My exploits in olive propagation have this background. Four years back, our black mission olive tree which had only just started to bear abundantly after 25 years, had a bumper harvest of about 30 Litres, after the first time my husband pruned his tree. After processing the harvest, from which he produced the most delicious olives I've ever had, we found out how easy it is to do.
I researched on olive harvests and found that our tree was an exceptional bearer and decided to propagate from my tree.
I would like to get into olive propagation because I'm a horticulture geek, and for the purpose of supplying trees to NGO’s and the city to create urban olive groves with the sole purpose of job creation and poverty alleviation. I worked out that if one could sustain these high yields for making pickled olives, not oil, 20 trees would bring one individual an income of four thousand rands monthly, with only part time work. I have made the pickles, but I cannot speak for the profitability of a business based on oil extraction or soap making, or selling oil to be used for spiritual purposes.
The individuals in this street tree olive growing program could keep the street trees planted in the vicinity of their homes trimmed and looked after, and be able to put bread on the table while they pursued their own entrepreneurial development or further education and training towards higher income earning. They could train up and pass on the trees to other people when they themselves had no more need of them, or keep up the olive business and expand it. We could create an olive culture in the heart of Cape Town and with it the knock on effects of olive festival tourism going to the poorest parts of the city. This would green neighbourhoods direly in need of street trees, and uplift them economically. I shared the idea with a local Imam in Salt River and he was very excited by the idea because olive trees are sacred or are involved symbolically in many ways in all the Abrahamic faiths.
This idea was born from a creative engagement with an old friend and I would like to acknowledge her input, and the ideas we wanted to develop together, but must confirm with her how she feels about having her name attached to mine. We decided that 'the olive branch project' would be an apt name.
The idea was that I would supply the trees for next to no cost, having a tree to propagate from, while sustaining myself from my writing. This grand plan crashed when I and my friend’s attempts at propagation from cuttings were fruitless. I tried three times to no avail, but I will try again this winter, and keep trying till I get it right.
While reading about water-wise gardening in Mediterranean climates, I came to the conclusion that olive trees are a crucial part of such a gardening system. Not only do they supply food, need no watering in our blistering summer drought, but they are native to the whole of Africa and the near east. They are one of the few plants indigenous to the Cape which have been massively horticulturized to produce food. The other is the Tsamma melon (giving rise to watermelons) further than that our indigenous food plants are still in their wild unbred state.
Olives would be pivotal in any locally adapted ecological food producing system, aligned with permaculture or other soil saving agricultural methods. The problem is that massive olive planting caused the desertification of Greece, as I touch on in my eight 'water wise' articles based on the writing of Heidi Gildemeister. This was as Gildemeister explains, because cork oak forests with mat roots were replaced with olives that had tap roots, leaving the soil around the olives unstable, and it eroded away. One could prevent this by planting soil stabilizers such as Aristeas (a soil stabilizer and a possible cut flower?) around the olives, or with terracing and an intense mulching program. I did not think of finding olive cultivars with mat roots as I did not know of their existence.
I set out to buy more olive trees for my small garden, and found a local supplier who does olive propagation in the country in shade houses and brings the stock through to her home in town. She has specialized in olive propagation, and speaking to her was a revelation. She also knows people with similar motivations to mine for growing olives, a successful school project up country, with whom she wished to put me in contact.
First I learned that an olive harvest could be as irregular as ours, due to the absence of a cross pollinator. This needs to be another bred variety like Frontoio. I thought another mission would supply adequate pollination, but Maggie (the olive farmer) explained that the presence of just one Frontoio in a row of missions will stablilise and increase yield and fruit size.
Her trees are varieties with root mats rather than tap roots, ideal for soil conservation. All her olives are clones from 20 year old trees. This means the clone is ‘mature’ even if the tree is young, and they produce early. Indeed I saw a tree only 30 cm high in her nursery producing 3 big fat olives.
All the oil and pickling is done with black mission locally. American missions have the best fruit according to Maggie and 12-16% oil, making them ideal for pressing. However, each olive variety has its own ideal functions, flavor and aroma, which I will explore more deeply on another page.
Maggie takes cuttings from her old trees which have fruited. The cuttings are heavier and thicker than the cuttings I took based on online instruction. They are not pencil thick, but with a gnarled elbow of older wood a good 15-20 mm thick.. She dips them in hormone powder and plants each one in a 3kg bag. Apparently now, in June, is the ideal time to take cuttings. This is not what online advice told me either. I always took my cuttings during flowering time in September. June is also the ideal time to plant olive trees, because the winter rains are upon us and no irrigation is needed till they are established.
The olive propagation instructions I went by from the internet, with misting and bottom heat, appear to be excessive. Maggie does not use these, the cuttings are propagated in a simple net house with spray irrigation. She believes they just need ‘normal’ watering and misting is unnecessary. The olive cuttings may be in a protected environment like a shade house but they need a lot of air and sun, filtered, during the growing stage. They will drop all their leaves, but new shoots will grow after they root.
One of the biggest dangers is overwatering. Oooops.. this may have been another one of my list of failings. I had them under plastic which was constantly dripping with condensation and watered them every few days under the plastic. They were drenched. This was because the interwebs said they needed misting, which I could not provide.
At the end of our conversation I bought seven young trees at half the retail value ! and received one as a gift !
I will record Maggie’s planting tips and the information she sent me on olive varieties and their purposes on another page. She was happy to share information on olive propagation, saying with a Mona Lisa smile, you do need green fingers too !
I wish anyone who attempts to start an orchard, or to grow olives a thousand blessings as they enter this ancient horticultural tradition which started in Africa with the Phoenicians. I look forward to further conversations with Maggie and to pushing forward a small urban olive orchard project as a pilot, model and plant stock provider for similar Cape Town projects.
Maggie the olive specialist 081 8023703