How to Prune Olive Trees


How to Prune Olive Trees

A Guide for Trimming Olive Trees

With thousands of olive tree cultivars worldwide, they inevitably grow to a variety of sizes, including dwarf varieties that only grow to two to four feet in height to those that can exceed forty feet in height and width. Use this guide as an aid in making your pruning decisions for your olive trees.

Olive tree pruned with pile of branches cut off on ground

Above: Pruned olive tree with trimmed branches piled under the canopy

Pruning Basics

When to Prune an Olive Tree

Olive trees, like most trees, are best pruned during their dormant period. But there are other considerations for the timing of your pruning: Do you have any dead, diseased or damaged limbs? (The 3 “D’s” of pruning) Are you pruning to stimulate a larger crop of olives next season? Are you training the tree or targeting a specific shape? Read on below to learn more about these specifics.

Pruning Terminology

Let’s make sure we’re on the same page with our pruning verbiage. Below are definitions of the different types of cuts you may wish to employ.

Click the ” + ” below to expand the selection.

Head Cut

Head cuts control the overall size of the tree vertically, for the most part. They’re also known as “topping” cuts.  If your tree is to be harvested annually for olive fruit, you may wish to make head cuts eventually to control the height of your tree. (If you can’t reach the fruit on branches that grow beyond the height of reach, that means the tree is sending a lot of energy to an area of the tree you can’t harvest.) Head cuts remove terminal shoots or limbs. When these are removed, regrowth is stimulated near the cut. It can also invigorate growth, resulting in thick, compact form near the cut. This may also be useful for training and shape for olive trees maintained in containers.

Arbequina Olive Trees 24 inch box
Fruitless Olive Trees

Thinning Cut

Thinning cuts aid in long-term growth and health of the tree. Thinning is cutting out branches of your olive tree to permit greater sun exposure of the inner canopy. This, in turn, may produce higher fruit production within the canopy. Thinning cuts may also be used simply to shape the tree into a pleasing shape. They are often used with multi-trunked trees to “thin” the middle of the tree, allowing greater airflow and sunshine to penetrate the tree at lower levels.

Swan Hill Olives® fruitless olive tree in 48 inch box tall
Multi-trunked Ancient Olive Tree

Vase Pruning

Just as it sounds, vase pruning opens the center of the canopy as a flower arrangement would in a vase. By removing center branches, more lateral growth is encouraged than vertical growth. This frequently leads to a larger olive crop in fruiting trees, that is distributed across the entire canopy versus a crop formed primarily around the perimeter when the canopy is denser in the center of the tree. Vase pruning is the most common for olive trees. And it is employed often for non-fruiting olive trees to create the most pleasing visual appearance of the tree.

Fruiting 15 gallon olive trees
Arbequina Olive Trees 24 inch box
Ancient Olive Tree

Pruning Tools

The most commonly used pruning tools for olive trees are loppers and pruning shears. While pole shears may also be used for head cuts and thinning, they require an experienced hand and knowledge of safety protocols to ensure other branches aren’t damaged when cuts are made, nor are attending humans injured by falling branches!

We recommend you maintain your pruning tools in good conditions, oiling and cleaning them as needed. And in the case of disease, ensure your tools are sterilized between uses to prevent spreading of disease.

On rare occasion you may have use for a chain saw to trim a branch. This tool should only be used by an experienced practitioner following all necessary safety protocols, including the use of safety goggles.

Olives on Olive Tree Branches
Swan Hill Olives® fruitless olive tree

Pruning Strategy and Details

When and Why to Prune an Olive Tree

Here are guides for when and why to prune your olive tree:

  • Wait until your tree has been planted for at least 3 years before any pruning. Until your tree is at least four years old, keep your shears and loppers stowed away. During the first three years of growth, encourage foliage to form and roots to remain undisturbed as the tree acclimates to its environment. The tree’s leaves provide its food (photosynthesis!), so having as many leaves as possible when it is young ensures for the healthiest tree.
  • Pruning is usually conducted after harvest (winter-spring) during the dormant season. But there are good reasons to prune into late spring. (See below.)
  • Because pruning leaves fresh, open wounds at the cuts, it is recommended not to prune during the rainy season when water-borne or mold/mildew diseases are more easily transmitted. We also recommend waiting until frost season has passed before pruning.
  • Best practices: prune olive trees in spring or in early summer after the tree begins to open its flower buds. (TIP: Pruning an olive tree while it’s blooming allows you to assess the probable crop before you trim.)
  • Shaping the tree – Beginning with its fourth year after planting, prune your olive tree to open the canopy. For trees planted in a container (or non fruiting), now is the time to begin thinning your tree’s limbs and branches to create the desired shape.
  • Prune to remove dead, diseased or damaged limbs as needed. If you are not familiar with the proper angle cuts to ensure these limbs’ wounds heal properly, please review the detailed instructions for angle and placement of cuts on damaged limbs in the reference links below.

Pruning Strategy

Considerations for your olive tree pruning strategy:

  • For a commercial olive tree orchard: What’s the proximity to neighboring trees? How far apart do you need to maintain limbs for optimal sun exposure and airflow? Is this an “on” or “off” year for your trees? (“On” years alternate with “off” years, producing more fruit than the tree usually can support. So you may wish to trim more heavily in “off” years to stimulate growth for the following “on” year production.) Did your orchard suffer from a recent frost, throwing off the alternating cycle?
  • For fruiting production: Are you harvesting manually or by machine? What is your maximum height?
  • Vigorous growers: These trees grow quickly and will require greater attention in pruning if you wish to maintain a specific height: Leccino, Pendolino and Swan Hill
  • Moderate growers: Cerignola, Coratina, Kalamata, Koroneiki, Little Ollie Dwarf Olive, Maurino, Sevillano and Wilsonii
  • Slow growers: These olive cultivars develop slowly but may also have canopies that grow quick tall and wide: Arbequina, Frantoio, Majestic Beauty and Manzanillo
  • Large canopy: These cultivars may grow between 30 and 40 feet tall (and potentially as wide) without rigorous pruning: Arbequina, Cerignola and Swan Hill
  • Moderate canopy: Most of these cultivars may grown between 20 and 25 feet wide or tall: Coratina, Frantoio, Kalamata, Koroneiki, Leccino, Majestic Beauty, Manzanillo, Maurino, Pendolino, Sevillano and Wilsonii
  • Small canopy: The Little Ollie Dwarf Olive is ideal for low hedges and shrubs, topping out at four feet in height and width.
  • Canopy density: These cultivars sport canopies with tightly spaced leaves, requiring greater thinning if more sunlight or fruit production is desired: Leccino, Little Ollie Dwarf Olive and Wilsonii

For commercial olive production, we recommend writing out your strategy and pruning plan to clarify your thoughts on the cultivars in your orchard and to write out your results each year for comparative analysis. This will ensure you achieve the desired results. A few tips:

  • Smart pruning is one considered part of a multi-year strategy. When planning for vase pruning, we recommend removing major center branches over three years, trimming one or more major branch over the three year period.
  • Some master pruners adhere to the principle that every olive on the tree should receive sunlight during part of the day. If your canopy is too dense for this to occur, you’ll need to plan when and where to open it up for more sunshine to beam through.
  • Plan desired tree shape: Some cultivars are naturally rounded, others more vase shaped. But some desire the A-frame or Christmas tree shape to achieve more sun exposure. The shape of the tree affects fruit production and related harvesting ability. Determine what works best for you.
  • Routine maintenance vs. strategic pruning – choose the best time for each. Routine maintenance can be completed at any time, removing suckers and shoots around the tree trunk’s base. Strategic pruning involves planning for the coming season and responding to climate conditions which vary from  year to year.
  • Allowances for tree personality – Your ancient olive trees may have highly unique appearances, from quite gnarly to elegantly aging. These trees may show highly imbalanced canopies but loads of personality. Trim with care once you understand how your cuts will affect growth over several years into the future.


Want more help on pruning an olive tree (or two)? Just contact us.

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