Hardy Olives For The Maritime Northwest
When I told my neighbor I was brining local olives, she gave me the fish eye. Really? Her skepticism is understandable; though olive trees have long been grown in California, they’re relative newcomers to Oregon and Washington State. Over the past few decades, Oregon growers have found success with a number of varieties, and thanks to climate creep, some are proving hardy even in the Seattle area. Native to the Mediterranean, olive trees need full sun and fairly well drained soils, preferably loamy or on the sandy side. If planted in clay soils (some of us have no choice), it’s best to set them on a south or southwest facing slope where frost and excess water will drain away. Young trees are fairly frost sensitive, but mature trees can tolerate winter lows down to about 10 degrees F. Over the past 50 years, Seattle’s average low temperatures have been in the mid to high 30s, so I figured olives were worth a try. (We haven’t seen single digit temps up here since the deep freeze of 1989.)
Though the ancient olive trees of Italy and Greece are gnarly and often contorted by age and weather, young trees are beautiful, small, evergreen trees, with long, slender, silvery-green leaves. In orchard conditions, most varieties eventually reach 20-25 feet. Grown in very large pots, olives will remain between 6-8 feet high, and some compact varieties can live happily in containers for many years. Like all fruit trees, they benefit from regular pruning, though since olives set fruit on new growth, it’s important not to get carried away. An unpruned tree can become crowded, so good pruning, as always, removes dead or deformed branches and allows light and air to reach the tree’s center. Traditionally, olives are pruned to limit height and as sturdy low branches develop, they are preserved to facilitate harvesting. In Italy, I helped harvest olives by spreading fine nets under trees while branches were whacked and shaken until the ripe fruits fell to the ground. I’m not sure I’d try that with a young tree, as over-enthusiastic shaking could rock the roots out of the ground.
Self Fertile Olives
Like any youngster, a newly planted olive needs regular summer water and mild fertilizer, as well as frost protection should Arctic blasts arrive. However, once established, olives don’t need much care. Untroubled by many pests or diseases, they are largely independent and can remain productive for hundreds of years. Wind pollinated and usually self-fertile, olives are nonetheless more productive outside of their native Mediterranean when surrounded by bee-friendly plants and partnered with a pollinator pal. In general, Spanish types cross pollinate with each other, as do Tuscan and Greek varieties.
Whether prized for oil or table use, most traditional olive cultivars bear more heavily in alternate years, something you can pretty much count on with backyard olives. These days, farm-grown young olives are planted in Super High Density (SHD) groves, pruned and fed and forced into high-bearing patterns. However, like similarly managed full sun coffee plantations, SHD olive groves can exhaust themselves quickly. Backyard growers will do best long term by spacing olive trees much like apple or pear trees, allowing each tree ample room to grow. How much depends on the cultivar you choose, the conditions you can offer, and the amount and kind of pruning you employ. Generally speaking, the farther South you live, the larger your olive trees will get (as much as 30-40 feet high and 20 feet wide).
Small But Mighty
On the other hand, the farther North you live, the less space you are likely to need (sadly). For example, here on Bainbridge Island, a pair of Arbequina olives I planted at a local church have been bearing fruit for about 10 years now, though most abundantly in alternate years. They started off as foot-high rooted cuttings in 2008 and are now about 10 feet high and 8 feet wide, but look more like twiggy shrubs than trees. They were watered the first summer, but neglected ever since, which probably slowed their growth a bit. They get full sun much of the day as well as reflected heat from the paved lot, and they get lots of insect action, from native and honeybees as well as many other pollinators.
On a good year, as this one is, there are more olives than I can possibly use, but they are so small that it takes quite a while to get a full quart. It reminds me of picking huckleberries, another tedious but worthwhile task. After dropping more than I managed to get in my bag, I ended up using my old huckleberry picking trick; I punched holes in the sides of a large yogurt tub and threaded a cord through them, making a sling to go over my shoulder so the tub hangs in front of me about sternum-high. Now the fat little fruit falls into the tub with satisfying thuds and I can pick many times faster. Arbequina olives are very flavorful, which is good, because otherwise I doubt they’d be so popular, since the small fruit are fiddly to pick and handle. Still, they’re noticeably larger this year, perhaps because of the extra summer rain we’ve had, and also perhaps because the tree is more mature now.
Home Cured Olives
If you don’t grow your own olives, look for them at local farmers markets, or order them online from California, the Land of Large Olives. Even when ripe, olives are inedible straight off the tree, nasty and mouth-puckering thanks to a natural chemical called oleuropein. Fortunately, simple brining mellows table olives from bitter to pleasingly buttery-astringent. Down South, olives will ripen to deep green or black, but up North, when the hard green fruits take on tints of pale green, butter yellow or soft rose, they’re ready to cure. Don’t let them linger on the tree too long, as a hard frost ruins their texture. Here’s a simple brining process that works beautifully, and you can fancy it up by adding thin slices of organic lemon peel or bitter orange peel to the brine once the olives are close to ready. I use a standard brine, a 10% solution of 100 grams of salt to a quart of water, but I use more brine than is usually suggested, as it seems to speed up the mellowing process.
Simple Salt Brine For Olives
4 cups Arbequina olives, green or turning black(ish)
1 cup kosher or sea salt
Rinse olives and put them in a large pan or bowl of cool water, with a weighted plate on top to keep them submerged. Drain and change the water every day for 3 days, then start the brining:
Dissolve 1/2 cup of salt in 2 quarts of water and pour over the olives. After a week, drain olives and repeat with a fresh batch of brine. Repeat twice more, a week apart. End with a rinse in cold water, then pack olives in jelly jars, adding citrus peel or peppercorns, and top off with fresh brine to cover the olives. Let stand for 2-3 weeks to mellow, then serve as tasty little snacks.