Ode to the Olive Tree

Why is it that we gardeners always want the things that either we can’t have, or we can have but are hard to maintain without a lot of effort?

I’m talking plants like Brugmansia (Angel’s Trumpet). A tropical that easily grows into tree form with the most gorgeous trumpet-shaped flowers that have an intoxicating scent (especially the white variety, at dusk) but hate living indoors in our New England winter homes. They usually drop virtually every leaf and are prone to spider mites. Or, how about my beloved Agapanthus… Lily of the Nile. With their strap-like leaves and tall flower stalks producing large globes of either white or blue stunning flowers. Again, it’s a tropical and doesn’t particularly like coming inside.

I’ve solved both of these problems in recent years by storing them in my chicken house/greenhouse for the winter where the temperature is only set at 46 degrees F. Or, an even simpler request… roses! Why can’t I have an entire doorway into the house draped in gorgeous roses like I see in so many cottage gardening books? We can grow roses here in southern New Hampshire but either we just don’t have the climate to allow for the growth of a real elaborate stunner or I just haven’t found the right rose.

I’m actually probably having my greatest rose success at my Dublin home this year and it’s a nearly thornless variety I ordered a pair of from one of those really low-end nursery catalogs a few years back. You know the ones… they have several nursery names on them, but they’ve all got the same photos. There’s this bizarre picture of a very young boy in short pants (not regular shorts, mind you) holding a toy airplane, standing in front of this massive hedge of roses. It looks straight out of the 1950s. Anyway, in these same catalogs is a double pink climber and it’s always called a Thornless Climbing Rose. It’s actually a Zephirine Drouhin, an old, old French rose. It’s got several other names depending on what country you’re buying it in. Well, one of the two is way up over my head this year on its trellis. Gorgeous! Of course, some sort of bug is eating the leaves like crazy and as of this writing, it’s too early for Japanese beetles.

My latest challenge is an olive tree. I’d seen a few trained as standards in pots at a few local shops including Laurel & Grove in Peterborough. I love their starkness, but I really think what I’m most attracted to is simply the allusion to the Mediterranean — olive trees on rolling hills in southern France and Italy. Or even northern California, accompanied by acres of vineyards. Ahhh, the essence of it all!

Well, I mentioned wanting one to partner, Joe, and he got one for me at House by the Side of the Road over in Wilton for Christmas. It was their last one, so its form wasn’t great, but I was so psyched to have an olive tree! Well, almost immediately it started dropping leaves. Mind you, olive trees aren’t exactly exuberant when it comes to leaf production anyway, so I started off the new year already a bit alarmed. I had it in the study — a room with a lot of southwestern light coming in — alongside a bay tree and a couple of agaves. Joe was pretty sure we should mist it. I wasn’t so sure. The Mediterranean is arid yet temperate. It’s not tropical. But we misted it frequently anyway. And watered it weekly, alongside the agaves and Boston ferns.

The olive tree looked deader than a door nail within three months. It started to sprout new leaves, which thrilled me only for those to soon fall off as well. My friend, Janice, at Laurel & Grove told me not to throw it out. They’d had a similar problem in the shop but eventually the tree sprang back to life. It’s now early summer and the olive tree is out in my “plant hospital.” Just under the edges of some hemlocks by the chicken house, it’s where I keep my plants that are either just storing energy for wintertime bloom (amaryllis and Christmas cactus) or ones that I’ve only recently re-potted and don’t want to expose to a full eight hours of sun or the ones on life support.

I can’t quite give up on them yet, but the compost pile is just a few steps away if you know what I mean. Currently in the ICU is a dark-leafed elderberry shrub that kept shrinking every year in the garden, two Boston ferns that didn’t fare well in the chicken house over the winter when my heater went on the fritz, a rose a friend gave me that I planted in the fall but it didn’t come back this spring (on its way to the compost pile, I noticed the teeniest little live shoot emerging from the base so I potted it and admitted it to the hospital), and finally the olive tree.

I did a tad bit of research on olive trees and found mine is probably an Arbequina olive tree. They’re a variety most tolerant of being kept in a container and their fruits are the richest in oil. I was reading about the care of olive trees in containers at myperfectplants.com and it confirmed they like it on the dry side and their soil should be sandy and light. The author suggested using a prepared cactus mix soil and mixing some vermiculite in it. The soil in the pot should dry out before watering again. He also said olive trees cannot live indoors forever and to leave it outside all summer long… well into the fall even after a few frosts but no colder than the mid-20s. The site actually sells the plants and since the article revved up my confidence level and the photos got me longing again for my own olive tree, I ordered one. Actually, I ordered four of them. Little tiny ones on Amazon since the perfect plants were on the pricey side for a plant that gave no guarantees.

While I’m waiting for the box with the arrow on it to arrive at my door, I’ve got visions of France and Italy in my head again. Just off the edge of my porch, I can dip my toes into the Mediterranean…