I HAVE been enjoying the snowdrops in my Staffordshire garden
for a few weeks, and now the first crocus is emerging. Both have an
inherent delicate beauty that is worthy of close observation, and
is at odds with the cruel February weather. If I am honest, though,
I love them just as much as harbingers of longer days and
In a similar way, some plants have such strong associations with
sunlight, blue skies, and balminess that they can uplift and
transport us. Foremost of these, for me, is the olive tree. Ten to
15 years ago, they were readily available; so now there are
sizeable outdoor specimens in London. Walking amid the corporate
splendour of the City, or along a row of suburban front gardens, I
suddenly witness the flash of silver as a cold breeze catches the
branches in a shaft of pale winter sun, and I am back on the Greek
island of Spetses, where I pruned row upon row of young olive trees
looking up into the blue.
In Staffordshire, at the garden centre, a potted olive beckons.
Is this an unwise impulse? Gardening should be about matching
plants to environment so that they thrive without too much
cajoling. But then gardening is also about manipulation, and the
geography of my patch has many microclimates, including a
south-facing slope in the lee of the garage on free draining sandy
The natural habitat of Olea europaea defines the
Mediterranean region for botanists: essentially a narrow coastal
strip surrounding the sea of that name. Some models of global
warming predict that this will extend northwards, and British
growers have for some time been emboldened to experiment. The
winter of 2010/11 made us question the wisdom of this.
Olives are reasonably hardy: mature plants are able to withstand
frosts down to -10°C. At the Chelsea Physic Garden, a mature tree
flowers in early summer, its myriad small creamy blooms dusting the
paths with pollen, and crops in autumn after a hot summer. The
olive fruit are harvested green before the wood pigeons can steal
For most of us, the answer is pot culture. Use a loam-based
compost with 20 per cent added grit to improve drainage. The
container needs to be large, but bear in mind that it needs placing
outdoors in summer, and in a frost-free greenhouse in winter. Don't
cosset the plants too much in winter, as production of the
wind-pollinated self-fertile flowers will be inhibited by warmth
above 15°C as effectively as by prolonged severe cold.
Lacking a greenhouse, I am determined to grow a tree in the open
ground. The solution may lie in a cultivar called "Veronique",
which purports to be hardy down to -20°C, and to produce a
reasonable crop in most British summers. With the right genes, it
may just give me the sunny fix I crave.
And if I do get caught out in a winter to come, all may not be
lost. The remarkable regenerative powers that enabled olives all
over the Peloponnese to rise, phoenix-like, after the forest fires
in 2007, work just as well after a killer frost.