Archive for March, 2011

About crowncut and tree-combers. One year in the olive orchard

Snow covered olive trees at La Rogaia

In a few days the olive harvest at La Rogaia will start. It is the highlight and the end of the harvesting season, before life is slowing down to a slower pace, once the winter arrives.

Yet what is happening in the olive orchard during the year? Well, when you hear me asking that way, you know of course, there´s a lot to do.

Let´s simply start in February. Now is the time of the year which usually brings the most snow here in Umbria. The snow doesn´t last for long, but it can happen pretty fast that big masses of snow cover everything.

At this time of the year the snow is fairly wet and therefore heavy.

That means we have to leave our cosy place in front of the fireplace arm ourselves with a brush and swipe and shake the snow from the trees before the branches break under the snow´s weight.

Okay, that doesn´t happen every year, but if you have to free several hundreds of trees from snow you are not really sad about not having to do it.

End of February, beginning of March the next big work in the olive orchard starts. The olive trees have to be pruned.

Olives need a lot of light to grow.

To achieve this the trees here are pruned traditionally „a corona“ in the form of a crown.

All the branches pointing to the inside need to be cut, as well as branches which overlap and take away the light from each other.

What remains is a ring (or a crown) of strong branches, where the light can enter freely.

Given that olive shoots  grow pretty fast, the inside of the ring becomes overgrown quickly and next year the game starts again.

There´s to consider another particularity pruning the olive trees. Olives grow only on the two year old shoots. That means you mustn´t blindly cut everything. Instead you always need to leave sufficient of last summer´s shoots, if you want to have olives.

Which form you give exactly to each tree of course is even more complex and everybody who prunes olives has their own ideas.

Just put it like this. If you have gathered ten olive farmers in front of a tree, asking them how to prune it correctly you get at least eleven different answers (There´s always someone who cannot make up his mind or needs to call his “Mamma” first)

In every case it is a lot of work which stretches over several months from end of February to the first days of May. Then the olive blossom starts and you shouldn´t prune the trees any longer.

During the entire year of course you have to mow and harrow regularly in the olive grove, to keep grass and spines at bay.

Specially in summer water is scarce and if you want the olive trees to bear some fruit the competition by other plants mustn´t be too strong.

Apart of that it helps as well rare flowers and herbs which otherwisely wouldn´t stand a chance against blackberry tendrils and grass roots

Before the olive harvest starts there are two more important things to do.

The ground around the olive trees has to be freed from all stingy shrubs, like blackberries or blackthorn shoots, to spare the olive nets and the picker´s hands.

And the olive shoots growing abundantly around the olive trees have to be cut to be able to put the nets close to the trunks.

Now finally the olive harvest can start.

For this the pickers join in groups of three to five persons.

Each group is equipped with a long ladder and a big net.

Aditionally every picker receives a plastic rake with rounded edges made specially for the olive harvest and a pair of goggles to protect the eyes against twigs and the sharp olive leaves (though to be honest few of the pickers ever wear them).

First the net is spread out under the tree you want to harvest.

As the olive trees here are growing on the hill slopes you have to lift the net up on its downhill side and fix it with branches or metal bars. Otherwise the olives would use the net as a kind of ski-jump and rush down the hill.

Once the net is spread out the pickers start to strip the olives from the twigs with the rakes or with the hands (everybody has to find out how it works best for hom or her).

In Italian this is called “pettinare” “to comb”.

That means the pickers actually are not “pickers” but “tree combers”

Anyway, the olives drop down onto the net. The net is laid together and so all the olives roll on one heap.

Now little twigs and leaves which dropped down together with the olives are sorted out and the olives are filled into one or (rarely) two plastic boxes.

Oh, by the way you cannot harvest the olives by shaking the olive tree as many people think. At least you can´t do it by hand.

Once the olives are easily dropping to the earth if you shake the tree or worse drop down by themselves, they are so overripe you cannot use them for making high quality olive oil any longer.

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