Pruning Olive Trees – Learn When And How To Prune Olive Trees

Pruning Olive Trees – Learn When And How To Prune Olive Trees

By: Teo Spengler

The purpose of trimming olive trees is to open more of the tree up to sunshine. The parts of a tree that are in shade will not produce fruit. Read on for information about how to prune olive trees and the best time to prune olive trees.

When to Prune Olive Trees

Don’t start trimming olive trees during their first year or its second year. You shouldn’t touch that pruner to your tree branches until the olive tree is at least four years old. During these early years, you should encourage foliage to form and leave it alone. A tree’s leaves produce its food, so having many leaves when the tree is young provides good energy for growth.

How to Prune Olive Trees

When it is time to shape the tree, remember that it is better to make a few, well-placed cuts than to make many small ones. You should use a lopper and a pruning saw to make these cuts.

Open-center or vase pruning is very common with olive trees. For this type of pruning, you remove the tree’s central branches to allow sunlight to penetrate the tree. Open pruning also increases the surface fruiting area of the tree.

After you have removed central branches and established a sound structure for the tree, all subsequent pruning is for maintenance. At that point, trimming olive trees involves only removing any growth that starts to fill in the center of the tree.

You can also keep down the height of the tree by pruning out the tallest branches. This is often important when you are pruning olive trees in containers. Use thinning cuts, not heading cuts, since the latter will stimulate new tall growth. Thinning cuts involve cutting something out, while heading cuts – also called topping cuts – involve cutting something off. Generally, you’ll want to use thinning cuts in olive tree trimming.

If you have a very tall, very old olive tree, you may have to prune it drastically to make it productive again. Remember that new growth will grow just above where you make the cut, so you’ll have to cut the tree quite severely, making cuts at four or five feet (1-2 m.). It is best to space the process over three years. On the other hand, if it is used more as an ornamental, you may wish to leave it tall and beautiful instead.

Best Time to Prune Olive Trees

If you are wondering when to prune olive trees, it is between winter’s end and flowering. You can prune olive trees in spring or in early summer once the tree begins to open its flower buds. Pruning an olive tree while it is in bloom allows you to assess the probable crop before you trim.

Always wait to trim until the rains of winter are done, since pruning opens entry points for water-borne disease to enter the tree. This is of utmost importance if olive knot is a problem in your area. An olive tree is more vulnerable to frost damage once it is trimmed, which is another argument for waiting until spring.

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SERIES 28 - Episode 24

Tino demonstrates how to successfully prune an olive tree

Pruning is a major part of growing olives and is the question most olive growers get asked.

The main goal is to open the olive tree up to improve airflow to help control pest and diseases and to allow fruit to ripen on the inside as well as the extents of the tree. This improves the overall yield.

  1. Gather all tools and safety equipment (including safety glasses).
  2. Prune on all sides of the olive tree, so walk around it to assess it before you start.
  3. Work from the base up. Starting at the base of the trunk, remove any suckering growth.
  4. Remove all growth from below the main fork of the olive tree.
  5. Remove any downward-facing branches.
  6. Thin out the remaining parts of the tree, cutting out any branches that are growing through others.
  7. On healthy trees, you won't need to remove too much growth. If you cut back too hard, the result is the tree will grow more wood. If the tree is young or in poor condition, a hard cut can help bring it back to full vigour.

  • It's better to start pruning olive trees when they are young as this will reduce the amount you will need to prune from the tree as it matures.
  • Olives are dual fruiters meaning they will have a year on, year off fruiting, but good light pruning annually will boost yields season after season.


JOSH BYRNE: If you leave an olive to do its own thing, you'll end up with a massive tree, which means it takes lots of space and also makes it difficult to pick the fruit, so I'm going to prune this tree to make it easy to manage. That'll also encourage more fruit and I want to highlight its beautiful natural form.

Timing is important. If you prune hard in late winter or early spring you'll get a flush of new growth which defeats the purpose of the prune. To avoid this, you can prune after fruiting - hard prune that is - which is at the end of autumn or in early winter. Better still, give it a light prune each year to keep the canopy in check. Now because most olive varieties are bi-annual fruiting, which means they produce a heavy crop every other year, this also helps to even the fruit production out.

The first thing to do is to prune any suckers off from the base. All they do is rob the canopy of water and nutrients. Now I've already pruned these ones off when I did the tidy up on my front garden. But, you can see, they're already coming back.

Next, remove any dead, damaged or crossing branches. Now I'm going to take back these main leaders by about a quarter. At the moment they're just reaching for the sky. If need be, you can completely remove some branches to allow in more air and light. The aim is to have a nice, even, balanced canopy.

Finally, I'm going to feed the olive with an organic manure and mineral based fertiliser. But before I do that, I'm just scuffing up the mulch around the root zone to make sure the fertiliser has contact with the soil. Now, as you can see, I've clearly given this more than just a light annual prune, but that's because the tree's been neglected for at least 3 or 4 years, so I've brought it back into shape. What's the result? It'll grow into a beautiful feature tree for my front yard and give me loads of fruit.

STEPHEN RYAN: We meet lots of old and knowledgeable gardeners on this show with a lifetime of experience to pass on. But in Adelaide, Sophie's met a younger gardener with wisdom beyond his years.

Characteristics of Arbequina Olive Tree at a Glance

  • Self-pollinating and medium flowering
  • Very high rooting capacity
  • Aromatic creamy, white flowers
  • Small and short leaves
  • Drought-resistant
  • Resistant to low temperatures
  • Can produce fruit within 2-3 years
  • Fruits turn black when fully ripe

Guide To Trimming Olive Trees: When Is The Best Time To Prune Olive Trees - garden

Thinning cuts aid in long-term growth and health of the tree. Thinning is cutting out branches of your olive tree to permit greater sun exposure of the inner canopy. This, in turn, may produce higher fruit production within the canopy. Thinning cuts may also be used simply to shape the tree into a pleasing shape. They are often used with multi-trunked trees to “thin” the middle of the tree, allowing greater airflow and sunshine to penetrate the tree at lower levels.

Vase Pruning is the Most Common Shape

Just as it sounds, vase pruning opens the center of the canopy as a flower arrangement would in a vase. By removing center branches, more lateral growth is encouraged than vertical growth. This frequently leads to a larger olive crop in fruiting trees, that is distributed across the entire canopy versus a crop formed primarily around the perimeter when the canopy is denser in the center of the tree. Vase pruning is the most common for olive trees. And it is employed often for non-fruiting olive trees to create the most pleasing visual appearance of the tree.

Pruning Equipment for Success

The most commonly used pruning tools for olive trees are loppers and pruning shears. While pole shears may also be used for head cuts and thinning, they require an experienced hand and knowledge of safety protocols to ensure other branches aren’t damaged when cuts are made, nor are attending humans injured by falling branches!

We recommend you maintain your pruning tools in good conditions, oiling and cleaning them as needed. And in the case of disease, ensure your tools are sterilized between uses to prevent spreading of disease.

On rare occasion you may have use for a chain saw to trim a branch. This tool should only be used by an experienced practitioner following all necessary safety protocols, including the use of safety goggles.

Pruning Strategy and Details

When and Why to Prune an Olive Tree

Here are guides for when and why to prune your olive tree:

  • Wait until your tree has been planted for at least 3 years before any pruning. Until your tree is at least four years old, keep your shears and loppers stowed away. During the first three years of growth, encourage foliage to form and roots to remain undisturbed as the tree acclimates to its environment. The tree’s leaves provide its food (photosynthesis!), so having as many leaves as possible when it is young ensures for the healthiest tree.
  • Pruning is usually conducted after harvest (winter-spring) during the dormant season. But there are good reasons to prune into late spring. (See below.)
  • Because pruning leaves fresh, open wounds at the cuts, it is recommended not to prune during the rainy season when water-borne or mold/mildew diseases are more easily transmitted. We also recommend waiting until frost season has passed before pruning.
  • Best practices: prune olive trees in spring or in early summer after the tree begins to open its flower buds. (TIP: Pruning an olive tree while it’s blooming allows you to assess the probable crop before you trim.)
  • Shaping the tree – Beginning with its fourth year after planting, prune your olive tree to open the canopy. For trees planted in a container (or non fruiting), now is the time to begin thinning your tree’s limbs and branches to create the desired shape.
  • Prune to remove dead, diseased or damaged limbs as needed. If you are not familiar with the proper angle cuts to ensure these limbs’ wounds heal properly, please review the detailed instructions for angle and placement of cuts on damaged limbs in the reference links below.

Pruning Strategy

Considerations for your olive tree pruning strategy:

  • For a commercial olive tree orchard: What’s the proximity to neighboring trees? How far apart do you need to maintain limbs for optimal sun exposure and airflow? Is this an “on” or “off” year for your trees? (“On” years alternate with “off” years, producing more fruit than the tree usually can support. So you may wish to trim more heavily in “off” years to stimulate growth for the following “on” year production.) Did your orchard suffer from a recent frost, throwing off the alternating cycle?
  • For fruiting production: Are you harvesting manually or by machine? What is your maximum height?
  • Vigorous growers: These trees grow quickly and will require greater attention in pruning if you wish to maintain a specific height: Leccino, Pendolino and Swan Hill
  • Moderate growers: Cerignola, Coratina, Kalamata, Koroneiki, Little Ollie Dwarf Olive, Maurino, Sevillano and Wilsonii
  • Slow growers: These olive cultivars develop slowly but may also have canopies that grow quick tall and wide: Arbequina, Frantoio, Majestic Beauty and Manzanillo
  • Large canopy: These cultivars may grow between 30 and 40 feet tall (and potentially as wide) without rigorous pruning: Arbequina, Cerignola and Swan Hill
  • Moderate canopy: Most of these cultivars may grown between 20 and 25 feet wide or tall: Coratina, Frantoio, Kalamata, Koroneiki, Leccino, Majestic Beauty, Manzanillo, Maurino, Pendolino, Sevillano and Wilsonii
  • Small canopy: The Little Ollie Dwarf Olive is ideal for low hedges and shrubs, topping out at four feet in height and width.
  • Canopy density: These cultivars sport canopies with tightly spaced leaves, requiring greater thinning if more sunlight or fruit production is desired: Leccino, Little Ollie Dwarf Olive and Wilsonii

For commercial olive production, we recommend writing out your strategy and pruning plan to clarify your thoughts on the cultivars in your orchard and to write out your results each year for comparative analysis. This will ensure you achieve the desired results. A few tips:

  • Smart pruning is one considered part of a multi-year strategy. When planning for vase pruning, we recommend removing major center branches over three years, trimming one or more major branch over the three year period.
  • Some master pruners adhere to the principle that every olive on the tree should receive sunlight during part of the day. If your canopy is too dense for this to occur, you’ll need to plan when and where to open it up for more sunshine to beam through.
  • Plan desired tree shape: Some cultivars are naturally rounded, others more vase shaped. But some desire the A-frame or Christmas tree shape to achieve more sun exposure. The shape of the tree affects fruit production and related harvesting ability. Determine what works best for you.
  • Routine maintenance vs. strategic pruning – choose the best time for each. Routine maintenance can be completed at any time, removing suckers and shoots around the tree trunk’s base. Strategic pruning involves planning for the coming season and responding to climate conditions which vary from year to year.
  • Allowances for tree personality – Your ancient olive trees may have highly unique appearances, from quite gnarly to elegantly aging. These trees may show highly imbalanced canopies but loads of personality. Trim with care once you understand how your cuts will affect growth over several years into the future.

How to prune olive trees recommended video

On the internet you can find many olive pruning videos. Each teacher has his booklet and we can find more or less suitable pruning for our purpose.

If we want to obtain profitability from the olive grove, we will need to perform a pruning aimed at improving production, control the expiration and favor the mechanized collection of olives.

In the article we will publish the pruning technique that we personally consider most appropriate. Which does not mean that with other types of pruning of the olive tree we cannot achieve good productions.