Can You Grow Olives in the Deep South? 1

It’s hard to believe in our obese society today, but we are about to relearn an essential truth: fat is a good thing, a precious thing.

In the post-petroleum era we are now entering, when good food specifically and calories in general will be hard to come by, any food that packs a caloric punch in a small space will be much sought after. One of the plants that does that with remarkable efficiency is the ancient olive. Without requiring the levels of supervision required by, say, chickens, hogs, or cattle, olives produce fruit that’s rich in healthy calories. And they taste so good! The problem is that it’s hard to find information about whether olives will grow here.

The Alabama Cooperative Extension Service is essentially MIA on olives. A recent search on the ACES web site turned up 91 references to olives, the majority of which addressed either using olives in recipes or growing ornamental tea olives. Nothing about growing olives for, well for the olives, other than a fascination with the failure of the aristocratic French Vine and Olive Community near present day Demopolis and what it means for growing muscadines in Alabama today.

And even in sunny California where the climate is more Mediterranean, growing olives is rarely a successful commercial venture. The running joke among producers in California: “Know how to make a small fortune growing olives? Start with a big one.” On the other hand, our friend Safaa Al-Hamdani, who has grown olive trees successfully in containers outside his office at Jacksonville State University, believes we would be successful growing them in central Alabama. And it’s easy to find nurseries proclaiming that olives will grow successfully in the deep South. The relentlessly self-promotional TyTy Nursery in Georgia, for example, asserts breezily that Mission olives and Kalamata olives will grow successfully in zones 7-10, as far north as New Jersey.

When the dust is set, the woman I love thinks it will work, so we’ll probably roll the dice and give it a try. We’ll probably spend the $40 or so the nurseries charge for two olive trees (fruit sets better with two varieties present for pollination) and put them in the ground. As with everything else we grow, we will employ our “If we can’t drip it, we don’t grow it” principle and apply drip irrigation. We do not now plan to use any microclimate device other than planting them on a south-facing slope with good air drainage. I’ll remain skeptical, but hey, wouldn’t it be fun to serve olives that grew in our own orchard?

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One thought on “Can You Grow Olives in the Deep South?

  • Greg Clark

    How about an update on this project. I’m going to try for the second time to grow olives in the area near Auburn.