The olive tree bed

The olive tree is one of my secondary canopy trees in zone 4, the drylands food forest. Technically it’s a woodland rather than a forest but the aim is much the same. Because the canopies won’t interlock, each of the trees gets its own little bed zone to work with. The trees are young, so for now they only have small spaces marked out around them. Enough to maintain easily at arms reach, and for the tree roots to grow into without getting trompled.

Some logs and stumps on the ground mark out a ragged half circle. In the circle is a mass of plants one to two foot high, bursting at the seams trying to all take over the space. From the centre of the mass rises a young sapling olive, reaching only half a metre higher. Behind the bed is general back yard detritus - weeds, a swing, garden bins.

Young olive tree in the centre, chickpeas to the right, a red California poppy to the front left, and a gazillion tomato plants. The logs mark the area that will be permanently protected from trompling. The future bed of the tree will follow canopy lines once it gets big enough to make canopy.

I planted the olive tree at midwinter. I was aiming for autumn but I was a little late. Still, the ground had had a chance to get plenty of moisture into it by then so it wasn’t too bad. Dug in compost but no clay, marked a border on the non-main-rain-direction side with log stumps that make stepping stones. Planted chickpeas as my first choice of volunteer weed as the weather turned into firstspring. They’re flowering now and starting to make cute little seedpods (which are disappointingly not filled out enough to eat yet, I already checked). I had also been going to plant asparagus pea but didn’t get any seeds started successfully back in August (I’d forgotten to factor seasonal depression into my planting schedule). It didn’t matter – the space filled up with volunteer tomatoes. Tomatoes are a pretty bad fit for under an olive. They’re heavy feeders and they occupy the root zone an olive tree most wants to use. Same problem as under the lemon tree. Plus the olive doesn’t like having constantly wet roots, it likes to have the ground around it dry out a bit, but the tomatoes need the moisture. But for now I know the olive tree roots won’t have reached where they are yet so it’s not too much of a worry. I plan to let them crop – the first fruits are already hanging on them – and pull them out by summer solstice and/or the first heatwave of secondsummer. So they won’t get to stay through the season where they need daily watering.

The other thing that’s in the bed for now is a red variety of California poppy, Escholtzia. I love the California poppies and I know they can establish as volunteers quite easily here. The colour and texture of the leaves will look beautiful against the olive too. I don’t know how true the red will breed but I don’t mind. I don’t know if these plants have much use other than seasonal colour and cover, it’s something I should look into. I’ve been offered seeds from true poppies to scatter and those do have edible seeds so I suppose I should consider them. But I’m reluctant to go with poppies, not sure why. I may be able to be convinced. But I should research the Escholtzia I guess. I will try again with the asparagus pea next year and see how I go, and I should try some now in one of the irrigated beds in zone 3 to see if I can get seedset for next year. What will stay in the bed over time I don’t know yet. The olive keeps its leaves all year so shade patterns will be relevant.

Greenish-grey leaves off a stem runnign approximately horizontally across the photos. where each leaf branches off the stem there is a stem or two of small white flowers branching off as well.

The New Norcia Mission olive tree in flower. It’s about one to one-and-a-half years old. I won’t be keeping any fruit this year even if it manages to set any.

The olive tree itself is a New Norcia Mission. I spent a lot of time researching the varieties, and found the information often conflicting. Which happens when you have a lot of different climates across one country. I ended up choosing the New Norcia Mission for three reasons. First, it’s dual purpose or at least enough so for my home use, so I can pickle some olives or I can take the crop and process it into oil, either works. Second, it self-pollinates so I only need one tree. I’d love lots, but space is an issue. Third, if I’m going to struggle to find information I’m happy with about local conditions, I might as well pick a variety of olive that’s been bred here for a few generations. New Norcia is a little north and a little inland of here so I know that the variety is already heat-proofed – as our climate changes across the next century this olive should continue to fruit just fine. I also admit to enjoying the sense of history involved in choosing this variety. My first choice of variety was actually a Souri olive, a variety grown in what is now Israel for not just centuries but eons, source of the original oil for lighting and energy, and probably the variety of olive referred to in the Bible among other very ancient references. But I couldn’t find it to purchase unless I wanted to put in a bulk order of a hundred or more. So I went with the New Norcia Mission instead in order to get the tree in and establishing. Though I confess I did daydream about getting a neighbourhood cooperative together and putting olive trees all along the very wide street verges we have here for a community crop.

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