How to Revive a Dying Olive Tree

How to revive a dying olive tree

Olive trees are one of my favorite Mediterranean plants to grow. They can also be very expensive, so I can understand your distress if yours is dying! I have personally visited Greece and spoken extensively to commercial growers of olives to glean all the information I can about caring for them and ensuring that they do not die!

In this article, I share with you all the knowledge I learned to help save your olive tree if it looks like it is dying…

The most common reason for a dying olive tree is usually root rot due to overwatering and slow-draining soils. Olive trees are drought resistant, preferring to grow in gritty, well-draining soils, and usually do not need watering. Damp soil causes root rot, which turns the olive trees’ leaves yellow before dropping off and dying back.

Whilst overwatering is the most common reason for a dying olive tree, here is a table summarizing other reasons I have identified for dying olive trees…

Symptoms of Dying Olive Tree:Reasons for Dying Olive Tree:
Olive Tree Losing Leaves.Not enough sunlight and sudden drop in temperature are the most common causes of shedding leaves. Overwatering, slow-draining soils, and root disease are contributing factors.
Olive Tree Leaves Turning Yellow or Brown and Curling.By far, the most common causes of yellowing or browning leaves are due to boggy soil from overwatering or slow-draining soils. Dry soil, due to severe drought and high temperatures, can cause curling brown or yellow leaves.
Olive Tree Drooping.Olive trees can droop due to overwatering and often too much fertilizer.
Olive Tree Not Growing.Olive trees grow slowly naturally, however, heavy pruning significantly slows growth. Cool temperatures, small pots, and not enough sun can restrict the size and rate of growth of an olive tree. Some olive tree varieties are particularly slow-growing and only reach a modest size.

Olive trees usually die back because they live in conditions significantly contrary to their native Mediterranean environment. But I can assure you that you can still grow olives in different climates…

I revive dying olive trees by recreating some of the conditions of their natural Mediterranean environment with full sun, well-draining gritty soils, and avoiding watering unless there is a drought. Olive trees can die back in Winter but often recover in Spring with warmer temperatures and more sunlight.

Keep reading to diagnose why your olive tree is dying and for my step-by-step guide on how to save it…

Why is My Olive Tree Leaves Losing Leaves?

This particular olive tree's leave were turning yellow and brown whilst curling and falling off due to a lack of direct sunlight.
This particular olive tree’s leaves were turning yellow and brown whilst curling and falling off due to a lack of direct sunlight.
  • Symptoms. Leaves often turn brown or even yellow and fall off.
  • Causes. Not enough light, cold temperatures, Winter dormancy, and sudden temperature fluctuations are the most common causes of shedding leaves, with slow-draining soils or overwatering being contributing factors.

Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean where they thrive in full sun with relatively high temperatures in the Summer and mild Winters, in well draining soil and fairly dry conditions.

If your olive tree is losing leaves, it is usually because it is living in conditions that are significantly contrary to their preferred conditions.

Olive trees need to be in the sunniest place in your garden to have enough energy to sustain themselves and for the energy-intensive process of developing and producing olives in the Summer.

The most common cause of olive leaves dropping is a lack of light, as olives prefer open sunny areas. In shady conditions, the olive leaves often turn brown and drop off and do not produce any fruit.

The other major cause of olive trees dropping their leaves is in response to cold temperatures, and olives struggle to survive in harsh Winters. My olive trees struggle in my cold climate.

I was told by the commercial growers that How resilient your olive tree is to cold temperatures depends on the tree’s age, size, and maturity, with younger, smaller trees being more likely to drop all their leaves and die back in Winter.

Even on mature olive trees, the newer, more tender growth is still adversely affected by cold temperatures with leaves turning brown and dropping, so I would avoid pruning in late Summer as this can stimulate new growth which is more susceptible to the cold.

Olive trees can survive brief periods of freezing weather, particularly the bigger, more mature specimens, but for smaller, less mature trees, extended periods of freezing temperatures without any insulation likely result in a dying olive tree. I have been told by the experts even the mature trees are likely to die back at temperatures of or lower than 14°F (-10°C).

A great tip I was told is that olive trees are colder and hardier if the temperature decline is more gradual towards winter, giving the softer, more tender growth time to harden off.

Sudden drops in temperature can result in a significant amount of leaves falling off.

Cold temperatures in winter also reduce the rate of evaporation from the soil, which can cause the olive tree to become stressed, causing the leaves to turn yellow and drop off.

How I Saved it…

  • I always plant olive trees in an area of full sun to prevent leaves from dropping off. The most important characteristic of the olive tree’s native Mediterranean range to recreate when growing olive trees is in full sun: planting the tree in an open sunny area and well-draining soil. Olive trees are surprisingly resilient when it comes to transplanting, and if the tree is in the shade, I would recommend transplanting or cutting back any overhanging tree boughs that may be overgrown and cast shade on your garden to save the olive tree. With more light, the tree has more energy to regrow leaves.
  • My best tip: Treat younger, less mature olive trees with thinner trunks, like citrus trees, in Winter to avoid losing leaves. Keep a close eye on the weather forecast to anticipate whether to either protect your olive tree with horticultural fleece or move the olive tree indoors. If the temperatures are approaching freezing 32°F (0°C) due to a sudden fluctuation, then I use some fleece around my olive trees with more tender new growth as this can prevent frost damage and prevent any more leaves from falling off.
  • I move young olive trees indoors if prolonged freezing temperatures are forecast. Olive trees often come back from a temporary cold snap, but extended freezing temperatures can cause younger trees to die back. Olives need as much sun as possible, so ideally, move them to a heated greenhouse, sunny porch (this is what I do), or conservatory in Winter if you live in a cold climate. Keep in mind that olive trees require a mild winter temperature at night of between 35-50 F and warmer day temperatures to set buds for fruit (a process known as “vernalization”), so avoid high indoor temperatures at night during winter.
  • If a more mature tree with a large trunk has lost its leaves, then typically, the damage is localized to the newer growth, and the olive tree should be able to recover in Spring and regrow its leaves, although prolonged temperatures of 14°F (-10°C) are likely to be the cause of a dying olive tree. Horticultural fleece always helps to insulate excessive damage and leaf loss. However, this is obviously prevention rather than a cure.

Even if the cold has caused the olive tree to lose all its leaves and die back, then the great news is that the rootstock underneath is still insulated from the cold and can regenerate, so it is likely the olive tree can recover.

The commercial growers in Greece told me that they have documented cases of wildfire burning the olive tree or severe frost appearing to cause the tree to die back, only to revive the following year thanks to the rootstock surviving underground.

Why are My Olive Tree Leaves Turning Yellow or Brown and Dying?

  • Symptoms. Leaves turn yellow or brown and sometimes droop in appearance or drop off the tree. The leaves can also curl up.
  • Causes. Too much moisture around the roots due to overwatering, slow-draining soils, or pot drainage. Occasionally, drought and dry soil cause the leaves to turn yellow.

Usually, the reason for olive tree leaves turning yellow is because of overwatering or slow-draining soils. Olive trees grow in well-draining, gritty soils in their native environment with high temperatures and infrequent rainfall. Too much water around the roots can cause root rot, resulting in yellow leaves.

Olive trees are drought-resistant trees that can even thrive on rocky hillsides (as long as they are in full sun) with very well-draining soil conditions that are often gritty and do not hold much water.

Common problems when cultivating olive trees is that they are watered too often or planted in rich soil that holds lots of moisture and drains slowly after bouts of rainfall.

Too much water around the olive tree’s root system restricts the level of oxygen in the soil, preventing root respiration.

If the roots cannot respire properly, they cannot transport moisture and nutrients to the olive tree’s leaves, which causes them to turn yellow or brown, depending on the extent of the stress.

If the soil remains boggy for too long, then this can promote the conditions for fungal diseases such as root rot, which also results in yellowing leaves.

Most climates also have more frequent rainfall then the olive trees, Mediterranean climate, especially in the Winter, which increases the risk of olive tree leaves turning yellow or brown and dying back.

This is why I always recommend that olive trees be planted in pots with drainage holes in the base and avoid using saucers or trays underneath to allow for good drainage when they are grown outside a Mediterranean climate.

If excess water cannot drain away from the base of the pot, then it can pool around the roots, promoting the conditions for yellow leaves due to root rot.

How I Saved it…

  • If you live in a climate with higher levels of rainfall, then I recommend planting your olive trees in a pot with well-draining soil. Pots have much more favorable drainage conditions than garden soil and dry out much more quickly, which replicates the well-draining soil conditions of the olive trees’ native range. This helps excess water drain away from the roots, increasing root respiration and reducing the risk of the leaves turning yellow.
  • I always plant olive trees in a well-draining compost mix, which mimics the soil composition of their native soil. Good drainage is the most important factor in preventing olive tree leaves from turning yellow and dying. Commercial growers use a potting mix made of normal multipurpose compost and at least 20% horticultural grit. In climates with higher levels of rainfall, I increase the proportion of grit up to around 50%. While they may seem to have a high proportion of grit, bear in mind that olive trees have specifically adapted to drought and thrive in gritty soils in their native environment.
  • Only water your olive tree if it is an immature plant or in times of severe drought to avoid promoting the conditions that cause yellowing leaves. My established olive trees often do not need watering, particularly if they are planted in garden soil, and additional watering is likely to be the reason for the olive trees’ leaves turning yellow. Potted olive trees can require a good soak in the Summer if there is particularly low rainfall.
  • I place the olive pot on bricks or chocs to ensure good drainage. Elevating an olive tree’s pot off the ground ensures that excess water can drain effectively from the bottom of the pot. If the pot is directly on a patio slab, sometimes it can pool underneath the pot and create unfavorably damp conditions in the soil around the roots.
  • I personally recommend planting olive trees in unglazed clay or terracotta pots to avoid the leaves turning yellow. Clay and terracotta pots are porous (as opposed to plastic, which is impermeable), which allows the potting soil to dry out more evenly, which is particularly advantageous if you live in a cooler climate with higher levels of rainfall.

I should also point out that olive trees can become yellow and brown due to a lack of water, but this only typically happens due to a combination of prolonged drought and if the olive tree is in a pot that is too small.

The smaller pots have less capacity for soil and, therefore, less capacity to hold moisture and so can potentially dry out too quickly for the olive tree’s roots to draw up moisture, which can cause yellow leaves and for the leaves to fall, in which case the olive tree should be transferred to a larger pot.

However, as olive trees are drought-resistant plants, it is far more often the case that yellowing leaves are because of too much moisture around the roots for too long, due to overwatering or poor drainage.

If you improve the drainage and scale back the watering, then this should prevent the olive tree from dying, and it should revive over the next few weeks and months. It may take some time to revive as olive trees can be reasonably slow-growing.

Why is My Olive Tree Drooping and Dying?

The reason for olive trees drooping is because of too much water around the roots or too much fertilizer. Excessive nitrogen fertilizer can cause the olive tree branches and leaves to become weak and sappy, causing a drooping, wilting appearance.

Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean, where they can grow in rocky hillsides. The soil on rocky hillsides does not retain much moisture or nutrients.

Therefore, olive trees are well adapted to growing in gritty, well-draining soils that are not necessarily very nutrient-rich.

If they are given too much fertilizer, too often, or in too high a concentration, then the olive tree can droop and the excess nitrogen can promote drooping foliage growth at the expense of flowering and olives.

Normal fertilizer is often too rich in nutrients such as nitrogen for the olive tree, and it is therefore important to use a fertilizer specifically developed for olive trees which is available from garden centers or online.

Special fertilizer for olive trees.
This is the special fertilizer I use for my olive trees, which increased the number of olives harvested.

These special fertilizers contain all the nutrients the olive tree needs to support growth, flowering, and fruiting without risking any drooping due to too much nitrogen.

I have seen a case where excess nitrogen was in the soil as a result of runoff from lawn feed.

Nitrogen is water soluble, so it dissolves in rain and can run off the lawn and onto adjacent planting areas, where your olive tree may be planted.

How to Revive it…

To revive a drooping olive tree, mimic the olive tree’s Mediterranean conditions by planting in gritty and well-draining soil and only water in times of drought.

Avoid using any fertilizer until the following spring, and only use a specific olive tree fertilizer. The tree should show signs of recovery in the following months.

It is also worth moving your olive tree (if it is potted) into the sunniest area of your garden if possible as this helps to replicate its natural conditions and should help the tree recover.

Important tip: It can be beneficial to prune any excess growth back in the Spring if you are keeping the olive as an ornamental plant to retain a nice shape, but if you are growing for fruit, be careful of pruning too drastically as this is likely to impact the yield of olives significantly.

Avoid pruning at other times of the year as pruning typically stimulates new growth, and if you prune in Late Summer or Fall, the new growth does not have time to harden off before Winter and can die back due to cold temperatures.

Why is My Olive Tree Not Growing?

If your olive tree appears not to be growing, this is because olive trees are naturally slow growing and grow even more slowly if they do not have enough sun, the temperatures are too cool, or the pot size is too small, which restricts growth. Olive trees have dwarf cultivars which grow slowly and only attain a relatively small size.

I find excessive pruning also tends to limit growth as the olive leaves are what provides the energy for the growth of the tree, and if the branches have been pruned back extensively, then thee are less energy for growth.

For olive trees in pots, check at the surface of the soil and, if possible, at the base of the pot to see if the roots are pot-bound, in which case I would transfer the olive tree to a pot one size up.

Important tip: I would avoid transferring the olive to a pot that is significantly larger then the previous pot as larger pots have a grater capacity for soil and therefore a greater capacity to hold moisture, which means they dry out much more slowly, which can of course increase the risk of root rot, for these drought tolerant Mediterranean trees.

Always locate your olive tree in full sun, particularly if it is growing slowly or losing leaves.

Many of the dwarf cultivars of the olive tree only attain fair modest sizes of around 6 feet tall , whereas the commercially grown olive trees can grow 50 ft (15 meters) in height.

Olive trees are relatively adaptable, but the more distinct your climate is from a Mediterranean climate, particularly in terms of temperature, the more likely the olive tree is to grow more slowly.

Key Takeaways:

  • A dying olive tree is usually because of overwatering and slow-draining soils. Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean, where they grow in full sun, with infrequent rainfall and gritty soils. If the soil is too damp, the leaves turn yellow or brown and drop off with a dying appearance.
  • Olive trees lose their leaves due to a lack of direct sunlight and cold temperatures. Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean, where they grow in open areas with full sun and high temperatures. Too much shade or a sudden drop in temperature causes the leaves to turn brown and drop off.
  • The reason for drooping olive trees is usually because of too much fertilizer. Olive trees grow in gritty soils that are low in nutrients in their native environment. Too much fertilizer causes the leaves and branches to turn droopy and promotes foliage growth at the expense of flowering.
  • The reason for olive trees not growing is usually due to lack of sunlight, the pot being too small, the temperature being too cold, or the olive tree’s leaves and branches being pruned back significantly, and the olive tree not having the energy or nutrients to grow.
  • To revive a dying olive tree, mimic the olive tree’s natural environment by locating it in full sun, planting it in well-draining gritty soil, and only watering potted olive trees in times of drought.

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