One day in February 2015, Paolo and I spent a wet windy morning on the western flanks of Mt Etna. In an olive grove, learning the basics of pruning and grafting, a free course run by L’Associazione Produttori Olivicoli Catania. I was one of two women and 30-odd men, most of them jobbing farmers. The teacher was an 80 year old guru who did most of his pruning with an axe. It was so precious -the axe- he wouldn’t let any of us use it. We had brought our own secateurs.
The course was an eye-opener. We had been reading, observing, questioning, but seeing the theory put into practice, and the magic explained, was, well a relief. We had come to Sicily to learn, hands on, how to plant and manage a grove. Olive trees have a good year then a bad, when the tree rests. The two key maintenance activities are
- keeping the land free of weeds
So many people prune in the winter after the bumper crop. This is also because the most fruitful branches are the two year old branches, a system which increases and emphasises the biannual cycle. Sounds easy? Well, kind of – every couple of years, you cut branches that are over two years old. Kind of.
Many of you may be slapping foreheads in frustration. Or are you as mystified as we were – we’ve never been anything but enthusiastic and incredibly amateur, naive gardeners, our biggest success crops of spinach and chard in our London garden. Pruning seemed just too risky. What if we damaged the tree, jeopardised the crop…got it WRONG!!??
The course clarified so many things. Remove faults (crossing, touching, shooting up, going in, goose necks), and thin out dead wood from below. Shape new trees low, at 70 cms, leaving only 4 branches max. The sausage and red wine lunch, steaming in the cool air was quiet for Sicilians. I felt like I was in a novel.
Later that winter, we tentatively applied what we had learnt to our 80 odd trees. Then we planted our newest grove, 90 new trees, and pruned them too. The kiddos helped, watched, slept and winged.
It was one of the best jobs we’d ever done, and as well travelled archaeologists, we’ve done a few. But the proof would be in the pudding. We watched the buds, the flowers, and then the new and growing olives. Then we watched the sky and the olives on the ground. And it was a good crop.
The tentative pruning had taken ages, and now we were based back in the UK with our eldest at primary school it was not a luxury we could afford for pruning 2016. Though we couldn’t really afford it either, we bought a set of ex-demo Pellenc, lithium battery-operated, pruning secateurs. It still feels so strange to get so excited by gardening equipment. It would speed things up, we hoped. For a week we worried that they wouldn’t let us take them on our flight (lithium ion batteries can apparently ignite) but we were lucky.
We’d missed Villarosa, our friends, relatives, house and habits but we’d missed Maiorana – our grove – the most. We arrived on Easter Monday: temperature mid-20s, sun shining, gentle breeze, flowers blooming, the older trees were bushy, and the baby trees lost in a jungle of weeds.
Three days and a bit of sunburn later and we’d done it. The feeling of being lost in your work, shaping, correcting, cutting back deadwood, observing, climbing, looking again: you look at your watch and 40 mins have passed. Quick, time to get on to the next tree!
Before and after.
We were heavier handed that we set out to be, but we had the confidence to shape the trees as we wanted them, and now the proof will be in the pudding. Can’t wait to be there again.