular brand is suited for our climate and I wrap in the winter and place it in a protected sunny area. When can I prune it? It’s getting spin-dallying, but I suspect that’s the male because the other one has some tiny buds or possibly flowers coming and has really filled out. How do you prune the North American olive trees?

    Reply
    • Hi Jane, thank you for your question!
       
      That’s really neat that you’re growing olives in Canada. What an accomplishment!
       
      As far as keeping olives happy in cold climates in containers, there are a few things to keep in mind:
       
      -First, make sure they’re getting plenty of sunlight this summer. Olives can take a high amount of heat, and indeed thrive in it, so set the containers in full sunlight all day long.
       
      -Second, keep those containers adequately drained. Good drainage makes an olive happy, but poor drainage can kill. Make sure the soil gets completely dry in between waterings. If the soil feels too hard-packed or consistently moist, add a few cups of lava rocks or perlite to the soil to help with drainage.
       
      -What type of pot are the trees in? Plastic tends to hold on to moisture, which you don’t really want. Consider transplanting to a wooden or clay container if you haven’t already (that would be a great time to add some lava rocks to the bottom of the container as well!).
       
      -What zone are you in? If you’re in Zone 6B or below, you’ll need to bring your tree indoors during the winter or keep it protected, as you seem to already be doing. Yay! Just make sure to let it stay outdoors until temps get close to about 22°F for several weeks so that it can achieve a state of winter dormancy. Store somewhere that it won’t get blasted by a heater and place it near a sunny window or grow light for 6+ hours a day.
       
      -Pruning should be done in the spring. The main thing to keep in mind is that you should allow your young tree to have about 3-5 fruiting branches. Any more, and you’ll risk not getting a good yield, or a yield that’s spread out all over the place instead of concentrated on those 3-5 branches, making picking a breeze.
       
      In addition, you can prune the tips of the branches to keep the tree growing in a shape that looks nice to you. But generally, olives are happiest when pruned into a ‘vase’ shape — a wide (instead of tall) shape, as in the photo below (by) Deitmar Rabich, sourced from Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 4.0.
       
      I hope this helps! Best of luck with your lovely olive trees. Let me know if you have any further questions.

      Reply
    • Hi Myriam, you can save the article as a pdf by selecting “Print” from the dropdown menu, and then selecting the “Destination” in the print dialog box to “Save as pdf.” 🙂

      Reply
    • Hello William Coates. That’s a tough question! Is it possible to dig up the root ball and make sure the tree isn’t root bound first? Also, if you don’t have it planted in well-draining soil where it receives full sun, you may need to relocate it. Last, and most unappealing, is it possible the tree got frostbitten? If so, there may be no salvaging.

      But I would try these other possible solutions in this order if it’s not clearly dead: See if it’s rootbound, in too much shade, or soil that is either too sandy or holds too much water; check if you can bring it back with a deep watering; trim the edges even though it’s technically too young. Good luck! Let us know how it goes, okay?

      Reply
  10. Last fall I planted two Koroeiki olive trees, both now about three ft tall and look great. The question I have is that both trees literally have hundreds of olives in little clusters all over the trees. The olives are approaching bb size and I’m worried that there is no way these small branches will be able to hold four full grown olives due to weight. Should I be culling back the fruit this year to allow the tree to bulk up? I live on the coast of the panhandle of Florida.

    Reply
    • Hi Mike Taft!

      Your trees should be fine. Congrats on the impending bumper crop. Incredibly, there are other olive tree varieties that produce a ton of fruit–literally–when mature.

      If you don’t want as many olives next year, you could consider pruning back select branches after winter’s over and before they bloom. This makes it so you can tell how many blossoms to expect, and keeps you from pruning off all the new buds.

      Olives only produce fruit on newly-grown branches, so it’s not a good idea to cut the trees back before you know where the blossoms are. You must be doing something right, keep up the good work!

      Reply
  11. OK I read the whole article to get to the promised part about DWARF olive trees – nothing.
    I have an olive tree that we planted 10 years ago, still the same size – like 2 feet tall. It has never grown. Still the same size or possibly shorter than when we planted it. I have no idea now whether it is a dwarf variety, but even then shouldn’t it grow at least a little bit? High Desert, Southern California Mojave Desert. Hot, dry, windy, with cool winters with some rain. Watered at least every other day. WTF?

    Reply

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