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Winterizing your olive trees and protecting them from the cold

Winterizing an olive tree

You might not expect this: what is most fatal to olive trees in winter isn’t the cold – it’s moisture. Protect and winterize your olive tree by diverting excess water and providing shelter and insulation.

If the cold sets in gradually and the air is dry, olive trees are hardy down to 10 to 17°F (-8 to -12°C). Some have been known to survive temperatures as low as 0 to 4°F (-15 to -18°C). When moisture and water join the game, all is lost.

Key facts on winterizing olive trees:

Olive hardiness zone UK: H2-H3
Olive hardiness zone USA: 9b-10
Hardiest olive tree varieties: Arbequina, Picholine and Mission

Protecting olive trees in winter

Protecting olive in winterThe basic rules to protect your olive tree from the cold in winter are:

  • excellent drainage (no soggy soil)
  • shelter from wind (windbreakers)
  • fleece or bubble wrap (insulation from the cold)
  • moving the tree indoors if too cold (for potted olive)

You’ll have to proceed differently depending on whether your olive grows in the ground (see right below) or in a pot/container (jump to it here).

Winterizing an olive tree in the ground

If you live wherever winters are mild, with only light frost, you shouldn’t worry, your olive trees will certainly survive. However, if you live North or in a region where it rains a lot during winter, you must take a few steps to protect your olive trees.


It is important to evacuate water as far as possible from your olive trees in winter: nothing is more dangerous to your tree.

  • With soil, create a mound around each tree so water doesn’t flow towards the trunk.
  • Stop irrigating after the harvest.
  • Don’t fertilize after the harvest. Specifically, don’t add nitrogen-rich fertilizer in fall or autumn.

In spring, after freezing is over, start irrigating or watering again. This will help your olive trees recover from wounds due to frost.


Growing your olive trees in front of a wall or hedge will cut off the coldest winds. If some portions of your orchard are exposed to cold wind, set up a windbreaker. Even a low stone wall will work wonders and is better than nothing.


Mulch the base around the olive trees to protect roots from freezing.

Use organic plant-based mulch: it breaks down and fertilizes soil only towards the end of winter. Before that, it’s a great insulator.

Wrap the tree with insulation. On smaller trees, a wide swath of bubble-wrap or winterizing fleece helps survive over the first few years. A fully-organic option is burlap or bundles of straw.

Once wrapping the tree becomes impractical, let the tree fend for itself, or wrap just the trunk and scaffold branches. Older trees resist cold weather better than younger ones. In fact, cold weather improves olive-bearing, to a certain point.

Olive tree in a pot: winter care

Once again, if you live in warm areas, where temperatures never drop below 20°F (-6 or -7°C), not much is needed.

  • Place your potted olive tree in the sun, near a wall.
  • Water only if the soil is completely dry, and then only small amounts of water.
  • It’s normal for the tree to lose some of its leaves over the dormant period, about 1/3rd of them will fall in winter.

Protect olive in pot during winterHowever, if you live further North, and the weather is colder:

  • Move your olive tree indoors to a cool and well-lit place where it never freezes. Garage, unheated greenhouse, garden shed…
  • Protect your olive trees from excess soil moisture by not watering much.

If you cannot bring your potted olive trees indoors,

  • Never bring your olive trees indoors in winter. Giving it only a couple days of warmth would trigger growth. This is uncalled for in the middle of winter.
  • Outside, bring them as close as possible to a window so they can benefit from the warmth of the house.
  • Mulch the base of your olive trees to protect them from the cold.

Lastly, wrap the olive tree as follows:

  • Wrap the pot with a thick cover or straw, and block rain from trickling in.
  • Cover all branches with horticultural fleece, keeping buffer space all around so leaves don’t touch it. The goal here is to avoid condensation touching the plant since it is a source of moisture. Pack straw around the branches if need be.
  • Water as little as possible, and only if no rainfall reaches the plant.

Read also:

Smart tip about winterizing olive trees

You’ll increase hardiness of your olive tree in winter by protecting it from wind. Set a lattice up on two sides, forming a corner that will cut the worst of colds winds off.

Image credits (edits Gaspard Lorthiois):
CC BY 2.0: André P. Meyer-Vitali
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  • Ellen Jarvinen wrote on 23 December 2021 at 22 h 55 min

    I am on vacation and won’t be home for two weeks. We are supposed to get single-digit temps next week, which rarely happens in Duvall, Washington. My neighbor is going to cover my baby olive trees (arbequina, about 3 feet) with the jackets I bought for them. Is there more I can do? They are planted on a sunny, steep slope in the ground, so the drainage is good but they don’t have protection.

    • Gaspard wrote on 24 December 2021 at 3 h 00 min

      The jackets will do the trick, but they’ll do so even better if your neighbor can stuff them with hay, with more hay on the ground to protect the roots, too. If it’s particularly windy, it helps to plant a wind breaker to break it up around the trees: wind make the cold even colder. Since your olive trees are still small, those windbreakers you’d set up a the beach are perfect.

      Since the location drains well, there’s a big chance they can survive. Chances are slimmer with only the jackets, but that’s already way better than nothing at all – they’d surely die if nothing was done at all! PS: You’re lucky to have such a helpful neighbor, it’s really nice to see good deeds such as his or hers in action!

  • Sky wrote on 9 October 2021 at 16 h 27 min

    Hi, I have two olive trees on a covered entry porch in Hood River, OR. It gets cold 25 or so occasionally but it’s a damp cold so it feels colder. The porch faces south and is relatively protected from the wind and rain. Should I wrap them? Or just wrap the pots to insulate them a bit? Love to hear suggestions. Cheers!

    • Gaspard wrote on 10 October 2021 at 3 h 17 min

      Hi Sky! Your olive tree should be safe, first of all because since it’s under a covered porch, you’re the one controlling watering and not nature; second of all, it doesn’t get overly cold, so it’s quite ok. To make sure, though, it would be best to wrap the pot itself in some kind of fleece or bubble wrap or even tie a layer of straw around it. Also make sure it doesn’t rain in the pot, from slanted showers. Wet roots is what kills olive in cold winters. Perhaps a disc of plastic or a tarp loosely tied to the trunk to form a cone can keep most of the water out.

  • Rocco A Maccarone wrote on 12 October 2019 at 4 h 13 min

    This article was very helpful to me, an olive tree owner want-a-be. I am in Portland, TN. and temps do get down to 0 degrees for short periods each winter. So I understand I would have to bring my tree inside during these very cold times.
    Thanks again,
    Rocco Maccarone

    • Gaspard wrote on 12 October 2019 at 9 h 34 min

      Thanks for your comment, Rocco, I’m happy this could help. I suppose you’ve also checked the page on freeze damage on olive trees, it also gives a good picture of what to expect as temperatures drop. If a forecast drops to certain thresholds, it’s best to have practiced a bit earlier those steps to take. Kind of like you should always practice equipping snow chains on your tires before it snows 🙂

  • Gabriel M. wrote on 27 January 2019 at 1 h 17 min

    I live in Northeast Alabama. I was told by the people I purchased my olive trees from that I am slightly above the zone for Arbequina olives, even though those are supposed to be one of the more cold hardy varieties, so I was under the impression that I would need to bring them indoors or into a greenhouse, even though this is a bit of trouble (I bring them into a garage with artificial light for now, where it gets cold but never freezes, and I was considering a greenhouse, mostly just for the olives, at least at first). Your article says that they should be fine in the winter though. Are you sure about this? That would be great news, but it seems to conflict with the USDA zoning info I have from a couple of other sources, and the “hardy down to 20 degrees” info I have (we brought them inside just before it got into the teens at night, when some sleet and a light dusting of snow is on the way). But you say not much is needed if I plan to keep them outside all winter. Granted, it’s getting back up into the 40s and 50s most days, but it does stay below freezing in the day and in the teens at night for up to a week or so most winters here, and it snows or sleets usually at least a couple of times a year usually, and occasionally we get multiple inches of snow on the ground continuously for as long as a week. Will the olive trees really be able to handle this? I just want to make sure. They are about 7-8 feet high now, with a lot of time invested, and they are now worth a fair amount and difficult to replace. I thought this might be the case, because my understanding is that the Greek climate in classical times was colder than it is here now, and yet they had olives everywhere already then, but I just want to verify this before i risk their lives. Could you possibly provide some sources for this information? Thank you.

    • Gaspard Lorthiois wrote on 5 February 2019 at 15 h 00 min

      Hi Gabriel, your detailed question deserved a thorough answer!

      In a nutshell, although average temperatures seem to allow for growing olives, the occasional deep freeze puts outdoor olive trees at serious risk.

      Every few years, temperatures drop significantly, reaching 8 or 9 °F in Anniston, Alabama as it did in Jan 2018, 10°F (-12°C) in Jan 2015, 8°F (-13°C) in 2014, 9° (-12°C) in 2003. It always drops down to the lower teens 13, 14°F (-10°C) at some point almost every year. I took Anniston for reference since it isn’t too far from where you are.

      Olive trees, even the hardier Arbequina variety, can cope with routine colds in the lower 20s (-4 to -6°C), but to survive anything colder like the lower teens or upper single digits 8 to 12°F (-13 to -11°C), special conditions need to be brought together:

      • rather large tree already, at least 5 inches (15 cm) across. Younger trees are more vulnerable.
      • no precipitations in the preceding 10 days. As said in the article, moisture kills more than cold.
      • slow descent in temperature, over a week for instance. Sudden drops from 32°F to 10°F (0°C to -11°C) cause more damage than incremental low temps.
      • crucial point is that the preceding months should have been quite cool to ensure the trees haven’t started their spring vegetation.

      Even large olive trees suffer dearly when temperatures drop below 5°F (-15°C), losing leaf buds and twigs and entire branches.

      Two cold fronts swept over Europe, the more severe one in 1956 and a lightly less severe one in 1985.

      The 1956 one saw a mild December and January (temperatures barely around freezing), followed by a sudden snowstorm early Feb that brought temperatures down to 13°F (-10°C), which stayed for a week. A second cold front dropped temps down again to -5°F (-21°C) immediately after that, and a third cold wave meant that temperatures stayed below 13°F (-10°C) for an entire three weeks. That year, four out of five (80%) of all olive trees were cut down because entire trunks had died off – that was five million trees in France alone!

      The 1985 cold front wasn’t as severe, but also resulted in nearly half of all olive plantations being abandoned again.

      In many cases, trees cut down because the cold had killed the trunk were able to send new shoots up, so technically the tree wasn’t “killed”, but harvests were put off for around 4 to 5 years as new shoots grew and were pruned and trained.

      When I saw that historical lows for areas like Anniston flirt with these extreme temperatures (I saw a record for -27°F (-32°C) in 1966 in New Market over in Madison county), I understood you’d be up to the occasional catastrophic devastation as well, if your olive trees were planted in the ground without any form of protection. If planted in containers or cloth sacs, they would be even more vulnerable because the cold would hit the roots, too.

      So your horticulture store’s advice is well grounded in facts. Since you mentioned your grapevines were borderline surviving, expect the same from olive trees. What you can do is make cuttings from the twigs you prune off your olive trees and try transplanting those outdoors once they’ve grown a bit, that could be an interesting and not-too-costly experiment. But since you want to be 100% sure your actual olive trees survive, either keep bringing them in the garage in Jan and Feb, find some kind of well-insulated tent-like structure you can quickly set up that keeps temps in the lower 20s, or for a permanent solution get a greenhouse.

      What is interesting, though, is that olive production increases on years that have a harsh (but not too harsh) winter. It’s said that micro-fissures in twigs and tree stems put the tree in “recovery mode” and it goes all-out in terms of blooming and fruit-bearing. This is actually one of the reasons pruning started being practiced on olive trees. So the saying “if it doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger” is very true!

      I’ll try to work this information into the article, so that it might not be misleading to readers in zones 7b and colder. For those in zones 8a and warmer, that extra 10°F means that olives are a welcome addition to any garden, whether in pots or in the ground, as long as basic winterizing with horticultural fleece is provided on wet, cold days!

      • Gabriel M wrote on 9 February 2019 at 20 h 38 min

        Thank you so much for your thorough research, and for helping me to better understand my options for growing olive trees in this area or in other areas with similar climates. Fortunately, it looks like we will be able to put up a green house before winter next year, which should protect the few trees we have here. In the future, as a more permanent solution, we will probably grow any additional olive trees that we plant in the ground somewhere further south of here, probably in zone 8b near the gulf coast. Based on your advice, this seem like our best options for growing our own olives, given the circumstances.

        I very much appreciate you looking into this for me in such detail. The additional information you’ve provided should be enough to save the lives of the trees I have.

        I am very much looking forward to your olive tree pruning article as well. As you write that future article, please consider one additional question I have. If I am going to keep these trees alive over the winter in my area, it appears that I will need to either bring them inside the garage under artificial light or into a greenhouse, as you suggested in your reply to my comment. I can do this, but I will probably need to prune the trees keep them around 8-8.5 feet high, including the 20 gallon fabric pots, which are themselves about 1.5 feet high. It is my understanding that these arbequina trees typically grow to 8-10 feet high above the ground or the surface of the pot. What I’ve heard so far about pruning olives suggests that we should probably not “top” the trees. Will it be ok to prune the tops of the olive trees to keep them around 7-7.5 feet above ground, rather than 8-10, or will this be harmful to the trees? Do you have any additional instructions about how to prune the trees to control their height without harming them, and in a way that will still keep them as productive as possible?

        Thanks again for all of your help!