Pruning Olive Trees

Olive tree pruning

Olive tree pruning

The olive is an evergreen plant that can grow as a shrub, hedge, or tree. Olive trees can grow as tall as 30 feet. Olives bear small pitted fruits that can be cured for table consumption or pressed for oil. Some olives are grown for ornamental use, often as shrubs or hedges–the olive’s narrow gray-green leaves offset the dark green of most gardens and the olive’s branching is noted for its billowing form.

Olive trees grown for their fruit are best trained and pruned to a manageable height–from 12 to 15 feet tall–the shorter stature will allow for an easier harvest.

Pruning Olive Trees

Olive trees fruit along one-year-old wood usually at the periphery of the tree canopy. Prune each year to encourage wood that will fruit. Thin out broken, diseased, and unproductive wood. Head back drooping wood and prune out water sprouts. Olives are best trained on trunks 3 to 4 feet tall with 3 to 4 scaffold or main lateral branches trained or pruned to different direction beginning at about 4 feet from the ground. (Multi-trunked olives are often used ornamentally but can be kept to a manageable height for harvesting. Don’t allow multi-trunked trees to grow too dense in the center.)

Train and prune olives to an open center allowing sunlight to reach deep into the crown of the tree. Remove basal sprouts; pull them away don’t cut them to make sure they do not regrow. Rub off buds near the ground level that may become suckers. Olives that go unpruned will become densely twigged and crowded.

When to Prune an Olive Tree

Prune olive trees in early spring before buds and flowers set. Olive trees can be thinned at any time of the year without damaging the tree. However, if you prune in late spring or summer after flowering, the harvest is likely to be decreased. You can prune in winter if the weather is frost-free and dry. Prune in dry weather to allow cuts to heal before frost or rain. Regularly pruned olives will require less pruning and thinning than trees that have been neglected. In regions with severe droughts, pruning in summer will reduce the number of leaves competing for water and may enhance the harvest.

Thinning Olives

Olives fruit from the leaf axial along one-year-old wood or stems, not at the end of stems. Three to four fruits per foot are sufficient for a good crop. Thin away extra fruit to increase the size and oil content of the fruit on the tree. Thinning will also hasten the harvest and allow for a good harvest the next year. Olives are best thinned in late spring or early summer several weeks after the initial fruit set. Hand thinning is the most effective way to thin.

Training New Olive Trees

Train new trees to have a clear trunk 3 to 4 feet tall. Prune away side branches below where you want the main scaffold to branch; the main scaffold should begin at 4 to 5 feet from the ground. Select 3 or 4 well-spaced laterals or branches to form the main scaffold. Train these young branches in the desired direction away from each other.

When to begin training a new tree. There are two schools of thought on this. Some begin training new trees immediately, selecting a leader to become a trunk and then encouraging select laterals to form a scaffold. Others allow olive trees to grow for 3 or 4 years almost as a shrub before beginning to prune and train. This strategy allows the tree to gain strength and even begin to bear fruit before the main trunk and scaffold branches are selected.

Renovating Mature Olive Trees

An overgrown and unattended olive should be pruned to regain the tree’s form and open its crown to sunlight. Prune to establish a clear trunk 3 to 4 feet tall. Prune out broken, dead, diseased, and unproductive wood first. Prune to establish a crown with 3 to 5 main branches. Once the main scaffold is established, thin out new shoots to open the tree to sunlight and continue to prune away suckers and water sprouts on a yearly schedule. An olive tree will recover from heavy pruning. Pruning will stimulate and encourage the growth of new fruiting wood.

Also of interest:

How to Plant, Grow, Prune, and Harvest Olives

Olive Growing

Olives: Kitchen Basics

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.


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  1. Thank you for this helpful information on pruning olives for fruit! We have an olive tree that is growing more fruit and more branches this year than ever before and looking so healthy. I feel much more confident about pruning it after reading this post 🙂 We leave chipped up organic material on the soil around it, never fertilize it, and hardly ever water it, yet it is a prolific grower. All the best to you!

    • Thanks for passing this on–sounds like the tree is very happy, and thanks for reading Harvest to Table.

  2. We have just bought a house in Italy which comes with a severely neglected grove of 150 olive trees! This has helped me know where to start on getting it back into some kind of order where i was quite daunted, thank you. Any extra advice you could give would be appreciated 🙂

  3. . Hi This has been useful to us. We have moved from suburbia in the UK to a house in Tuscany with around 200 overgrown and neglected olive trees.

  4. Your comments regarding prunning older trees eased my mind greatly. I live near Lucca Italy and for the past two and a half years I have worked to bring back to useful live our grove of 250 olive trees that had been abandoned for at least 12 years. 2 years ago I removed the smothering blackberry vines from the first 125 +/- trees, and even though I did not have time to do much serious prunning, this year we were blessed with a reasonable crop yielding approximately 11.5% oil per kilo of olives. In the process of our harvest my only alternative was to cut the trees back significantly to what appears to be the original 3 or 4 main branches with some smaller sub branches. When possible I left a few leafy branches but my main focus was to open up the center and cut back the tall shouts. I know this was very aggresive prunning but I had no choice. Good Lord willing the trees will continue the road to good health. Before I continue with the remaining trees I thought I woul reach our for other views on a proper course of action. Thanks

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