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How to Grow an Olive Tree in a Container

by Fern on June 10, 2009

in Fruits & Vegetables

Growing olive trees (holy land or domestically grown varieties) definitely falls into the category of delayed gratification. That being said, like many things in life, they’re worth the wait. Under the proper conditions, olives don’t begin to bear fruit until they are about five years old. This means that the tree you purchase at a nursery will probably not produce any fruit for at least 2 years after you bring it home. Luckily, olive trees are beautiful and worth growing purely as an ornamental tree, so you’ll have something nice to look at while you wait.

I couldn’t resist this photo of a tiny olive tree by Marcel Germain

In the past, when writing about how to grow particular plants in a container, I wrote encyclopedia-length articles (see How to Grow an Apple Tree in a Container). I don’t really have the attention span to write such a post today (I caught a cold on that cruise last weekend), and I suspect you all would appreciate a more concise post anyway (right?).

Varieties of Olive Suitable for Container Growing

There are two very general types of olive, fruiting and fruitless. In case that wasn’t self-explanatory enough, some olives produce fruit that you want to eat, while others don’t produce fruit and are grown solely as an ornamental plant.

In the fruitless category, one variety I have worked with and had a lot of success growing in containers is Majestic Beauty. It is slow growing and has all of the beautiful attributes you’d like in an olive tree (multi-branch trunk, silvery-green foliage, etc) sans the messy fruit. If grown in the ground, Majestic Beauty can get to 25 feet tall, but in a container it will stay a nice patio tree size, well under 8 feet. Another dwarf fruitless variety is Little Ollie. I often see them trained as single ball topiary trees about 3-4 feet tall.

There are a number of fruiting varieties that are suitable for container growing, as olives are generally slow growers. But these varieties are ones I know will do well in containers:

  • Arbequina (zones 7-10) – Is slow growing and has a weeping habit. Produces inch long fruit that can be picked green or black. Responds well to harsh pruning, so it would be a good choice for someone who doesn’t feel confident about their pruning skills, or for balconies with a low overhang.
  • Picholine (zones 8-10) – Has an open, airy, upright habit. Pick fruit green. Picholine olives are highly prized by olive connosieurs.

Caring for Olive Trees

Olives are pretty low maintenance, great for someone who is new to growing fruit trees, or who likes plants that don’t mind a little neglect. Choose a large pot, something in the range of 24 inches wide and at least the same depth, and fast draining potting soil.

  • Sun: Full sun to bright partial shade. Can withstand hot, baking sunlight.
  • Watering: Allow them to dry out a bit in between waterings, never allowing the soil to become saturated. When the soil is dry in the first two inches, it’s time to water.
  • Fertlizer: Use a high nitrogen fertilizer, something like a 17-6-10 timed release would be perfect.
  • Pruning: Thin out young plants to 3-4 main branches. After blooming in spring, clip the tips of the branches. Make the cut just above the point where a pair of leaves attaches to the stem. Leave each branch at least six inches long, but how much longer is up to you and what will look good on your balcony or patio.
  • Winter Care: If you live in zone 7 or lower, bring your tree inside for the winter. Leave it in a cool room, away from a heater or furnace, near a south or west facing window.

Olives are wind pollinated, and generally self-fertile. However, you will get better fruit production if you have more than one tree. Be sure to either choose two of the same variety, or if you are picking different varieties, two or more trees that bloom at the same time. Also, fruiting olives need two months of winter temperatures below 50F and above 22F, so plan to move your tree indoors at a strategic time so that they can get the cold weather they need without being damaged by temperatures that are too low. Obviously, if you have chosen a fruitless variety, you’ll be just fine with only one tree (or as many as you’d like) and almost any kind of winter conditions above freezing.

Pests

The only pest most balcony or patio olive growers need to worry about is scale, which is easy to treat with insecticidal soap or BioNeem. Spray the entire tree according to the package instructions. If your tree is indoors, be sure to choose an insecticidal soap approved for indoor use.

Pickling

This is a helpful pdf about olive pickling techniques from the University of California extension office.

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{ 81 comments… read them below or add one }

albert lowhim January 13, 2012 at 2:50 pm

I have an olive tree growing in a container.IN michigan (lansing)USA!!. Its growing well, and flowers very well, but that happens around december! thats the time when I have to bring the container indoors, because it is very cold to remain outside (snowing time). I was hoping for suggestions on what light arrangement (6000Kelvin; 3000Kelvin etc,) that could help with the tree to bear fruits (olive).Or do you know websites that has some ideas?
thanks albert

Reply

Fern January 14, 2012 at 1:02 am

Albert–Wind plays a major role in pollinating olives. I would imagine it would be pretty hard to get many flowers pollinated indoors, regardless of the type of light you bought.

liz brezenski May 16, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Hi Albert,
glad to hear about your success with the olive tree. About 2 weeks ago I brought 2 olive tree shoots (that had self propagated from a nearby tree) back from Arizona to Michigan and I placed them in water. the smaller one ( 4 inches long) seems to be rooting well, while the slightly longer shoot doesn’t seem to be doing anything yet. I have no idea what the variety would be but I’m hoping at least one of them will survive indoors. any advice on how long the roots should be before transferring to a soil medium? Thanks!

anthony January 15, 2012 at 10:00 pm

15 years ago I got this crazy idea about taking cuttings from certain olive trees. After thousands of dollars of prep., time it was ok’d by the Government of that country. The point was not only to get them but to have them certified as from those trees as that would mean they breathed the air from everyone that was ever there as well as touch etc., etc., At the last moment I was banned by the Government and the Vatican.
But now I have them but as I found out the cuttings have to be quarantined for two years at my place etc., etc.,
The trees are carbon dated at over 3000 years old. So these cuttings are part of the trees Jesus payed and sat beneath as well as touched with his breath if the bible is right.
Kind of cool in a way when you meditate about them.
Before people went nuts when they though I would have these. One man offered me over a hundred thousand for a certified cutting etc. etc. strang don’t you think??? Many churches wanted them etc., etc.,
Me I just like the idea of having my own tree or grove in a beatiful garden would be better. I guess though if a person wanted to start a non profit and sell them it would raise millions of dollars. But me. I am to old to do it right now.
Anyway I though you would like this story.

Tony

Reply

Shin November 10, 2012 at 3:08 am

Hi Anthony,

That’s a great story!

I’m glad you managed to get your cuttings in the end.
Have they taken root? If you plan to sell, I would be a buyer but spending thousands on a cutting would be beyond my means!

A few years back. I went to the Himalayas on the Indian side and came across a tree that was over 500 years ago.

The tree is protected and is said to be the tree planted by the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanank. The first tree in a barren land which now is flourishing with plant life. I wouldn’t know where to start about taking a cutting from it, but I wish I had.

I’ve also heard that in the south the tree under which Buddah was enlightened still exists. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have cuttings from these trees together in a meditation garden of sorts!! That would be such a peaceful place to meditate in just thinking about connecting those 3 founders of their prospective faiths.

It would definitely be a good business since it would create awareness of the human-tree co-existence and horticulture knowledge to replenish the land rather than destroying through deforestation and pollution.

Good luck with your project!

Peace
Shin.

Brenda Chowdhuri July 29, 2012 at 5:00 am

An early very cold spell 2 years ago killed my container tree. I kept the remains but now find young shoots half way up the stem
Should I take off the dead top ? What other measures are needed to revive the plant?

Reply

ariella February 18, 2013 at 5:13 am

You can just cut back anything dead even the tree stem within a few months it will grown back they take all the nutrients back to the root I live in Italia and this happened to three of mine!
But they are all back if you do not take it in over winter wrap it in Polystyrene and it will be fine and even stay green over winter!!!

monique Grobler September 11, 2012 at 4:51 am

I live in South Africa Johannesburg have purchased 2 olea europaea barnea could you tell me if i must put them in pots My garden is big. I would like to put them in a pot first and then transplant them in the ground would that be o.k. Because there are quiet small at the moment. Thank you for your advice. Monique

Reply

Grace September 26, 2012 at 9:41 am

The leaves on my olive tree are gradually turning yellow, does this mean it’s being watered too much?

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stupud October 14, 2012 at 5:44 pm

stu[id

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rehman khattak November 21, 2012 at 8:14 am

i have three plants of olives in my home orchard in islamabad. These are about seven / eight years old, had fruit only once about two years back and that too very thin. what should i do to them ?
where lies the problem ? Suggestion / help please.

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rehman khattak November 21, 2012 at 8:35 am

hi fern , i have three olive trees in my orchard which are about 7-8 years old and about 10-12 feet tall. Had fruit some two years ago.Is not bearing fruit now. Any idea why is that ? please help.

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sandra hammond December 4, 2012 at 3:21 pm

I have an olive tree purchased from fast growing trees.com. I’ve had it almost a year and for much of the time it’s had a shiny substance on the leaves and a crystal-like structure growing on the stem. They’ve told me it is a fungus and so I treated it with an organic fungucide – can’t tell if it’s done any good though. Noe it seems to have scale – large blace ones and the more common on – rust and smaller. Any suggestions about further care of the tree?

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Eric Mangar January 15, 2013 at 7:23 pm

Iam fromMauritius. I have collected some seeds of this wonderful fruit tree from the Holy land. I would like to know how you grow it from the seed( to produce seedlings). Is there any germination problem to grow it in the tropic , How long it takes to germinate, What could be the Germination %.

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Lydia November 9, 2013 at 7:24 am

I was given a small olive tree a couple weeks ago and now all the lower leaves are falling off. Is it just adjusting to its new environment?

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