Growing Olive and Fig Trees

It is ironic that when Valley gardeners think of planting a fruit tree, thoughts immediately turn to citrus, avocado, apple, one of the stone fruits (apricot, plum, or peach), or certain exotic tropicals such as guava or papaya. Thanks to water imported from far-away rivers and to the miracles of fertilization, all of these trees can be grown productively in our area.
Yet the two fruit trees most suitable for Valley growing are the olive and the fig, whose Mediterranean habitat is a mirror image of our own. In Sylmar, you can still see the remnants of what, in the 1920s, was the world’s largest olive grove, a 2,000-acre spread that yielded thousands of tons of fruit and 50,000 gallons of olive oil annually. Figs were also grown commercially in that locale.
Fast forward to the 21st century. For many people, moving into a house with an olive tree in the yard would be considered more a curse than a blessing. “Olives are so messy,” is the customary complaint.
Perhaps people are uncomfortable with an olive crop because they simply do not know what to do with it. Yet, making olives edible is no big deal. Green olives and black olives come from the same tree. Green olives are the unripe fruit. If they are left on the tree, green olives turn black as they ripen.
To cure green olives, harvest them when they have reached full size in mid- to late summer. Soak them in a lye or sodium hydroxide solution (1 tablespoon of lye per quart of water) for 12 hours, drain, then soak in fresh lye solution. At least two but perhaps three soakings will be needed. Softness of the olives down to the pit is an indication of their readiness. Finally, soak them in cold water for six hours and then change water daily until water color changes from red to pink.
To prepare black olives for consumption, soak them in a solution containing 4 tablespoons of salt per quart of water. Change the solution once a week for three weeks. Then place the olives in a marinade consisting of 1 1/2 cups white wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon salt dissolved in 2 cups water, 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, 3 lemon wedges and two garlic cloves. Of course, you can alter the marinade solution ingredients to your liking. Put a 1/4-inch layer of olive oil over the top and marinate for no more than a few days.
In all of the above treatments, make sure that olives are completely submerged as they soak. Do this by placing a heavy plate over the surface of the curing or brining solution.
Olive trees should be planted several inches above grade to ensure perfect drainage for their roots. Olive trees should not be planted in a lawn because of heavy irrigation that leads to growth of the verticillium soil fungus, which is fatal to them.
Fig trees sprout up as volunteer seedlings all over the Valley. You never know the quality of the fruit they will produce, since each seed contains a unique combination of genes. To be more certain of fruit quality, choose either ‘Brown Turkey’ or ‘Mission’ variety. Both are purple-skinned fruit, turning black when dried, with pink flesh.
Because of their high water content, figs have a short shelf life; after picking, they should be eaten within a few days. In order to dry figs, you must wait until they fall from the tree, so put a tarp or old sheet underneath. To speed up the drying process, cut them in half after they fall and leave them cut side up. If you are squeamish about bugs visiting your drying crop, place your figs in the back of your vehicle on the rear dash or, in the case of a minivan or SUV, under the back window. Drying should not take more than a few days.
TIP OF THE WEEK: If you enjoy the silvery foliage and drought tolerance of the olive tree but would still rather do without the fruit, a fruitless variety called ‘Swan Hill’ is available. There are also semi-dwarf olive varieties, such as ‘Majestic Beauty’ and ‘Little Ollie’ than can be trained into a hedge. You can also solve the problem of unwanted fruit by planting a drought-tolerant ground cover underneath your tree. Low-growing varieties of lantana, rosemary, cotoneaster, pyracantha, manzanita, acacia and ceanothus will “swallow up” ripe olives as they fall.

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