Growing Olives in Southeast Queensland

Growing olives trees for fruit production in southeast Queensland can be a challenge but with a good understanding of the trees cultural requirements and careful variety selection quality yields can be obtained.

Throughout the world, the major olive growing regions are almost exclusively found in Mediterranean type climates that are characterised by a winter rainfall pattern, mild winter temperatures and hot dry summers. A Mediterranean climate is one that resembles those of the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea. These climates generally occur on the western coasts of continental landmasses, roughly between the latitudes of 30° and 45° north and south of the equator.

In southeast Queensland we have a subtropical climate of warm winters with a summer rainfall pattern and high summer humidity. Although distinctly different to the Mediterranean climatic, as long as some basic requirements are met such as good soil drainage and adequate pest management, olive trees will generally grow well in region. Fruit yield, however, can be inconsistent unless a suitable variety is selected and steps are taken to manage the flowering and fruit set processes.

Variety selection

Some winter chilling is required for flower initiation. In general, growing many of the traditional olive varieties in areas that rarely frost during winter can be a fruitless exercise as there may not be enough winter chilling for the flower initiation processes to take place. Some of the more recently introduced varieties into Australia, however, are more adaptable to warmer climates and will fruit well under the prevailing conditions.

Arbequina Varieties which have shown to be the more consistent in their bearing habits in warmer climates include: Arbequina, Manzanillo Arecuzzo and Koroneiki.  Of these, Arbequina would be the standout as the most reliable bearer in warm climates. It is self-pollinating and bears when it is very young.  In a warm winter variety trial in southeast QLD, Arbequina produced an remarkable average yield of 18kg per tree after 3 yrs.

We suggest that growers who intend to plant olives in a warm climate, outside of the traditional climatic zones should regard the initial planting as a trial and not a commercial venture until varietal performance is proven.

Cross-pollination
Although most olive varieties are self-fertile to some extent, research has shown that cross-pollination improves the fruit set of most varieties especially when the environment conditions are not optimal.  Generally having two or three different varieties growing in close proximity (30m) will facilitate adequate cross-pollination.  Arbequina, Arecuzzo and Manzanillo are some of the main varieties used for cross-pollination in QLD. If a tree flowers well in the spring and does not set any fruit it may be good indication that cross-pollination is required.

Soil Moisture and Irrigation
Adequate soil moisture throughout winter and spring is essential to ensure good flowering and fruit set. In olive trees, the process of flower initiation and development starts in late autumn and continues through the winter. Under winter drought conditions, this process is disrupted, resulting in either poor flowering or an excess of malfunctioning flowers that prematurely drop without setting fruit.

If rainfall is inadequate, it critical that supplementary irrigation is applied throughout winter and spring. Conserving soil moisture by spreading mulch and managing grass and weeds around the trees is also important. Young olives trees are poor competitors. Weeds and grass in the root zone of the tree will stunt growth and out-compete the tree for water and nutrients.

Nutrition
Adequate levels of nutrients especially nitrogen and boron are required for optimal flowering and fruit set. A leaf analysis taken in mid summer will give a good indication of the trees nutritional status and fertiliser requirements. Generally olives require either manure or other fertiliser on an annual basis for good fruit set. Splitting fertiliser applications throughout spring (60%) summer (30%) and autumn (10%) is recommended for granular NPK fertilisers. Manure is best applied as mulch once a year in late summer or autumn. The benefits of applying fertiliser will be limited unless there is adequate soil moisture for nutrient uptake by the tree.

Applying boron and calcium to the trees as a foliar spray before bud burst will help to meets the trees requirements of these nutrients and can improve pollination and fruit set.

Keep in mind that although the olive is a hardy and adaptable tree with the ability to withstand harsh summers, severe drought and poor soils, without adequate cultural care tree performance and fruit yield will be poor.  Neglected  trees, however, can be rejuvenated and brought into production with severe pruning and ongoing management practices.

Comments 48

  1. Morning,
    I’m considering planting a small grove as a driveway border at a property near Yangan. I’m not overly concerned by yield so am curious if planting a single variety would work best or a mix of multiple trees? Which would you recommend? There would likely be 10-15 trees on each side.

  2. We bought a property about a year ago with about 100 Olive Trees. Have no idea what sort they are, but we’ve had no fruit or flowers as they are looking quite unhealthy. They are planted on a hill, the soil has clay and is soggy in the wet and dry and cracked in the dry. They used to get crops of olives in the past. The leaves look like they have a fungus on them and the branches has a green hair like moss?? Thinking we need to hard prune to a V, remove diseased branches, add some calcium/boran?? and get some manure compost happening… How do I do this if the soil is really hard? Can I manure around it with mulch and water it in? (is horse manure ok? Lime to trunck after pruning? Have I missed anything…… I just read all your posts, the only thing I knew about olives was that they were on my cheese platter before this move HELP :):) Cheers

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  3. Hello,

    I have a row of 30 St Helena olive trees, as a feature in our garden in Brisbane. They are now approx. 6 years old and 4-5m high. Due to our clay soil we planted them in a mound of soil. Now that they are so big, they are falling over in gusty storms. Their roots don’t seem very deep and planting in a raised mound seems to have made them less secure in the ground. Any advice appreciated to save our trees.
    Regards
    Cassandra

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      Hi Cassandra,

      Poor tree anchorage is often caused by poor nursery practice that caused either:
      1. J Rooting (the young tree roots were left to bend upwards when the trees were potted in the nursery)
      2. Root Circling (trees were left in round pots for too long causing the root system to circle the inner wall of the pot)
      When planting it is essential that the tree roots are checked carefully. If the root system appears congested and circling the roots can be lightly cut and teased out to ensure they spread laterally and provide good anchorage.

      Hard compacted rocky and clay soils not allowing the roots to penetrate may also be part of the problem.

      It seems you have two options to alleviate the problem.
      1. Hard Prune.
      Open and reduce the size of the tree canopy. Opening the canopy to allow airflow through the tree will reduce wind resistance. Pruning the trees back to around 2m and letting the tree regrow to around 4m will keep the canopy smaller and more able to cope with the winds. Olives are very adaptable to pruning and maintaining a smaller open tree is very common practice.
      2. Bracing.
      Use cables in 3 positions around the trunk to brace the tree and anchor it to the ground… unfortunately the bracing will have to remain for the life of the tree.

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      Hi Wayne,
      Pruning olive trees can be undertaken any time of the year but commercially trees are pruned after harvest in Autumn or Winter. The main objective of pruning mature olive trees is

      1. Reduce the height to make the tree more manageable and easier to harvest. Trees are generally best kept to a height of 3- 4 metres. Tall vertical branches are usually less productive as most of the fruit is formed on the lateral branches on the periphery of the canopy.

      2. Open the canopy to allow good light penetration and airflow.

      3. To remove any dead and diseased branches.

      4. To stimulate new lateral growth for future cropping.

      Keep in mind olive trees fruit on the tips of the shoots produced the previous summer. If you prune the canopy too hard in Autumn you will limit the fruit production for the following season but it will result in good shoot production and subsequent fruiting for the future.

      In general, once an olive is trained into the open vase shape it probably only needs pruning every couple of years and mainly to reduce the height of the tree by removing the tall vertical branches.

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      Hi Thomas,

      The Arbequina photo was taken when the tree was around 6 yrs old with a yield of 70kg. It was in our research grove near Esk in south-east Queensland.

      cheers

      Greg

  4. I live in Brisbane and would like to plant an olive tree in a pot as a feature tree that I plan on keeping less than 2m in height. I was going to use a wine barrel type of pot, how large your what volume would you recommend using?

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      Hi Jo,
      The pot size will regulate the tree growth. A pot that holds 200 to 300 litres would enable the tree to grow to a nice full tree with a thick trunk at 2m height. If you want the tree to produce fruit I would plant the Arbequina as they fruit well in pots.

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      Hi Alain,
      Olive fruit production in pots will be limited as olives are produced on the end of the shoots that were produced the previous summer. So if the pot restricts growth and hence the tree canopy size, there will not be many fruiting sites available.

      The best varieties to try in large pots for fruit production are Arbequina and Arecuzzo as these tend to produce fruit when the trees are relatively small.

  5. Hi, I planted a St Helena in a pot about 18 months ago. It has grown to around 2.5m tall but the trunk diameter at the base is still very thin, about 2cm and thinner at breast height. Is there anything I can do to promote a thicker trunk and get some stability?

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      Hi Jope,

      Some olive tree can grow a bit whippy when they are young. I suggest that you prune the tree back at around 1.5m and allow 3 to 4 main scaffold branches to develop. This will encourage the lateral spread of the canopy and will help thicken up the main trunk.

  6. Hi, we are considering planting an olive tree as we love the foliage. The actual olives are not what we would be focussing on. Would the fruit attract the fruit bats? We are at Redland Bay. Cheers Judy

  7. Informative site and posts thank you! I have red clay soil in Brisbane. I’ll find some of the species you recommended – when’s the best time if year to plant and should i dig in some sandy loam ? Cheers Sarah

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      Hi Sarah,
      Spring and Autumn would be the optimal times but in a mild climate like Brisbane you can plant any time of the year. Rather than dig sandy loam into clay soil, I would mound the sandy loam on top of the ground and plant the trees on the mound. This way you will ensure that you will have good drainage and the roots will always have enough oxygen. Poorly drained clay soil and wet summers can be problematic for olive trees in Brisbane.

      Cheers

      Greg

  8. I have just brought a home on Russell Island in Brisbane which has a magnificant tall Olive tree. Apparently it used to fruit but has not bore anything for a couple of years. I know very little about these trees and the previous owner said that he was ‘going to chop it out’. Any thoughts on whether it could possibly be saved? It is a fanatastic looking tree and it seems a shame to get rid of it.

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      Hi Vicki,
      Tall overgrown trees often carry a lot of unproductive wood and are harder to manage for pest and disease issues.
      If you intended to bring the tree back into production I would give it a hard rejuvenation prune. This is the traditional way to manage older olive trees and it is the reason why they can be productive for hundreds of years. The technique involves cutting the main scaffold branches back to a height of around 2.5 m. This will result in a lot of healthy new shoots developing and a complete rejuvenation of canopy over the next growing season. The following year you should start to see some fruit production.

      If you decide to go with a hard prune you will need to paint the trunk with a whitewash to prevent sunburn.

      Sunburn is best prevented by waiting until winter to hard prune trees and/or by painting the exposed trunk and limbs with a lime based whitewash as soon as they are pruned. Lime white wash can be made with 1000ml water, 350g, hydrated lime and 100g table salt. Add the salt and water together and slowly stir in the lime until a consistency similar to paint is achieved. Add more water if necessary.
      Paint the limes till a good white layer of protection is evident. A couple of coats may be necessary. The white wash is not permanent. It will protect the trees for the summer months and then slowly fade over time.
      Take caution when using hydrated lime as it is quite caustic. When handling the lime, avoid contact with skin and eyes and avoid breathing the dust (wear suitable gloves and eye/face protection).

      Cheers

      Greg

  9. Hi
    Call me crazy if you like but 2 years ago I planted 3 Arbequina olive trees in Atherton. Our winters are quite cold. The trees are doing well under irrigation and are now about 2 m tall. I am looking forward to the possibility of the fruiting next year. Will keep you posted
    Jane

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      Hi Jane, Thanks for the input. We look forward to hear how the Arbequina trees perform in the Tablelands. Hopefully, they will start to bear this season.

      Cheers

      Greg

  10. Hi,we are thinking about planting a few trees in Maleny just for family use.
    It has quiet cool short winter. What varieties would you recommend?
    Thanks
    Selena

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      Hi Selena,
      Olives will grow well in Maleny as long as they have plenty of light and the soil drainage is good. To ensure adequate draining during summer, I would plant the trees on a raised mound around 50 -80cm.
      Getting the trees to fruit in the climate may be a little bit tricker but the best varieties to try would be Arbequina or Manzanillo.

      Cheers

      Greg

  11. I live in Brisbane and would like to start growing an olive tree(s), however the soil on my block is poor. Very rocky.
    Which soil type do Olives prefer?

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      Author

      Olive trees prefer well-drained, fertile soils with a neutral to alkaline pH around 7-8. They will survive exceptionally well in poor, shallow, low nutrient soils but growth will be limited. It is best to improve poor soils by adding manure, lime and compost. If the topsoil is shallow or poorly drained build a mound by importing quality sandy loam soil, add manure and lime and plant the tree on the mound.

      Cheers
      Dr Greg O’Sullivan

  12. I have a few olive trees should I cut all the thick branches going up the centre to keep them under control or would I loose too many olives

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      Hi Steve,
      Productive olive trees are best kept to a height of around 3-5m. This makes it easier to harvest the fruit and manage any pest and diseases. Removing the upright centre branches is the best way to reduce the height of the tree and it is an essential practice in commercial olive groves. It is best if you prune the vertical branch at its base where it joins the main trunk rather than just pruning flat across the top of the canopy….this will prevent unwanted regrowth occurring at the top of the tree. Although some olives are produced on the vertical branches, the bulk of the olives are produced on the periphery of the canopy on the end third of horizontal branches. Rather than reducing yield, you will find in the long term that yield will increase as the tree’s energy will be transferred to the more productive horizontal branches. Some growers combine height pruning with harvesting by removing the tall vertical branches at harvest time and picking the fruit from the branches on the ground.

      Cheers

      Dr Greg O’Sullivan

  13. What variety of Olive tree grows the largest fruit ? I live in Tweed Heads QLD/NSW border
    Thank you Gabby

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      Hi Gabby,
      The olive variety that produces the largest fruit is the Italian variety Oliva di Cerignola (Bella di Cerignola). However, it is known in Australia mainly as “Jumbo Kalamata”….it is not related to the Greek Kalamata variety. The fruit is very impressive and weighs around 12-15 grams. The trees are very difficult to propagate making them hard to find in nurseries.

      Other large fruiting olive varieties suitable for Tweed Heads include Californian Queen( UC13A6), Barouni, Hojiblanco, Kolossus Kalamata and Manzanillo.

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      Hi Jasmine,
      The main characteristics used to identify olive varieties are leaf size/shape, fruit size/shape and seed shape. Visit the Australis Plants website to see images of most of the olive varieties grown in Australia

  14. Great site. I have a tough spot in a western facing position where I need a tree I can keep to 4m . It must have a single trunk and be evergreen. As I already grow a large number of fruit trees on my suburban block (orange, mandarin, lime, custard apple, jaboticabi, guava, cherry guava) I am wondering if I could grow an olive, or if I will live to curse myself? The comments suggest St Helena grow huge here in Brisbane. Is there another cultivar that would be better for me in terms of height? Alison

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      Hi Alison,
      If left unpruned most olive varieties will grow to around 6 to 9 metres tall with a spread of around 5m. In olive groves and backyards, however, trees are usually kept to a height of around 3.5 to 4.5m with annual pruning. This makes the trees easier to manage and means you don’t have to use a ladder when harvesting.

      With regular pruning the tree would not get too tall but olive trees can also be cut back very hard if you want to rejuvenate a tree that was allowed to get too big.

      St Helena is derived from the Italian variety Frantoio and it is a vigorous fast growing variety in warm climates. For a smaller growing tree with less vigour I would plant Arbequina or Manzanillo

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  15. I’ve got several olive trees on Macleay island. They are very tall and overgrown and I want to prune them to reduce height and produce more olives.
    Can I safely prune the trees in January or should I wait till the cooler weather? What is the best month to prune?

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      Hi Dave,
      Olive trees can be pruned any time of the year but there is a high risk of trunk sunburn if mature trees are pruned back hard in summer. Sunburn can be prevented by painting the trees with white wash,… see our blog on sunburn in olives . In general the best time to prune olives trees back hard is in Autumn or Winter.

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      Hi John,
      Generally, mid-season varieties will be ready to harvest in Brisbane in March. Early season varieties may be Feb. If harvesting green ripe, harvest time would be a few weeks earlier.

  16. your site is very helpful, just wondering if you know what cultivar the Helena variety is from that I have seen in a few nurseries?
    I have 1 peciul, 3x Helenas and another 4 which I think are different varieties. when purchased they just had olive tree on the tag- no variety written on it.
    thanks,
    JB

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      Hi Jennifer,
      We found in our olive variety trial where we compared the performance of 70 varieties of olives that the selection we collected from St Helena island was identical to the Italian variety Frantoio.

  17. Your page is very helpful thank you , But it does not tell me the time of the year the fruit is good to pick in south queensland ; Sunshine coast region Ex: April , May or later Winter month for exemple ?.
    thank you Ch

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      Olives in South East Queensland start to reach black ripening around late Feb/ March depending on the variety. Harvest for green ripe olives is usually around a month earlier. A general rule of thumb is once a few of the green olives on the tree start to get a purplish blush the olives are ready to pick for green olive pickling. For black ripe, pickling it is best to wait until most of the olives have started to turn black but don’t leave it too long as they can start to get a bit soft and drop of the tree.

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