After a long, wet winter, springtime in Tuscany brings many delights – trellises draped in fragrant wisteria, crunchy broad beans eaten fresh from the pod, and the excitement of the year’s first trips to the beach. If you’re olive oil farmers however, spring means one thing – pruning olive trees. Since our trees have grown unchecked for over five years they are tall, bushy and unkempt and more in need of a haircut than most. Torrential rain in February and March meant a frustrating wait to start work, but since the sun came out a few weeks ago Michele and his dad have spent every spare moment in the olive grove in an effort to finish pruning our 350 trees before they flower.
Pruning is essential for increasing productivity, and keeping the trees low with lots of lateral branches saves valuable time during the raccolta as olives can be picked without ladders. We have been pruning our trees by hand, using a handsaw and secateurs. Agility is essential, as most of the work is done by climbing into the tree (vertigo makes me exempt from this particular task). Dead or damaged wood is removed, foliage thinned out, and vertical branches cut to a more manageable height. Only another 50 trees to go…
The classic shape for a pruned olive tree is the ‘vase’ or ‘wine glass’ but the basic aim is to create an open structure so that light can reach the centre of the tree, as olives need direct sunlight at every stage of their development. Italians say that a little bird should be able to fly straight though the middle of the tree. Branches growing horizontally or downwards produce more fruit and are easier to pick, so these are usually left on the trees, giving them a strange weeping-willow look.
Beyond these fundamental rules, pruning depends on the age of your trees (ours are mature), the particular terrain and weather conditions, and your personal taste. One of our neighbours, Valte, keeps his trees tall and elegant (slightly impractical at harvest time), while another, Stefano, gives his the olive tree equivalent of a short back and sides (brutal but efficient). Since we are pushed for time and it has been a long time since our trees were last trimmed, we are not pruning too drastically this year, but just trying to do enough to increase productivity and make harvesting more efficient.