How To Cure Olives

I adore olives. So much so that I’ve planted three trees – Arbequina, Leccino, and a new cultivar called Universal out of the breeding program in Yalta, acquired via One Green World.

Side note: you know how OSU does research programs on various genera to test things like cold hardiness and drought tolerance? Well, they’re about to embark on some trials of olives which I hope will be enlightening and will help to further the industry here. Check out this interesting article in Olive Oil Times from May of 2019. And here’s a link to the Olea Project!

Ok now back to the business at hand. Portland is a reasonably decent climate for olives; there will be variation from year to year but for the last three years, I have managed to successfully cure olives harvested here in the Rose City.

Thanks to this guide from Nichols Garden Nursery, I have a method which I will detail for you in this post.

Step 1: Harvest

In the Northwest anyway, olives are ready for harvest around November. They can, and sometimes do, stay on the trees for longer, but you’ll be battling bird predation (starlings, mostly) as well as the elements, and you want to get them nice and fresh.

Last year I went down to Arizona and visited Queen Creek Olive Mill, where I took the “Olive 101” educational tour and learned quite a lot about how olives are harvested and what difference it makes if they are green vs purple vs black. Basically, it comes down to flavor in oil production, but for our purposes, with salt brining, you can mix them all together regardless of what color they are at harvest and they will all be lovely.

So, pick your olives before the starlings get them and before they fall off the tree.

Just harvested, November 28, 2018. Frantoio variety.
Just harvested, November 29, 2019, unknown variety. Note much more green! This doesn’t matter for salt brining.

Step 2: Water Bath ~ 10 days

Ultimately with salt brining, you’re immersing olives in salted water. But before we do that, we need to soak them in plain water for several days to soften them and reduce their inherent bitterness.

Wash your harvested olives well, and then put them in plain tap water in a suitable container. You will need to change this water (and rinse them) daily for a few to several days. Nichols Garden Nursery’s document linked above says that this should be a 10-day process; I can tell you from my own experience that sometimes, you need fewer days.

What you’re after is for the olives to achieve a softness and a slight darkening in color over the course of their water bath. You’re leaching bitterness, basically. Some factors might contribute to a lessening of the number of days: if the olives are wrinkled from summer/fall drought when you harvest them, they’ll need about half the number of days (so, like 5 instead of 10). If they are harvested later in the season, I’d say that the weather and elements will help with the process of leaching, so if you harvest in late December, figure on a few days less. If you harvest in January, or even February, or later still, cut back the number of days by 2-3 days per month. If you harvest really late, like, April or May, you may not need to leach at all! You gotta play this part by ear a little bit. Or rather, by feel. You’re looking for a softening of the fruit and a color change from bright green to a dull “olive” green.

Here’s what they should look like after soaking in water for 24 hours:

Olives get this foamy stuff on the top of the water after soaking for a day.

So what I do when I rinse them each day is I clean out the sink and set up a big colander:

Then pour them into the colander:

Then rinse with water, and pour them back into the container I’m using to soak them, and refill with fresh tap water.

Step 3: Soak in Salt Water – 4 weeks

When the olives have soaked in the plain water enough, it’s time to transition to salt water. Look at the color difference between these, and the pics above – see how these are much more dull and the above pics the green ones are still really vibrant? Dull = ready for salt. You’ll feel this too – they get a little more soft.

The salt water solution is 1 cup salt (I use either kosher salt or canning/pickling salt; shoot for non-iodized salt) to 1 gallon water. Cold water should absorb that much salt easily.

Then when you put the olives into the salt water, some will float. Don’t worry.

Here’s a comparison shot of what this new batch looks like, having just put them into salt water, vs last year’s cured olives that I still have a few of (in the bowl in front)

Right about the same color! This is how you know it’s time to get them into the brine.

Ok now you’re going to change this salt water once weekly for 4 weeks. Does that mean three changes? Or 4 changes? Again, I want you to feel this out. I would say it’s 3 changes but you can do 4 if you want. It won’t hurt them, and it probably won’t make them overly salty.

What I do at this point is put a date on them, so I know when to change the salt water and when I should consider them done.

The ones in the steel stockpot are still in plain water, but the ones in the plastic container have transitioned to salt already.

Step 4: Transfer to 1/2 strength brine and store

At the end of the 4 weeks of full-strength salt water, now you will put them into a half-strength saltwater solution. 1/2 cup salt to 1 gallon water. In this solution, you can store them on the shelf, or in the fridge if you prefer, I find it makes no difference.

The flavor will improve over time and in a few months, you may notice a mild but delightful smoky flavor from your brined olives. I have noticed this particularly with Arbequina but it has also happened over a longer period of time with Frantoio, which generally seems to have larger fruit. So it might be a variety thing, but I think it’s more likely that the larger fruit size makes it take longer for that delectable smoky flavor to develop.

Ok, that’s all for now! Ask me questions if you have em, in the comments.

In which I praise the glory of the little apple, manzanita

arctostaphylos branches

The more I garden, the more I am enamored by manzanitas. Actually, I am going to do a little plug right now for one of my favorite local growers/nurseries, Xera Plants. Several years ago, my friend and co-owner of Xera, Paul Bonine, wrote this great piece for Pacific Horticulture Society:

Paul starts his article with the phrase: “No other shrub is more symbolic of the Pacific Coast than manzanita.”

And then, on his own website (disclaimer: I did the programming for that site but he did all the writing), he calls manzanita “the ultimate shrub of the west.”

I cannot possibly agree more. Why? Because in a xeric climate, AKA Mediterranean climate, AKA dry-summer climate, AKA totally perverse but also awesome climate in which plants have devised brilliant adaptations to the experience of receiving water from The Gods only when most of them don’t need it, there really is no better, no more pleasing, no more beautifully lush-year-round plant than the manzanita.

What I fail to understand, however, is why they aren’t more common in gardens. Actually we were talking about that the other day and all we could surmise is that there are a number of factors:

  • Relative novelty in the horticultural trade – they’re still not *that* easy to find and certainly not at places like Fred Meyer or The Box Stores
  • The perception that they’re hard to grow. In some cases/species, this may be true
  • The need to plant them at a relatively small size (no, you can’t just go get a 5-gallon and have instant manzanita hedge). A gardener must exhibit some degree of patience

An impressive row of 5 big manzanitas in Montavilla

I counted, and I think I now have a total of 11 manzanitas. I want to show you the most recent acquisitions and visit a couple of older favorites.

I should show you the spot, but I don’t have a stellar picture right now. For a couple years I have been agonizing about what to plant to fill in a space immediately to the north of my now-12-foot-tall Lyonothamnus; an impressive but not imposing tree which I am totally in love with.

That spot to the left (north) of the tree is a Major Focal Point and I have really struggled with what to put there, especially now with the tree casting some shade.

After my friend August came over and suggested a big ol’ Nolina (something like this, perhaps?), I somehow managed to entertain that idea and then come to remember that actually, this is a perfect spot for a larger manzanita. So I got Austin Griffiths, a longstanding favorite of mine and the same cultivar pictured in both of the above photos.

Baby Austin. He’s a sweet boy and he will be BIG

Austin is one of the earliest bloomers, too, apparently, although microclimate makes a difference and I’ve heard reports from some that theirs don’t start until January or even February; I’m pretty sure it depends on the year, too. Those big ones in Montavilla started in late November this year:

Arctostaphylos x ‘Austin Griffiths’ starting to bloom on November 24, with a lot more to come!

Incidentally, my friend Tamara wrote a great post about these very plants back in February of 2015, when she encountered them blooming their asses off. Go read that, it’s fun!

In my last post I talked about removing the “freeway roses” and that I’d decided to replace them with a manzanita. I chose Arctostaphylos bakeri ‘Louis Edmonds’ for this spot.

Arctostaphylos bakeri ‘Louis Edmonds’ just planted.

Another new addition came from my friend Chris, a devout plant nerd who loves all the same sorts of plants I do (weird Australian shrubs and trees, manzanitas, and peppers, ha!). This is A. glauca ‘Canyon Blush’:

She’s a tiny bb so she gets a bodyguard, for a while.

To protecc, from ducc, and doggo

While we’re over in this area, check out this beauty just next to ‘Canyon Blush’:

‘Canyon Blush’ in the foreground with A. canescens var. sonomensis

I have two Arctostaphylos canascens var. sonomensis planted in this area, and when Chris offered me this specimen of ‘Canyon Blush’ I immediately knew I wanted to see them all together. I think they’ll end up looking pretty flippin amazing, especially with ‘Austin Griffiths right next door.

Let’s go back to the front yard. I finally FINALLY removed the gigantic Salvia ‘Hot Lips’ that was right by the front door and committed to something with more year-round interest, but that still gives the hummingbirds what they want. This was a suggestion again from Paul at Xera – Arctostaphylos pajaroensis ‘Myrtle Wolf’:

‘Myrtle Wolf’ forming buds in this picture from November 14; it is now blooming.

Once the flowers are full-on, I’ll update this post with a pic of them, as well as the plant I chose as a companion here. Right under this manzanita, I planted a beautiful Agave ovatifolia ‘Frosty Blue’ which was a gift from my friend James in California. I couldn’t be more pleased with this duo as a foundation to my front-door vignette.

Let’s check on the first manzanita I planted here. This is an A. x densiflora selection and I can’t remember if it’s ‘Sentinel’, ‘Harmony’, or ‘Howard McMinn’ but I’m leaning toward ‘Howard McMinn’.

Can you believe how amazing this looks in November?!

I am really happy about that plant. The small, narrow leaves work really well with the texture of the Gaura and lavender near it and I’m really looking forward to seeing it eventually dominate this scene a bit more.

Speaking of dominate, though, I actually planted another thing that will eventually dominate over the manzanita above, possibly to its detriment, but we’ll see – this is Arbutus arizonica, another gift from my friend Chris:

Arbutus arizonica baby

This smallish tree has wonderfully blue leaves which are narrower than our native Pacific madrone, and my guess is that it’ll be a little more resistant to Phytophthora, although in this spot it should be just fine because it’ll never get summer water anyway.

Can you EVEN with the new growth in fall?! So cute!

It’s a really beautiful tree and yes, it might ultimately shade out the (I think) ‘Howard McMinn’ but my hope is that their relative growth rates and such will be copacetic enough that Howard will be established enough to cope with a little shade by the time the Arbutus is actually casting any shade. We shall see.

A couple other older manzanitas I planted at the same time as Howard, so, a couple years ago? This is Arctostaphylos silvicola ‘Ghostly’:

Leaning a lot because it’s under the canopy of the dogwood. I don’t mind that one bit.

And this is Arctostaphylos mewukka ‘Mottley Crue’:

Also leaning, again, cool by me

I am pretty pleased with the performance and appearance of these two that are kind of under the dogwood canopy. I like the lean they’re exhibiting, and they seem to benefit from the dogwood’s thirsty roots ensuring that there will be no soil moisture in the summer! Ha. They’ve both experienced a bit of mold/fungus on their lowermost leaves, which I attribute to the presence of deciduous leaves at their bases and possibly to being a bit shaded, but mostly, I think it’s just that they’re young still and rather close to the ground. They’ll grow out of this more or less, I hope.

Ok that wraps up this week’s geekout on Arctostaphylos with a side of Arbutus. Thanks for reading. Go plant some manzanitas, you will not be disappointed.

//SL

Big shoes to fill

I called them my “freeway roses” and one time I had a conversation with my neighbor in which I told her I was thinking of removing them. She said (paraphrasing) “Noooo! They’re pretty!”

They were. Sort of. The great things about Meidiland roses are: Need zero supplemental water, need no pruning, ever, they’re incredibly resistant to every disease including the ubiquitous black spot, and they bloom for 6 to 8 months. Oh and they’re evergreen. So why would I get rid of such a great plant that does a fantastic job of screening the front yard from the street and helping to create that sense of enclosure that I crave?

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” 
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

I wasted no time on them; no thought nor concern. I wasn’t invested in them. At all. They came with the house. They were a plant that I never in a million years would have chosen, for this garden.

I know it sounds sad. But Portland’s freeways sport thousands of those roses, so no need for any moments of silence. Shall we have a look at the hole?

You would not previously have been able to see my car’s butt
Ex-rose area from the street. Big shoes to fill here.

In the picture above you can really see how big that clump of four plants was: their footprint is clearly marked as the big bare area with lavender on the right, the purple Heuchera behind. What’s that plant in the pot, you ask? Why, that’s Grevillea ‘Neil Bell’ auditioning that spot.

I actually want to plant a manzanita in there too, with the Grevillea. But I don’t have one yet. Fortunately, however, while on a recent botany field trip with my friend Paul, I happened to pick up some Arbutus menziesii sticks from the side of the road…

You have to envision the leaves
Ersatz manzanita. I think it should actually go over to the right about a foot or so.

What if I *also* could have Grevillea x gaudichaudii under that ersatz manzanita? Um yes. Now to find one… if anyone knows please dish it!

Over on the left in pic above, there are two plants worth mentioning. One is a Gala apple that was not planted well (it’s very unstable and probably has terrible roots) and a Garrya elliptica. You can see them both here – apple in back and Garrya is small, in front:

Apple and Garrya, which I’m realizing you actually can’t really see well in this pic.

What I intend to do is move that apple and probably espalier it somewhere else. Backyard, I guess. This is a terrible place for it and it needs to be re-planted anyway to get its root situation sorted out, if possible. I’m hoping the Garrya will occupy its space, mostly. I’m interested in seeing how this trio of shrubs (Garrya, Grevillea, and Arctostaphylos) ends up interacting with each other in this spot, which gets some pretty good blasting afternoon sun and heat, but is otherwise mostly dappled shade from the dogwood overhead. And I think what I envision is for the Garrya and Arcto to get up-pruned, both quite a lot, depending on what they offer in terms of pruning opportunity. Then the Grevillea can do its blob thing, but the whole area won’t end up being a totally solid evergreen wall; instead there will be some alternation and undulation of trunks and foliage. I hope.

Garrya elliptica gets pretty big, but seems to handle sun or shade or anything in between quite well. I saw one in Australia, in the town of Leura in the Blue Mountains, that was in full shade and it was this lovely sinewy thing that wound its way up through other plants and a fence and was mostly up-pruned – I think that’s what I would hope to end up with. We shall see.

I’m not done, there are two more spots. Let’s start with the less developed situation. I am proud to announce that the oh-so-annoying English laurel hedge of encroachment is GONE. Thanks, Dad!

10-15+ feet tall laurel hedge was here right at the edge of the ivy. That’s the property line. There will be no ivy on my property under any circumstances ever.

Dad kindly showed up for two sessions with his electric chain saw. First he cut the whole thing to knee-level, then after a few weeks and some rather impressive regrowth, he came back and chopped it again, this time flush with the soil. There will be more killing in the future, and I want to discuss ivy removal with the neighbor (and possibly limbing up the dead branches of the blue spruce), but more immediately, we now have a LOT more gardenable space!

Here’s the view from the street:

This was a solid mass of laurel from the curb to the Lonicera (dead center in this pic)

It is such a relief to have that gone. There was also a cherry plum in there, about 25′ tall, which we took out. Nasty sticky drippy seedy tree. Now there’s a pile of dirt and wood chips, both of which I really want to get out of there, and I didn’t take pictures focusing on them, but there are three large shrubs toward the street which will also come out: a Nandina, a Berberis (you can see it above on left), and a Mahonia aquifolium (my least favorite of all the Mahonias in the world).

I’m saving the best for last: HOT LIPS IS GONE.

You can see its wake.. see how it pushed the Callistemon down and left?

It went to a very appreciative home, along with the roses. Those will both be GREAT plants for someone who loves easy-care flowers and border color. That Salvia was something I’d put some effort into making peace with. I appreciated its low water needs, its popularity with the hummingbirds, and its nearly evergreen-ness most years. But it was really too much of something I didn’t truly love, especially in this most prominent spot in the entire garden, right by the front door.

I’m now really happy with the plant selection here. Let me give you an annotated pic:

and some Sedum oreganum and an asparagus fern. That big culinary sage in upper left will come out eventually but that’s a whole nother post.

This plant palette makes me much happier than just the ONE BIGASS SALVIA which totally dominated this entire scene previously. If ‘Ivanhoe’ lives consistently through winters here, it’ll eventually have to move and what I might do is put it right where G. victoriae is, because this is too much hot afternoon sun for G. vic to hold onto its flower buds. It has already aborted most of them, and we haven’t even had a hot summer.

But waaay down at the base of the plant, this one flower truss made it:

I love this soft salmon pink color! Not what I expected, but I’ll take it.

But that won’t help the hummingbirds much – they won’t even know it’s there as it’s three inches off the ground.

I’m finding that lately, my plant choices are shifting. Rather than just whatever I think is botanically curious or super gorgeous, I’m taking into account a plant’s utility for pollinators, birds and other wildlife, and for local ecology generally. Hyperlocal, even, inasmuch as that relates to my water provision regimes for the various hydrozones in the garden.

That does NOT mean, by any means, that I want to plant nothing but local natives. I have a lot of those and I’m actively looking for more. What it DOES mean is that I’m seeking maximum year-round support for hummingbirds. I’m prioritizing native and non-native annual flowers that are super popular with the warm-season insect pollinators such as bees. I’m starting to consider nesting materials beyond dog hair. I’m interested in attracting beneficial and/or predatory insects (what eats flea beetles? I’d love to know).

Basically I’m seeing this garden more and more as not just my personal project, but a place that can favorably support a whole lot of organisms beyond just me. That includes not just the wild and domesticated animals and insects that live here and visit, but also the people that live here and visit. Tall order? Nah. Makes it all more interesting. Big shoes to fill with all these large plants getting removed. But it means we’ll end up with a better garden for everyone all around, in time.

Thanks for reading. I’ll take better pictures next time I promise.