Fruit and Vegetables

Olive tree pruning

Question: Olive tree pruning

Hi, I'd love to have some information on how to prune olive trees. I am a DIY gardening enthusiast and I own some olive trees in the country. I would be very grateful if you could advise me about it. Waiting for a reply, I thank you in advance!

Answer: Olive tree pruning

Dear Giancarlo,
We thank you for contacting us regarding the question about your olive tree, through the expert's address book.
Olivo, European Olea, is an arboreal plant native to the Mediterranean areas and is cultivated to obtain the fruits used for fresh consumption and for pressing in order to obtain the oil.
The plant is evergreen, rustic, reaching heights of up to 20 meters. The roots are superficial, the trunk greyish and twisted, the branches are green and bear lance-shaped leaves, curious with a gray-green color.
In spring (April-June) many white flowers are formed together in inflorescences that give rise to fruits, green-black colored Drupe.
The flowers are formed on 1-year branches.
The olive tree requires mild temperatures, sunny places and is resistant to drought, instead it requires regular fertilization to support the fruits that form. The ripening of the drupes generally occurs from September to winter, depending on the area and the variety.
With regard to pruning on these plants, it is advisable to intervene at the end of winter and in any case before the vegetative restart, possibly in periods in which frost is not feared. The cuts must not be too energetic in order not to limit production, it is advisable to make minimal cuts to form a globular crown combining the functional factor of forming the fruits with the ornamental and aesthetic one. It should be remembered that the vegetation tends to reach the periphery of the canopy, therefore it is important to intervene with frequent cuts of "return". On pruning cuts it is advisable to cover the wounds with healing pastes in order to promote rapid healing and protect the cut from accidental transmissions of fungal parasites.
Yours sincerely.

Three types of pruning

The olive generally has a bushy natural shape and its stems grow directly from the soil. For a correct development of the plant, it is essential to intervene by means of correct pruning, which can be classified into three types, depending on the percentage of branches removed.
Light if it affects less than 20% of the entire crown and is suggested during the breeding phase that precedes the plant's entry into production; intensive when the removed hair exceeds 40% of the whole, massively affecting the plant and therefore practiced only in cases where it points to stimulate the emission of new and thicker shoots.
The most widespread and practiced pruning in most ordinary interventions, however, remains the defined medium, which occurs when the removal concerns approximately 20-35% of the canopy.

Why prune?

Pruning, for the olive tree, is an indispensable intervention to keep the plant healthy, productive and long-lived. If allowed to grow freely it tends to become a large conical shrub. Human intervention is very important for several reasons. First of all, eliminating branches favors the birth and development of new, more fruitful ones. Furthermore, by giving the specimen a shape, it optimally distributes the lighting and the passage of air through the plant, which are extremely important factors in maximizing production and avoiding the onset of disease. Care must also be taken to have a good balance of leaves and wood.
All these factors have a decisive influence on fruiting which, otherwise, tends to be irregular, that is with alternating vintages that are too abundant (and therefore with premature loss of olives) and too little vintages.


The best time for pruning is the end of winter, before the tree begins to vegetate. It is very important that there are no more frosts that can hinder the healing of cuts and cause the penetration of pathogens.

What types of pruning exist?

The approach varies with the age of the plant. We can have a training pruning (which aims to give the right shape to a young plant), the production pruning (which favors the right fruiting in an adult specimen) and the rejuvenation pruning (it stimulates the production of new branches eliminating some too old, sick or damaged).

Set the pruning

It is important to point out that in order to prune any tree or shrub well one must rely on good experience (especially if we want to do heavy pruning). It is therefore good to make use of the advice of an expert or at least to observe the work directly first. Having this kind of knowledge first of all it is necessary to look carefully at the specimen to understand in advance where to intervene and how much. In general it can be said that on young plants it is good to intervene with a light hand, on old ones instead it is necessary to be more determined. Certainly it is better to cut the larger branches first and go from the upper part to the lower part. The tools to be used (shears, saw, chainsaw) must be clean and well sharpened for a clean cut.

Forms of farming

For the olive tree in particular, over the centuries, "forms" have been developed that are ideal for good growth and fruiting. They are often linked to a particular territory and to a specific cultivar.
- Vase shape: it is among the most widespread. It is necessary to proceed, over the years, by cutting the upper part of the trunk, to prevent it from growing in height. From this branch of branches that will go upwards will depart. The whole will form an inverted cone structure, open inside, ideal for a good aeration and radiation of the foliage.
- Polyconic vase: the crown consists of 3-4 distinct groups of conical shape and is open in the center. It is a widespread form in the southern regions. It allows, as it gets a lot of light also on the ground, the cultivation of herbaceous plants on the ground (vegetables). Harvesting olives is however more difficult as the fruits are found very high. To obtain it, the stem must be severed about a meter from the ground during the first year, preserving three or four branches. These must be worked during the second year to be kept almost parallel to the ground and then go upwards. The secondary branches, worked from the third year, which depart from them, must go mainly towards the outside and give the fruiting.
- Free or bush form It is the shape that is spreading most in new plants: it favors the harvest as the plant never reaches remarkable heights.
It can be reached avoiding any kind of intervention for the first 10 years apart from the removal of the shoots from the base up to 50 cm. The most drastic cuts start from the 10th year and are mostly containment and rejuvenation.
There are other less widespread forms: globose (similar to the free form), umbrella-shaped (the branches extend parallel to the ground along their entire length), free palmette, bushy vase.

Production pruning

Production pruning is the most delicate and for which greater experience is needed.
The objectives of this practice are mainly
- maintaining the balance between wood and leaves,
- encourage the birth of new branches (the olive produces mainly on new branches)
- adjust the production so that the plant does not bear fruit excessively during a vintage and is then exhausted in the following one.
- avoid having too many productive twigs on the same branch. This will easily cause premature drop of the olives with consequent loss of harvest quality
You can start talking about production pruning when the plant starts to bear fruit. In fact, before the plant does olives it makes no sense to start pruning the olive according to the rules of this type of pruning because it would not bring results.
The basic principle that regulates the production pruning is to promote the production of olives as much as possible and to stimulate the plant to produce olives as much as possible. To achieve this it is necessary to identify the productive branches according to their state of health and their position, after which they intervene to favor as much as possible the illumination of these branches.
The lighting on these branches must be optimal but care must be taken not to create dark areas of the foliage. The sun is fundamental for fruiting, but it must be regular throughout the foliage if we want to ensure that the tree produces in a homogeneous and satisfying manner.
Usually the olives from production are pruned to vasa or try to leave the plant very empty inside and to arrange the main branches at 120 ° to optimize the surface exposed to light. The vase shape should be cured year after year and should be done, through pruning, that the branches start approximately at the height of 1 meter.
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