La Potatura

"Every day is a renewal, every morning the daily miracle. This joy you feel is life." -- Gertrude Stein

That’s a great reminder for me as I head out for another session of olive tree trimming. It’s the season of La Potatura, or in English – pruning. There’s a window of time between February and April when this must be done, before the plants wake up from their sleepy dormancy and begin to set blooms for the year. 

When we first began rehabbing our olive grove in 2019, we didn’t know exactly how to go about pruning olive trees. We’d gotten a lot of advice from neighbors, colleagues, and people at the mill – all contradictory. So this year I took an in-depth course from a local agronomist, and she began our first lesson with the statement: “Ci sono tanti esperti in giro.” I laughed out loud because she had summed my lived experience of the last few years in one statement; that everyone around here is an “expert.” So I wasn’t alone in thinking it! 

These babies are my new best friend. Makes the job SO much easier.

Pruning an overgrown tree is daunting. To start, the tall growth has to go. Olives will grow way up high, but they need to be at a height one can reach. It’s dangerous to harvest from a ladder (on a hill, no less), and the branch shakers only reach so high. Then, if it’s been a long time, there are likely wide branches that are too tall, leading to a tree that is more wood than leaves. That means you have to remove significant portions to reform the tree. This is a decision that is not made lightly. And then there’s all the tree climbing. First you start on the ground to assess what cuts you’ll make, trim what you can from ground level, then climb to make the taller cuts, come back down, assess again, climb again, lather, rinse, and repeat until it’s complete. But also, don’t let it take to long or you’ll never get to the next tree!

Wildflowers everywhere. Pollinators love it here.

Despite how it may sound, it’s actually one of the most enjoyable activities of the entire year. Spring is BY FAR my favorite season in Italy, and the weather is perfect for being outdoors. The olive grove is vibrant green, and the ground is covered in an ocean of colorful wildflowers with butterflies flittering above. And this year, I don’t know if I am paying more attention or if it’s always been like this, but the symphony of birdsong is nothing short of glorious. Lastly, there’s the satisfaction that comes from seeing the trees “in forma” (in shape). If you’ve ever visited Italy and admired the rows upon rows of vines on hills, you know what I’m talking about. 

Olive trimming holds a lot of parallels to our day-to-day lives. We too, must trim the dead branches and the elements that drain our resources. Succhioni (suckers) take water and energy from the productive, fruit-bearing capabilities of an olive tree. For us humans, it’s bad habits, difficult people, or negative thoughts that hold us back. Olive trees grow best when sunlight reaches every part of the plant. Similarly, we thrive when light is shone on the parts of our life that need attention. Olive trees do best with a little struggle with their environmental conditions. We learn lessons from our mistakes and grow (hopefully for the better) when life throws us curveballs. 

Wild asparagus grows a plenty under our olive trees.

Aside from my musings and philosophical ruminations,  there’s another fun part of the potatura season – the wild asparagus! Each time I go out to prune, I take a shopper bag to hold what I collect. So the packing list looks like this:

  1. Gloves, safety glasses, hat.
  2. Loppers
  3. Electric pruning shears
  4. Chainsaws (yes, plural)
  5. Regular saw(s)
  6. Canvas bag for wild asparagus 
Can you blame me?
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