It may sound counterintuitive, but to get the best harvest of apples trees and other fruit trees, we actually need to remove some of the fruit – a technique known as thinning fruit. This is often done in early summer before the “June drop” when the tree naturally drops some of its burden. Here are directions (and a video demo) on how to thin fruit.
Why Thin a Fruit Tree
If your fruit trees suddenly deposit hundreds of small fruits on the ground, there is nothing wrong. This is the “June Drop.”
Many tree fruits, including apples and pears, naturally drop some of their fruits in early summer. The tree is just reducing the quantity of fruit they carry in order to successfully ripen those that remain.
Selectively thinning further can also help prevent problems. It avoids fruits rubbing together, which can create entry points for disease, and also stops trees from cropping heavily one year, only to take the year year off—a common problem known as biennial bearing.
If they aren’t thinned, some trees such as plums can crop so heavily that branches may actually snap under the weight. Thinning enables the fruits that remain to grow into bigger, healthier fruits. Fewer, larger fruits are usually more useful than lots of tiny fruits.
Bottom-line: It’s your choice on whether you wish to thin a fruit tree but there are many benefits. Certainly, summer pruning has always been carried out on trained apples and pears—those in the form of cordons or espaliers and all the other clever shapes that can be created from their branches. Also, as garden apples and pears are now almost always grown on dwarfing stock (tall, standard trees are not pruned in summer), it’s not only possible, but they’ll be much easier to control.
When to Thin a Fruit Tree
Summer pruning mainly takes place in mid summer (July and August in the northern hemisphere), but many folks like to prune before the “June Drop.” Why? The tree is indiscriminate about which fruit it lets go, so it is a good idea to selectively remove the smallest fruit at this time of year before the tree does it for you.
NOTE: Thinning fruits is different than pruning. Pruning to shape a tree (remove limbs, etc) is done in the winter when the tree is dormant.
How to Thin an Apple Tree
The goal is to reduce each cluster on a spur to just one or two fruits that are not touching each other. Not only will these grow and ripen better as a result but also the risk of damaging the branches by the weight of the fruit later in the year is greatly reduced. With all fruit that is to be eaten rather than juiced, quality is much more important than quantity. You can always buy average apples but if you grow them yourself then you should always aim for them to be as good as possible.
Use sharp pruners or scissors to thin apples.
- First remove any misshapen or damaged fruits.
- Then cut out the smallest fruits, and any that are badly positioned.
- Continue thinning until the fruits are evenly spaced, and only the biggest and healthiest are left.
- Leave about 4 to 6 inches between apples of eating varieties, or 6 to 9 inches between cooking apples.
See more about taking care of your apple trees.
Thinning Other Fruit Trees
It’s not as critical to thin out other fruit trees but it is still beneficial.
- Thin clusters of pears to two fruits, so there’s around 4 to 6 inches between fruits. See more about taking care of pear trees.
- Thin plum fruitlets using your thumb and finger. Leave one fruit every couple of inches, or if it’s easier, one pair of plums every six inches.
- Thin peaches in stages to one fruit every four inches once they are hazelnut sized, then again at golf ball size to their final spacing of 8 to 10 inches. See more about taking care of peach trees.
- Thin nectarines once, to six inches apart.
Interested in planning a fruit orchard? Try out our excellent online Garden Planner—free trial!