Olive pruning in Le Marche
Here in Le Marche the level of care that olive trees receive from the locals is on a par with that of royalty! Trees aren’t even planted until they have chosen the right mix of trees for the type and quantity of oil that they want. There are over 300 different types of olives in Italy rendering a huge variety of oils to suit personal tastes.
Previously to buying the trees the best plot of land is chosen according to their needs; sun, plenty of it,to ripen the fruit and encourage growth; ventilation to lessen fungal attacks; fertile and firm soil, accessible by tractor if possible to speed up the maintenance of both the soil and the trees.
From their first year in situ the critical part of shaping the trees begins. Olive pruning techniques vary all over the world and even throughout Italy itself. A research team at the University of Ancona in Le Marche has been developing for over ten years a new approach to pruning that I was lucky enough to learn about on a course last year. Traditionally olives have been pruned to the shape of a red wine glass with a fringe all the way around, lopped flat across the top and opened out to let the all important sun into the middle of the tree. New thinking has it that the tree should be allowed to grow to its’ optimum height, forming a shape more like an ice cream cone. The tree will naturally fight you to shoot upwards every year and this is wasting the tree’s energy which could be put into the fruiting branches which will shoot from the sides. I was warned that when I prune my own trees in the new way I will have a lot of negative comments from the traditionalists but now that I am on my second year of this method I notice that some of my neighbours have pruned half of theirs in the old style and half in the new. It will be interesting to see what they opt for next year.
If the new cultivars of disease resistant trees are planted in a sunny aerated spot and given a twice yearly feed of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, zinc, manganese and iron and pruned yearly then they should be fairly problem free and this has been the case generally…until now..with climate change; no surprises for guessing that one. The olive fly is a regular problem for olive farmers but usually a few pheromone traps among the branches are enough to lure away the females and keep the worms inside the fruit down to a level that doesn’t really affect the oil quality when pressed. This year however saw last year’s larvae (hibernating underground) not being killed off as the winter was so warm. The increase of flies meant a lot more damage to the cell structure of the olive fruit and this was compounded by a very damp summer which allowed fungal diseases (not normally a huge issue for the very tough olive fruits) into the flesh and at last count around Le Marche the failure rate of last year’s harvest was 90%..unheard of in living memory. We are buying in imported olive oil for the first time since moving here and it’s just not the same.
So far this winter has followed the same patterns as the last. If we don’t have a substantial spell of very cold weather and snow on the ground we could be looking at total destruction of the crop again. The residue of last years fungal diseases can be treated with winter and early spring spraying of copper and sulphur (non water soluble and therefore doesn’t enter the fruit) but the only way to keep the fly under control is insecticide, which is water soluble and pretty much renders your oil inedible unless you are partial to glowing in the dark. So my last line of today’s blog is pray..pray for some snow for us…pray that global warming is reined in by the powers that be and pray that at least next year Italy will be back in business producing polyphenol rich oil that works miracles on weary bodies and their tastebuds.