If autumn in Italy is characterised by the olive harvest, then spring is the season of olive pruning. Both tasks involve a lot of tools – if Mr Blue-Shirt has anything to do with it, anyway – and both are rewarded with sore shoulders and stiff backs. Both bring their own rewards, though, and both are rooted in age-old customs, established through long experience.
When it comes to pruning, its primary purpose is to produce dense clusters of fruit that can easily be stripped off in great showers come harvest time. So to achieve this, these ancient customs dictate that it is necessary to maintain – or in our case, create – the shape of wine glass: a neat, hollowed-out, flat-topped crown supported by three or four main branches growing up and out from a fairly short, broad-based trunk. Mind you, judging by the range of variations on the basic wine glass shape we see round and about, there is considerable scope for interpretation. Some trees locally, for instance are left each spring with a completely bare top and exclusively downward-growing shoots on their main branches, giving them a curiously droopy aspect somehow reminiscent of a weeping willow. Others leave all the young downward hanging shoots to grow so long that they end up creating an abundant crinoline of silver-green that almost grazes the floor. And others again laboriously snip out practically every other shoot and branch, resulting in an impressively lean but strangely uncomfortable appearance that reminds me of an obsessive athlete who has taken their training that little bit too far.
Whichever look one favours, however, probably the easiest place to start is snipping off at ground level any suckers growing from the base of the trunk as these interfere with the tree’s ability to draw nutrients up to its productive branches. Then, since we have no good reason not to go for the classic wine glass shape (which we prefer anyway), it’s a matter of dealing with any excessive height, which deprives the lower branches of the light they need to produce fruit and also makes harvesting a lot more difficult. As reducing the height alters the overall proportions of the tree, it makes sense to reduce the size of the rest of the crown too, and at the same time restore some distance between the branches of one tree and those of its neighbours. In addition to improving the trees’ appearance and making harvesting an awful lot easier, this helps restrict the spread of pests and diseases, and helps maximise the amount of all-important sunlight that is required to produce fruit.
With all thirty-eight of our trees having been left to their own devices for several years before we moved in, it was these basics that we focussed on initially. For each of the first two years, we tentatively worked on one half of the badly-overgrown and unkempt trees with little more than a couple of pairs of secateurs, a single set of pole shears and a ladder. And during this period, we learnt that no matter how much tooth-sucking and head-shaking our novice hacking might induce among our vastly more experienced neighbours, it was unlikely to do any lasting damage to our reasonably mature, and hence all-but indestructible trees. Indeed, our early efforts were even rewarded with a couple of very healthy crops, which gave us the confidence in our third year to attack the trees with greater impunity – and more tools.
So with nearly all of our trees displaying at least some semblance of the sought-after wine-glass profile, we graduated last year from just sorting out the trees’ appearance to working on their productive potential as well. And with our increased confidence, our range of tools and gadgets expanded to include a pair of bolt-croppers, a small but vicious folding saw, a large hacksaw, and Mr Blue-Shirt’s personal favourites, a pair of frighteningly capable battery-secateurs and two types of chainsaw. With this armoury at our disposal, we were now equipped to remove all the dead wood from the first batch of trees we had earmarked to experiment on as well as any branches growing from or into the centre of the tree: the aim is an empty wine glass after all, not a full one (that comes later). Freeing up the centre of a congested tree once again provides easier access when it comes to harvesting, but more importantly, helps direct growth to the principal fruit bearing limbs and allows them to get more of the sunlight that is necessary for the tiny cream-coloured flowers that appear in April to set fruit, and for that fruit to produce a good amount of oil. Indeed, according to experts, every olive should be in direct sunlight for at least some part of the day for maximum yield. Incidentally, those same experts also point out that it is the horizontal and downward hanging shoots and branches on the outside of the tree that are the most productive – which probably explains those ‘weeping willow’ and ‘crinoline’ styles. Meanwhile the inward-growing and vertical shoots and branches bear little or no fruit at all as they waste most of their effort simply racing off in all directions to chase the light, which is precisely what had happened with all our excessively tall, dense trees.
Having achieved ‘the double’ again last year – good harvest and good yield – and that initial group of trees having rebounded with undiminished vigour from their first ‘proper’ pruning in years, we spent several birdsong-filled, warm, sunny afternoons this March giving the remainder of our trees their long-overdue full-blown facelift, safe in the knowledge we had at least got the hang of the basics of pruning. Even though all that cutting, sawing and snipping is both tiring and time-consuming – especially since we strip and cut down all but the scrawniest branches we remove to use for fire wood – we both find it an intensely satisfying task. Remember that first post-lockdown haircut? Well, that’s how we sense that the trees feel once freed of all that tatty, annoying growth and standing proud and groomed once more. More importantly, though, it is both humbling and grounding to think that this annual rite, like its autumn counterpart, has been carried out almost unaltered for countless generations over many centuries; its long history binds us to the landscape, to the culture and our community. And in these turbulent times, we find that constancy and rootedness especially comforting and reassuring.