Olive Harvest 2021

One of the principle reasons to keep blogging long after social media and Google’s search algorithms deemed the end of blogs is that Root Simple functions as a garden diary. Towards that end let me note my second Frantoio olive harvest on Tuesday September 7, 2021. I harvested just shy of 3 pounds of olives from our parkway olive tree. I’m guessing I lost at least 9 pounds to olive fruit fly damage. I moved up the harvest this year to prevent losing all the olives to the damned fly. We’ll see if harvesting this soon changes the quality of the final product but I read that commercial growers harvest at this early stage.

Following UC Davis’ recipe for Sicilian cured olives I mixed up a brine consisting of:

8 cups water
3/4 cup pickling salt
1 cup vinegar

This was more than enough brine to cover my 3 pounds of olives, which filled one 64 oz mason jar and a half filed 32 oz mason jar. As of today, small bubbles have formed. Two years ago when I brined olives I replaced the brine about every month as the brine got dark. It took 7 months in the brine to get edible (and delicious) olives.

To cut down on olive fruit fly damage, I use a McPhail-type trap baited with Torula yeast tablets to reduce the fruit fly population. I use two tablets and replace them once a month. I definitely capture quite a few olive fruit flies and I think the trap gets me more usable olives but, lacking a control, I can’t be sure.

UC Davis recommends the traps combined with a late season application of kaolin clay when the fruit flies begin to lay eggs in the fruit. They also recommend replacing the bait every two weeks from April to November. This all takes careful observation–I only see the flies in the trap and the damage to the fruit is a bunch of very tiny holes that are hard to see at first. As the larvae develop the damage becomes obvious.

Harvesting and processing olives is one of the more labor intensive gardening tasks around our compound but how cool is it to have a chore the people have been doing for at least 6,000 years?

Olive Curing Update

Last October I started curing the olives from the Frantoio tree we planted in the parkway. The olives are finally ready to eat just in time for the pandemic. I used UC Davis’ handy publication, Olives: Safe Methods for Home Pickling as my guide and chose a Sicilian style brine method that yields a slightly bitter result. Basically, you make a brine solution with pickling salt (one pound salt per gallon of water) and vinegar (5% acetic acid–1 1/2 cups per gallon). To this I added some garlic and hot pepper flakes. I went light on the seasoning which, I think, was a good idea. Following the suggestion on the Hunter Angler Gardener Cook blog I changed out the brine when the water darkened—about once a month.

What the olives looked like at the beginning of the curing process.

The verdict: harvesting and curing olives is a lot of work but well worth the effort. It took six months of curing to leach out the bitter phenolic compounds in the fruit.

Some things I learned in the process:

  • Here in Southern California, where we have a plague of olive fruit flies, you need to set a McPhail trap baited with torula yeast lures and change out the bait once a month. I set a reminder on my calendar to do this.
  • When you harvest you need to separate the maggot infested fruit from the good fruit. This is easy to do if a bit of a chore. The signs of maggots are obvious–a scar on the surface of the fruit.
  • You can harvest both green and the more mature black olives from the same tree and cure them both together. Olives are ready to pick when the juice is cloudy in late September. I have to error on the side of picking early to stay ahead of the maggots.
  • I planted the tree in 2012 and I’d guess that 2018 was probably the first year that I would have had enough olives to make it worth curing. The tree really exploded, in terms of growth, after about three years in the ground and I’d guess it’s around fifteen feet tall and ten feet wide as of 2020. If I had to choose a tree again I might go with one that produces larger fruit. That said, I’m still happy with the results of this multi-year experiment.

I should also note that the tree itself is beautiful, especially when the silvery underside of the leaves shimmer in a light breeze. Olive trees have deep symbolic associations in ancient Mediterranean cultures and the tree has an average lifespan of 500 years. There are a few trees, over 2,000 years old, that still produce fruit.

If you live in the U.S. but not in a climate that supports olives, consider buying domestic olive oil and cured olives. Especially with olive oil, a lot of the imported stuff is adulterated garbage.

Home Orchards for Year Round Food Resiliency

One of the things I’m thankful for during this covid crisis is having a small yard with a variety of fruit trees. If you’re smart about the types and varieties of fruit trees you plant, you can maximize the amount of time during the year that you’re likely to have fruit. Here in California, if you have enough space, you can have fruit year round.

The handy chart above from Dave Wilson nursery (head here for a downloadable version) can be used as a guide to planting for year round food resiliency. Results may vary. Due to a high squirrel population stone fruit doesn’t work well in our yard. But at least I have avocados and the olives I started curing back in October are now ready to eat. In August we’ll have figs and in September more pomegranates than we could possible eat. If the squirrels don’t take them all we might have some apples too.

This chart from the Maddock Nursery in Fallbrook shows avocado and citrus harvest times. If you’re lucky enough to live in an avocado friendly climate and have space for four trees it’s possible to pick varieties that will be ready to harvest year round. That’s a lot of guacamole. Even with one avocado tree, as we have, you can leave the avocados on the tree and harvest as needed (they don’t ripen on the tree). Our Fuerte gives us several months of avocado toast.

Growing fruit takes knowledge and effort. Thankfully, we have a great resource in UC Davis’ guide to backyard orchards. My advice: talk to avid gardeners in your area to learn what grows best. Pay attention to irrigation and pruning. Take out under-performing trees. Buy bare root trees to save money.

If you don’t have a yard perhaps a school, business or faith institution in your community could be convinced to plant a small orchard. One of the many lessons of this crisis is that we need to work on local food resiliency and not depend so much on long supply chains.

Olive Questions

Lacking an Italian or Greek grandmother, I’ve got to crowdsource my olive curing questions. So, my dear Root Simple readers: have you cured olives? What method did you use and how did they turn out?

The Frantoio olive tree that I planted in the parkway a few years ago produced a bumper crop of olives this year. Last year every single olive hosted olive fruit fly maggots. This summer, to reduce the olive fruit fly population I put some torula yeast lures in a McPhail trap in the tree and removed any fruit that had any signs of infestation. I change out the yeast tabs every month. The strategy seems to have greatly reduced the infestation. I lost probably around a third of the olives but had more than enough un-maggoty olives to fill three half-gallon jars. Today I plan on sweeping up any olives on the ground and removing any remaining olives from the tree to, as much as possible, further knock the olive fruit fly population.

Contents of the McPhail trap.

I chose a brine method to cure the olives and followed the recipe in the informative UC Davis publication, Olives: Safe Methods for Home Pickling. With any luck I should have olives in three to six months. The Hunter Angler Gardener Cook blog suggests changing out the brine periodically, which leads to more questions for readers: do you change out your brine? How did you season the brine?

While my attempt at growing annual vegetables was a disaster this year, let me say how thankful Kelly and I are to have planted fruit trees ten years ago. The most successful: pomegranates, figs and olives.

If you’d like to try curing olives, but don’t have any trees of your own, you can always forage them. In the past month I’ve spotted fruiting olive trees in Hollywood on a side street adjacent to the Kaiser complex, in a parking lot on Sunset Boulevard, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and on the streets of Phoenix, Arizona. Just don’t use the scarred fruit as that’s the sign of maggots.

The Glorious USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection

Chestnut. Ellen Isham Schutt, 1913.

Over the past few months I’ve been reviving my long lost drawing hobby, partly as a way to fend of the temptations of phone addiction but also as a way of training myself to take the time to really see what’s around me. Anyone who has tried to draw knows that what it teaches is to observe the world without the preconceptions imposed by language. Before the advent of inexpensive photography, drawing had a central role not only in everyday life but also in science. The United States Department of Agriculture’s online collection of watercolor illustrations of fruits and nuts demonstrates how scientific illustration can be both useful and beautiful.

The collection spans the years 1886 to 1942. The majority of the paintings were created between 1894 and 1916. The plant specimens represented by these artworks originated in 29 countries and 51 states and territories in the U.S. There are 7,497 watercolor paintings, 87 line drawings, and 79 wax models created by approximately 21 artists. Lithographs of the watercolor paintings were created to illustrate USDA bulletins, yearbooks, and other publications distributed to growers and gardeners across America.

Rimmer Apple. Deborah Griscom Passmore 1901.

The collection showcases the diversity of fruit and nut varieties before industrial agriculture took it all away and replaced it with easily shipped but tasteless produce.

Pomegranate. Mary Daisy Arnold, 1932.

The human eye can see and perceive things that a camera can’t and the artists who made these exquisite watercolors must have had an encyclopedic knowledge of the fruits and nuts they portrayed. The collection has 3,807 images of apples alone.

Should you have some blank walls in need of art let me point out that all of the images are available in high resolution.