07 Mar

Olives can survive chilly S.F. summers if they keep on the sunny side of life

By Pam Peirce,

Q: I live in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. Would olive trees survive the wind up here? Can they be containerized?

A: Olive trees can tolerate considerable wind, and you can see some growing in Holly Park on Bernal Hill. What olives don’t like much is a cold summer, and since San Francisco’s summer winds are usually rather cold, give your olive tree as much protection as you can. The best location would be on the sunny south side of a house or other structure. It would also be best if there was something on the west or northwest side of the site, such as houses or big shrubs, to block some of the prevailing cold wind, but not so close that they put your olive into afternoon shade too soon.

Olives are good candidates for a container. They are commonly grown this way in Europe, where some olives have been in pots until they are venerably old trees. Flora, of Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco, says it’s worth looking for a dwarf variety. ‘Skylark’ grows to 8-12 feet tall, ‘Little Ollie’ only 5 feet tall. Neither sets a significant number of fruits, being essentially ornamentals. Flora recommends a 12- to 16-inch-wide pot for these smaller plants.

A larger variety could also work because olives grow slowly and can be kept in bounds with annual pruning. ‘Swan Hill’ is a particularly handsome cultivar that would eventually reach 25 feet in the ground. Its leaves are a particularly striking combination of bluish-green upper sides and white undersides, and it never flowers or fruits at all. Plant it in a 20-inch wide container.

Olives are particularly sensitive to overwatering. Use a well-draining potting mix, one that contains some sand. Avoid mixes high in peat or other moisture-retentive materials. Water only when the mix is dry several inches deep, but when you do water, do so until water drips from the bottom of the pot. After a few years, you might want to unpot your olive, prune the roots a bit and repot in fresh container mix.

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