Tree of the week: 'Our olive tree is very expressive. It tells you when it’s thirsty'

Gregory Robinson

Every morning John Copeland gets up early to watch the sunrise with his wife, Shannon, and their dogs. The former television producer always stands next to the same olive tree in one of the three orchards he owns in Santa Ynez, California. For there, he says, they get a magnificent view of all the trees “illuminated by the glow of the rising sun”.

This particular olive tree, which sits in the middle of their oldest orchard, is just over 20 years old. The couple make artisan extra virgin olive oil and now have about 800 Italian, Spanish and mission olive trees. “When we planted this, it was a one-gallon tree,” says John, explaining that it’s a reference to the size of its pot. At the time, it was just one metre tall. “Now it’s an actual tree. I think, ‘Gosh, we’ve nurtured this thing and we now have this thriving orchard.’”

The tree is sustainably farmed with John and Shannon doing all the pruning, fertilising, weed management and irrigation. “The tree is very expressive,” he says. “It tells you when it’s thirsty, it tells you if it needs a little bit more nitrogen.”

Over the past few weeks, the buds on the tree, which is of the Italian variety, have begun to open. “It has the most beautiful white flowers with vibrant yellow centres. We had some nice windy days to move the pollen around. The petals fall off the blooms and the olives are there, so we’re starting to see what kind of crop we’ve got.”

Growing olives is a lot more fun than working in television

John Copeland

The 69-year-old worked on many successful TV shows, including Babylon 5. But 20 years ago he decided to leave the entertainment industry to become a farmer. The couple now have three orchards on a 20-acre site. “Since 2005, when we had our first harvest, we have been making and selling extra virgin olive oil,” says John. “It is a lot more fun doing that than working in television.”

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Every day, John walks through the orchards with his dogs or rides on horseback to see which trees have bloomed. “Even though the trees get covered with bloom, only 1% will turn into fruit. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s still a lot of fruit, about 150lb [68kg] of olives per tree.”

John and Shannon always head to the area around their favourite olive tree when they want to relax and reinvigorate themselves. “Walking here, you get a boost from the oxygen the trees are exhaling as part of the photosynthetic process,” he says. “It’s almost like getting a whiff off an oxygen bottle. They provide us with a wonderful sense of wellbeing.”

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