When we were first looking for a house to buy in Italy I made it one of my (many) criteria that there should be olives growing there. For me this is the sign that winter can never be too cold or too long and that summer will be really warm. Having found the house with its olive grove of 200 (or there abouts - I have never managed to count exactly) trees on a steep slope the question was then whether the garden should include the olive grove and how to make transtion between them a pleasing one. Gradually I am starting to make inroads to the olive grove with shrubs and pathways so I have great hopes for the 'nature barely tamed' look that I rather like, but the management of the grove itself is (surprisingly) rather more controversial.
Traditionally, in Umbria the olives are planted a wide distance apart (due to low rainfall etc) and the spaces between are planted with arable crops, often grain. Vines were also strung between the trees. This mixed planting has a number of advantages for small farms not least of which being that it looks very attractive with the patchwork or colours and textures. Modern olive growers nowadays go for much closer spacing of the trees and a mono culture. This raises the question of what to do about the bare earth between the trees: if left uncared for there will grow up grass and weed that present a serious fire hazard and there is also the belief locally that the grass will prevent rainwater and nutirents from reaching the tree roots. So everyone ploughs the olive groves in early summer. The result? Poor dusty soil which gets washed down the hillside witht he first rains. This never happened in the old days because the interplanted crops would have stabilised the ground. If you don't plough then the local Comune comes round and does it for you and hands you the bill. There is of course a much better way: mow the grass. It looks a lot nicer; stops the soil being washed away and keeps down the fire risk. It also allows a carpet of wild flowers to bloom in spring and early summer. This approach is strongly promoted by olive expert Brian Chatterton based on his experience as a dry land agronomist (to see his excellent book on olive growing go here http://www.cottage-umbria.com/GrowingOlives.html ).
Well, when we put this to our local Cooperative, which provides the heavy duty machinery for farm work around here, their reaction was totally negative and they flatly refused to do it. 'You won't get so much as one olive from those trees if you don't plough - it's well known'. So we have had to hire in private contractors to mow the olive grove for the past two summers - the hill is too steep for our own little tractor. Last year the main olive crop failed due to a scorching May which burnt all the flowers, but the early flowering olive 'Dolce Agogia' survived and fruited extremely well - over 100 litres of oil from just a few trees. This year we had trouble harvesting on account of the never ending rain and we have had to mill the fruit in two batches. But it looks like we will have got at least 200 litres this year and the fruit is of an excellent quality, free from pests and diseases. So for us the mowing is here to stay and the olive grove is destined to become ever more a part of the garden.