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One species of plant that is shooting up in popularity is olive trees. These Mediterranean trees have become the staple for households being kept both indoors and outdoors. As such, the number of people learning how to bonsai an olive tree is also increasing. So what is the exact process to bonsai an olive tree? Keep reading to find out more!
To bonsai, an olive tree, ensure it is the right time of year and decide on the style and size of your tree. Repot/plant the tree in an adequate size pot, develop the trunk and then wire and prune to achieve your desired look.
So what are the advantages and disadvantages of keeping an olive tree bonsai? And should you keep olive tree bonsai indoors or outdoors? Keep reading to find out more!
How to bonsai and olive tree
Think of olive trees and your mind will likely race back to ancient Greece, with thoughts of potters sitting in a garden with this fauna blowing breezily in the background.
As such, the number of people who are using olive trees in bonsai is also increasing.
I decided to jump on the bandwagon and figure out the exact step-by-step process of growing an olive tree bonsai.
As such, I got in touch with my local botanical gardens, spoke to a few bonsai experts, and even did a quick survey of plant paladin readers.
To successfully bonsai an olive tree then:
- Ensure it’s the right time of year
- Come up with a design
- Decide how large you want your olive tree to grow
- Decide if you will grow your tree from scratch
- Invest in the right potting soil
- Plant your olive tree bonsai cutting/seedling
- Repot your olive bonsai
- Move your olive tree into the right environment
- Wire your olive bonsai tree
- Prune the tree
- Repeat the process
Olive bonsai tree quick facts
Now keeping any bonsai tree requires its unique challenges so to help summarise some of the daily care required I’ve enclosed a table below that should help:
Olive Bonsai Care
Check once per day if the soil is dry to the touch. If so, the olive tree needs watering. Non-bonsai olive trees require watering only once per week, but bonsai trees typically will need more water so once per day should be ideal. Only water once per week during the winter in cold temperatures.
4 to 8 hours of direct sunlight in the summer
0-95 degrees Fahrenheit ( -12 to 35 degrees celsius)
Both indoors and outdoors in a spot that gets a lot of sunlight
Fertilize once per month during the summer months. No fertilizing is required in winter.
Slow growing - 2 to 4 inches per year.
Let’s explore this in more detail:
Ensure it’s the right time of year
Before you start the process of transforming an olive tree into an olive bonsai it’s important to note the time of year.
Turning an olive tree into a bonsai requires a lot of work such as trunk chopping, wiring, pruning, and repotting all of which can significantly weaken the tree.
This means that olive trees will need a few weeks of recovery time.
If you are thinking of training your olive tree into a bonsai in the winter, your olive tree won’t have enough time to recover from the intense process.
The best time of year to train an olive tree into an olive tree bonsai will be in the early spring before any buds appear in the tree. This will give the tree plenty of time to recover from any form of training before the tree becomes less efficient in the winter.
Now whilst olive trees are coniferous, meaning they don’t shed their leaves in winter – you should still train them in the early spring as they have a harder time recovering during the winter.
If however, you keep your olive tree bonsai in a greenhouse, the training process can be done any time of the year.
Come up with a design
While you might be keen to start repotting and wiring your olive tree straight away, I always find that coming up with a design first will dramatically increase your chances of creating a successful bonsai tree.
Bonsai trees come in a wide variety of styles such as sumo, cascade, semi-cascade, and informal upright to name a few.
Having an idea of what your olive bonsai tree will look like once it is complete will help you in the wiring and pruning process.
Drawing a rough outline then with a pen and paper and sticking to it will help massively.
If you do decide to change the design of your tree a few years down the line then you can always draw up a fresh plan, but doing this in the first instance will help massively.
Decide how large your olive tree to grow
So you know the style you want your tree to look like. Now it’s time to come up with how large you want your tree to grow.
So why is this important?
Well, olive trees are notoriously slow-growing, meaning that in the space of a year they can add as little as two inches of growth.
As such, if you want an olive bonsai tree that is large such as an imperial size bonsai will take decades to achieve if growing from a cutting or seedling.
If however, you are happy with a smaller sized one-hand or two-hand bonsai then olive trees are perfect.
Size classifications are a topic all to themselves.
If you are thinking about entering your olive bonsai tree in a competition in the future, it’s important to know the different size classifications – after all, larger bonsai trees in higher size classifications will usually sell for a lot more
Feel free then to check out my post on bonsai size classification here or the image and table below.
1 to 3 inches
3 to 8 centimeters
2 to 4 inches
5 to 10 centimeters
2 to 6 inches
5 to 15 centimeters
5 to 8 inches
13 to 20 centimeters
6 to 10 inches
15 to 25 centimeters
10 to 18 inches
25 to 46 centimeters
Chiu or Chumono
16 to 36 inches
41 to 91 centimeters
Dai or Omono
30 to 48 inches
76 to 122 centimeters
40 to 60 inches
102 to 152 centimeters
60 to 80 inches
152 to 203 centimeters
Decide if you will grow your tree from scratch
Next up is one of the most important decisions you will have to make when tuning your olive tree into an olive tree bonsai.
Do you grow your tree from a seedling/cutting or do you get an existing store-bought olive bonsai and train that?
Growing from seedlings/cuttings
Growing your olive tree bonsai from a seedling or cutting can easily be one of the most rewarding experiences as a bonsai owner.
This method will give you complete control of your tree, allowing you to design your tree in the exact style you want your tree to grow.
The downside however is as olive trees are so slow-growing, they will take a while to reach maturity.
Most bonsai trees can take between 3 to 5 years to reach maturity and 15 years to be fully grown and perfected.
If you are patient, growing an olive bonsai tree this way might be the best option for you.
Buying a store-bought olive bonsai
If however, you are impatient (like me) and want to speed up the process of designing a bonsai tree, then I would recommend buying a store-bought tree that is already a few years old.
This will save you a lot of time in the trunk development stage and will allow you to move straight into the development of the branches of your tree.
What’s even better is if you are happy with the way the store-bought olive bonsai tree looks, then all you will need to do is maintain the size and style of the tree through regular pruning.
The downside is that store-bought trees can be more expensive so if you don’t have the budget, consider growing that from scratch.
Invest in the right potting soil
So now you have decided if you will be growing your olive bonsai tree from scratch, or if you will buy an existing store-bought olive tree bonsai, next up we need to get our materials together.
Easily the most important material is going to be the correct potting soil.
Potting soil, regardless of the species of bonsai tree, needs to allow moisture to flow through easily, provide great aeration but also retain moisture to ensure that your tree does not dry out.
For coniferous species such as Olive tree bonsai, the best potting soil would be an inorganic mix of akadama and volcanic ash mix.
Best soil mix for olive bonsai
A good ratio would be the following:
50% akadama, 25% volcanic ash lava rock, 25% pumice.
The potting soil must also be neutral between ph levels 6.5 to 7.5.
Having a potting soil that is too acidic or alkaline with potentially impact the nutrient flow of your olive tree bonsai
Now if you only have organic soil, a good mix would be to use something such as cactus soil, which works surprisingly well as potting soil for all bonsai.
To read up more on bonsai tree potting soil, check out my post here.
Repot or plant your olive tree bonsai
Now comes the most difficult part of creating a bonsai out of an olive tree.
Repotting/planting are similar but have their unique parameters that need to be sought out, so let’s explore these individually below:
How to plant an olive tree bonsai
Planting an olive tree bonsai is the method you will follow if you are growing your olive tree bonsai from scratch – to find the full process, check out my post on planting a bonsai tree here.
To summarise, however:
Select your cutting or seedling
First up, decide if you will be plating your olive tree bonsai from a cutting or a seed.
If you will be using a cutting, ensure that you make a clean cut at a 45-degree angle and remove any large leaves or excess branches.
If however, you are planting from a seed/pit of an olive, you must get correct seeds from either a reputable retailer or treat the olive seeds you are looking to grow first.
To treat the olive seeds/pits, pick the seeds from olives that are on the tree and have not fallen into the topsoil.
Lightly hammer these olives with a hammer so the flesh of the olive breaks.
Then pick the pointed end of the pits with a bolt cutter or a crashing device of some sort – just be careful that you do not break through the seed all the way.
Soak them in 24 hours and they should be good to plant.
Gather your pots
Next up, it is time to gather the pot that you will plant your seed or cut in.
The pot size will depend on the size of your cutting or seed.
If you are growing from a seedling then using a pot with about 15cm or 6 inches worth of depth will be ideal.
If however, you are growing from a cutting, then using a larger-sized pot, such as a large yogurt pot works surprisingly well.
Yogurt pots work surprisingly well for bonsai tree cuttings and seeds
It’s important that whatever size pot you decide to use, it has plenty of drainage holes for the size of your seed or cutting.
Hopefully, the table below will help:
Number of penny-sized holes
Number of pencil-sized holes
1 to 3 inches
2 to 4 inches
2 to 6 inches
5 to 8 inches
6 to 10 inches
10 to 18 inches
Chiu or Chumono
16 to 36 inches
Dai or Omono
30 to 48 inches
40 to 60 inches
60 to 80 inches
Add your soil mix
We talked about the best potting soil mix earlier on, so at this stage simply put your potting soil into your pot of choice.
Ideally, this should be around 3 inches deep or about 9cm for the bonsai process.
If you are planting from seed, you can simply plant your seed in the potting soil and move on to the propagation step.
If however, you are plating from a cutting you must follow the next few steps.
Prepare your olive bonsai cutting to be plated
If you are using a cutting from an olive tree branch to grow an olive tree bonsai, it is super important you follow this step.
Before the olive tree branch will grow in the potting soil we need to prepare it.
To prepare your olive tree cutting for bonsai then start by carving a 1mm deep grove on the bottom of the cutting – this will act as a guideline.
Then depending on the size of your cutting, remove the bottom few mm/cm from the cutting – in this example we will use a relatively large cutting so we will need to remove the bottom two cm.
Then peel back this bottom section of your cutting, removing the cambium until the white inner wood of the cutting shows.
Apply a small even layer of rooting powder to the exposed spot – this will allow and help your cutting propagate on the soil.
Then, attach a copper wire to the bottom drainage hole and plant the cutting in the pot. Tie this wire around the cutting to ensure it does not move.
Finally, tightly pack the potting soil so there are no air holes that the cutting can move around in.
Keep in a propagator and maintain the temperature
So now your seeds/cuttings are planted, the next few weeks will be vital to growing your tree from scratch.
As such, one of the best things you can do at this stage is to keep in an environment where you can control the temperature.
Growing the seeds/cuttings in a propagator or greenhouse where you can control the temperature will be vital.
When trying to sprout olive seeds/roots on the cuttings, the best option will be to keep at around 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees c) for the first few weeks, ensuring that you water them daily, keeping the top few cm of topsoil moist but giving it time to dry out in between watering sessions.
Then after about 4 weeks or so, increase the temperature to about 70 degrees and repeat the watering process for another 4 weeks.
By this point, new roots/growth should have occurred and it will be time to ease these cuttings/seeds outdoors.
Ease the new bonsai into its new environment
Once your seedlings/cuttings have started to grow it is time to ease them into their new environment.
Start then by keeping the seedling in the shade for about 1 week.
The week after, ensure your seedling/cutting gest about 3 days of direct sunlight and 4 days in the shade.
One week after that allow your seedlings/cuttings to rest in the area you will keep them as they will be strong enough to grow by themselves.
Maintain and let the seedlings/cuttings grow
At this stage, you will have a very immature seedling cutting that you can start the bonsai process with.
As such, I would let your tree seedling/cutting grow over the next 2 years without repotting.
At this time, you will strengthen your tree by watering regularly (checking the topsoil daily to see if it is dry), checking for pests and fungal infections, maintaining its temperature, and just regularly caring for the tree.
After a few years, your tree will be ready for repotting.
Repot your olive tree bonsai
Now if you have decided to go for a store-bought olive tree bonsai, Or the seedling/cuttings you have planted have matured – the next step to growing an olive tree bonsai will be repotting.
Younger olive tree bonsai can be repotted every 3-4 years with older olive tree bonsai only needing to be repotted every 5 to 8 years. This is because olive tree bonsai is a slow-growing tree species making them ideal for indoor bonsai.
Similar to plating an olive tree seedling/cutting, repotting a bonsai tree is an exhaustive process all onto itself so I would recommend checking out my post here, however to summerise:
Select the right pot
You will be moving your tree from a small shallow pot it is in now, to a larger sized pot with ample room for more root growth.
Aim then for a pot that is around 80% the size of the widest point in the canopy of the tree.
You can also refer to the table earlier in this post to measure the size of your tree and the number of drainage holes your tree should have.
Remove your bonsai from its existing pot
Next up, remove the bonsai tree from its existing pot.
Go around the edges of the pot your bonsai tree is currently in with a root hook.
This should loosen up some of the topsoil and make it easy to pull out your tree.
Remove the soil using a root hook
Next up, we need to access the roots of your bonsai however there will likely be a lot of soil surrounding it.
If this is the case, use the root hook to remove some of the excess soil.
Cut any excess roots
Now remove and cut any excess roots that your tree has.
Reducing both some of the larger roots as well as the smaller feeder roots.
Your bonsai should then be ready for its new pot.
Prepare your drainage holes
The next step is to prepare the drainage holes in the new bonsai pot.
To do this, cover the holes of your bonsai pot in drainage mesh – this will prevent soil from falling out.
Then attach a 2mm wire and apply a loop to hold the mesh in place.
Easternleaf has a brilliant video on this you can check out here.
Add wire to secure the tree
Before you place your bonsai in the new pot, it is important to add wire to secure the tree in place.
Use copper or aluminum wire and loop this through the bottom drainage holes and mesh of your pot.
Add a base layer of potting soil
Now your pot is prepared, add a dusting of the potting soil mix we talked about earlier on to your pot.
Place your tree in the pot at a front-facing angle
Then simply place your bonsai tree in the pot at the most aesthetically pleasing angle.
Using the sopper wire secure this tree in place, so it does not move
Finish by adding potting soil
Finally, finish up repotting your olive bonsai tree by adding the remainder of the potting soil.
Ensure that there are no gaps in the soil or air bubbles that can cause your tree to dry out.
Master the aftercare process
Finally similar to planting a cutting/seedling, it is important to master the aftercare process of regular watering, fertilizing, and placement of your new olive bonsai tree.
Again an entirely different topic unto itself so definitely check out my post on it here.
Alternatively, I’ll touch on these requirements later in the post.
Move your olive tree into the right environment
We touched upon this earlier on but once you have successfully repotted your bonsai tree, or successfully started the growing process from a cutting/seedling, you must move your olive bonsai tree into position.
One of the biggest benefits of olive bonsai is they are incredibly versatile and do well both in indoor and outdoor conditions.
As such they should be placed either indoors, near a window where they can get plenty of direct sunlight (up to 8 hours per day during the summer), or outdoors in the bright spot in your garden.
As olive trees naturally grow in Mediterranean warm climates this would be the best conditions for them.
I would also recommend during the winter to keep these trees in a cold spot in your house, such as a garage, to prevent them from getting cold-related injuries.
These plants naturally thrive in hardiness zones 8-10 according to the USDA so keep that in mind depending on where you live.
Develop the trunk of the olive bonsai
Once your tree has been repotted the training process can begin.
Training a bonsai will transform your regular-looking bonsai into a more visually pleasing style.
If however, you are happy with the way your tree looks you can leave your tree as it is.
The first step to training a bonsai is to develop the trunk of your tree.
Most bonsai trees have very different trunk styles.
For example, sumo bonsai trees have short thick trunks that gradually taper.
Cascade bonsai however have thin-sized trunks that change.
To train the trunk of your olive bonsai then the three things you will need to keep in mind are:
- How to thicken up the trunk of the tree
- How to add a taper to the trunk
- Where to add bends to the trunk of the tree.
The best way to achieve these then is by doing the following:
- Growing out a sacrifice branch – this will add a lot of thickness over the trunk of your tree – simply grow out a branch of your tree for 3 to 5 years untouched
- Bonsai trunk chopping – this will add a significant amount of taper to the tree by chopping off the top part of your trunk.
- Removing part of the trunk – this will make it easier to add bends into the tree.
Now(like a lot of things in this post) bonsai trunk development is a topic all onto itself so top read up more about how to train the trunk of your olive tree bonsai – check out this post here.
Just keep in mind however that as olive trees are slow-growing, it can take between 5-8 years to achieve the desired trunk look you want to achieve.
Wire your olive bonsai tree
Once you have developed the trunk of your olive tree over a few years – the next step in training an olive tree bonsai will be to wire the branches of your tree.
Wiring the branches of your olive tree will allow you to create movement in the branches, making your tree look more visually appealing truly mimicking a miniature tree.
To wire an olive bonsai tree then:
Remove any excess foliage
Olive tree bonsai leaves are usually quite small, but they can overgrow.
Removing some of these leaves will make the wiring process easier.
Simply use a sharp pair of shears and remove any excess leaves.
Select the right wiring
Copper wiring is the best choice for olive tree bonsai.
Olive trees can have relatively thick branches and so the copper wire will perform better than aluminum which can be brittle.
Ensure then that the copper wire is about 1/3rd the size of the branches you want to wire.
Simply cut your wire to size aim for this to be about 30% bigger than the size of the branch you will be wiring.
Wire your olive bonsai
Next up, wire your bonsai.
This can either be done through single wiring or double wiring.
Single wiring is undertaken when you wire a single branch with one piece of wire.
To do this, wrap the wire around the trunk of your olive tree and then wire the branch at a 45-degree angle.
Then repeat this process on the secondary and tertiary branches.
Repeat this process for the other branches that need to be single-wired.
Single wiring can work better on smaller thinner and weaker branches.
To double wire, wire two branches that are next to each other with the same piece of wire.
Wrap the wire around the trunk of the tree and then wrap on the stronger higher branches before moving to the lower branch.
This method works well when you need to add significant movement in the tree, or your branches are very strong.
Move olive branches into position
Once your tree has been wired, move the branches into position.
The best wait to do this is to use your thumb and index finger on the points where the wire caused the olive tree.
If the branch moves back into its original position, you will require a thicker piece of wire.
Remove the wire
After 6 to 8 weeks you can cut the wire from your olive tree bonsai.
Do not unwrap this by hand as it can cause further damage to the tree.
Wiring an olive tree will take between 6 to 8 weeks which will be longer than other plant species due to the speed at which the tree grows.
Prune the tree
The next step of creating an olive bonsai is to regularly prune the tree.
Pruning an olive bonsai tree will prevent growth from getting too big on your tree and is vital to keep a clean-looking tree that falls into the exact size classification you like.
This process is simple enough, just ensure that if any leaves or branches go out of the general silhouette of the tree style you are going for these are pruned.
To prune, use a sharp pair of bonsai shears or scissors and cut the branch at the base or the leaves at the petiole of the tree.
It’s worth saying that if you are unhappy with how dense the canopy of leaves is for your olive tree bonsai then consider defoliating 80% of the leaves of your olive tree bonsai.
This will cause more leaves to grow from the buds of the leaves you have just pruned, creating a denser thicker leaf canopy.
When removing the leaves, it is important not to make one giant cut across multiple leaves but to cut each leaf individually, doing this can cause some irregular growth and damage the leaves.
Don’t over prune however as branches and leaves will be vital for overall bonsai health such as through photosynthesis.
Repeat the process
So the steps we talked about above will cover the first 10 or so years of growing an olive tree bonsai and how to train an olive tree bonsai.
That being said, however, growing a bonsai tree is not an easy process and so you will likely have to repot your tree, wire your bonsai and prune your tree regularly to achieve the desired look and style for your olive tree.
- Repotting should be done ideally every 3 to 4 years when young or 5-8 years if you have an older tree.
- Wiring should be done once per year, once the olive tree has been matured. Wiring can be started in the late winter/early spring to make the most of the trees growth season
- Pruning should be done whenever the tree growth gets beyond the silhouette of the style of the tree you have in mind – think of it as trimming a hedge
- Defoliation should be done roughly once per year – only during the early spring.
In total then, creating an olive bonsai tree can take decades to achieve, but following these steps will work wonders!
Advantages of an olive tree bonsai
Olive tree bonsai has several advantages including:
- Water requirements – Whilst these trees will still need to be watered, they often do not need to be watered as much as other bonsai species. Watering once per day should work.
- Clean the air – Should you keep your olive bonsai indoors, it can help with purifying the air
- New roots – Olive trees bonsai can easily create new roots, making it much easiest to create deadwood such as nebari.
- Longevity – Olive tree bonsai comes from olive trees that can live for thousands of years if cared for properly.
- Fruit-bearing – olive tree bonsai can also bear olive fruit
- Can be grown indoors – making them ideal for tight spaces such as apartments.
Disadvantages of olive tree bonsai
Like all tree species, olive trees also have many significant disadvantages to contend with.
- Slow growing – Olive tree bonsai typically only grow a few inches every year meaning they can take a while to shape
- Tough wood – Olive tree bonsai has tough wood meaning stronger copper wire has to be used when wiring – this is more likely to lead to breakages in the mark
- Harsh winters – Olive tree bonsai need to be kept indoors during cold winters or else they will die
- Sunlight requirements – these trees require a lot of sunlight. If you keep these indoors for years at a time, their health will start to suffer.
Olive bonsai care requirements
Now I’m sure a lot of you still have a few questions about the exact care requirements for olive tree bonsai.
Hopefully, the next few points should help clear up any additional queries:
Temperature requirements for olive tree bonsai?
The best temperature to keep an olive tree bonsai in is between 0-95 degrees Fahrenheit (-12 to 35 degrees celsius). Should temperature drop below this the bonsai will freeze. Should temperatures exceed this olive bonsai will burn.
How fast does olive tree bonsai grow?
Olive tree bonsai is a slow-growing tree, only growing on average between 2-5 inches per year. This means it can take 15 years for the tree to reach full maturity if growing an olive tree bonsai from scratch
Water requirements for olive tree bonsai?
Olive tree bonsai typically will need to be watered once per day in the summer and twice per week in the winter. Touch the topsoil, if dry, water the tree thoroughly from top to bottom.
Olive trees that are not in bonsai form only need to be watered about once per week, however, the process of turning the olive tree into a bonsai will mean the tree will require more water.
Sunlight requirements for olive tree bonsai?
Olive tree bonsai require between 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight in the summer and 4 hours of direct sunlight in the winter. Ensure then that these trees are kept in a bright spot with plenty of sunshine.
Where to place an olive bonsai?
The best place to keep an olive bonsai tree will be outdoors in the brightest spot of a garden or yard that gets plenty of direct sunlight. Olive tree bonsai can also be kept indoors provided they are in an area with sunlight such as a kitchen window sill
How long does it take to train an olive tree bonsai?
It can take between 15 and 20 years to successfully train an olive bonsai to a specific style if growing from scratch. This is because the process of trunk development and growth can take a few years as well as the fact that olive trees are a slow-growing species.
Wiring and deflation can be archived relatively quickly.
Fertilizer requirements for olive tree bonsai
Olive tree bonsai requires solid organic fertilizer once per month in the spring and summer months. Fertilizing an olive tree bonsai should be avoided in the fall and winter. Liquid fertilizer can be used once per week.
How often should you repot an olive tree bonsai?
Olive tree bonsai should be repotted once every 3-4 years if they are younger and smaller in size. Older olive trees that are more than 20 years in age can be repotted every 5-7 years.
Olive tree bonsai care in the summer
During the summer the following should be undertaken to care for the olive bonsai as best as possible:
- Check multiple times per day for water requirements – if the topsoil is dry then your tree will need watering. Aim to check the topsoil during the summer at least 2 times per day.
- Keep in the shade – whilst the olive tree bonsai will need up to 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight, keeping your tree in the shade in your garden can be the best option to give a low dose of UV light year-round. This will also help prevent your tree from burning should it get too hot.
- Check for insect infestations – pests such as aphids and spider mites love olive tree bonsai due to their fruit so be sure to keep an eye out for these during the summer.
Olive bonsai care in the winter
To care for an olive tree in the fall or winter take do the following:
- Remove any olives from the tree – during the fall to mid-winter, olives will start to grow on the tree, ensure you remove these to prevent pests such as foxes, squirrels, mice, rats, and birds from attacking your tree.
- Move your tree indoors – a cold garage works perfectly if you live in a place with a harsh snowy winter.
- Water once per week – during the winter olive trees do not need to be watered as much – too much watering can cause the tree to freeze and can create frost on the tree.
Study on olive tree bonsai
Finally, I did a quick survey of plant paladin readers who owned olive tree bonsai and asked them if it is difficult to grow and train an olive tree bonsai.
Here were the results:
This post was written by Fehed Nicass who has been passionate about bonsai for over 3 years