When I first planted my orchard to reap big harvests, the worst mistake I made was not thinning the fruit.
It seemed counterintuitive to remove fruit before it’s ready, but it’s actually healthy for the tree, makes for bigger harvests, and ensures next year’s crops are plentiful.
The key is how and when to do it. Don’t repeat my mistake of admiring a fruit-laden tree, and then regretting the quality and size at harvest time.
Do your trees and yourself a favor. Consider thinning the fruit. If you are curious and haven’t done it before, join us and learn all about it.
What Is Fruit Thinning?
If you’ve never thinned fruit before, you could be forgiven for wondering what the heck it’s all about. What you are doing is removing some of the immature fruit to make room for the remaining fruit to grow.
Often when growing conditions are right, fruit trees set more fruit than they can maintain and grow to a decent size and of good quality. Some trees will self-abort excess fruit, and gardeners call this the June drop when it occurs in early summer.
But most trees need help. The problem is the tree often keeps too many fruits and you end up with small fruit, which is disappointing. Sometimes the tree doesn’t drop any and keeps overcrowded clusters.
Although thinning by definition gives you less fruit, it provides bigger, more usable fruit, and better quality. Thinning also helps to prevent diseases caused by crowding.
Reasons for Thinning Fruit
Although many of us thin fruit so we can get bigger fruit and a higher quality harvest, there are other, just as important reasons as well.
- Thinning can help airflow and sunlight penetrate the tree and fruit.
- When too many fruits are crammed together, they can damage each other when they expand and when the wind blows the branches around. This results in small, imperfect fruit with damaged skin.
- If all the fruit is allowed to grow, branches can break. The sight of a fully laden fruit tree at fruit set may be exciting, but it becomes nail-biting when the branches start bending at sharp angles from the weight of expanding fruit.
- Thinning helps prevent biennial bearing. This is when fruit trees crop heavily one year, and then very little or not at all the following year. When a fruit tree produces too many fruit one year, it reduces the resources available for the following season. When fewer blooms are made the next year after that, the tree builds resources for the next season, producing too many again. This pattern develops and repeats unless you thin fruit. Apples and pears often fall into this pattern.
- You can help reduce the spread of disease by thinning any damaged or diseased fruit early on in the growth of the crop. This includes coddling moths, scabs, and brown rot.
Fruits That Respond to Thinning
Not all fruit trees respond to or even need thinning. Nut and cherry trees can generally get through the harvest without needing this type of intervention.
These trees will need thinning of heavy fruit set:
When to Thin Fruit
The best time to thin your fruit is early summer to give the best growth of the remaining fruit.
You can also wait for the tree to drop its fruit around June, and remove any excess after that if you’re unsure of when exactly to start. Complete thinning by the middle of July so the tree has the time to direct resources to the remaining fruit for the coming harvest.
If you have early or late setting fruit, you just need to adjust things for your particular fruit trees. Early setting fruit might need to be thinned in mid-spring and late setting fruit in July.
I have apples that are ready for picking early in the season, mid-season, and very late in the season. If I’m super busy I may thin them all at the same time, but timing relevant to each tree is best.
How to Thin Fruit
Each fruit tree needs to be thinned slightly differently. Don’t worry though. If you have lots of different fruit trees, or just one or two, it’s an easy task. In addition to the following, avocado, persimmon, and kiwis should be thinned, as well.
The timing and method for apples depends on whether you’re growing cooking or eating apples.
Cooking apples usually grow a lot larger than eating apples. This means you need to thin a little harder, providing more growing space.
Thin each cluster of fruit down to one or two apples. A good rule of thumb is for one cooking apple spaced by about six to eight inches apart from the next one.
If the fruit clusters are set close together, leave one well-formed fruit and remove the rest. If the clusters are further apart, leave two fruit, but make sure they won’t touch as they grow. Visualize them growing to the average size of the apple variant.
Leave around four to six inches of spacing between fruit.
Pears (both Asian and European) need less thinning than apples. Leave two fruit per cluster, and give a spacing of about for to six inches between fruit. If you have a large pear variety, leave just one fruit per cluster.
A rule of thumb to thin pears is to begin when the fruits first start to turn downwards.
Plums often overcrop, especially when young and into the middle of their lifespans. If you’re lucky, plums can overcrop their entire lives.
Leave two fruit per cluster, in a space of around six inches between clusters. If you leave one fruit, leave a space of three inches.
I find peach trees excel at dropping excess fruit, so make sure you do it after the June drop. When the peaches are the size of a hazelnut, thin out to one peach every four inches. Once they get to the size of a walnut, thin them out to one every eight inches. Some may have fallen off in between your thinning, so make sure you take that into account.
Nectarines only need one thinning exercise. When they are the size of a walnut, thin to one fruit every six to eight inches.
You should only need to thin apricots if the growing conditions are perfect and the tree is well established. Only thin out if there is a heavy excess.
When the apricots are the size of a walnut, thin them out to one fruit every three inches.
Thinning Dwarf Trees
Make sure you thin your fruit from dwarf trees, as well. These trees can be quite weak structurally, so excess fruit is likely to snap the branches.
Most dwarf fruit trees bloom more in the first couple of years when they are young, so you do have to protect the branches from the weight of excess fruit.
Techniques for Thinning Fruit
When you start your thinning, you may stand there and wonder exactly which fruit to remove and which to leave behind.
- Remove the king fruit if necessary. This is the bigger fruit in the middle of the cluster. It is often misshapen and damaged easily due to being in the middle. This is especially so on apple trees. If the king fruit is perfect, leave it and remove the others around it.
- Remove the smallest of fruits and those that are damaged, diseased, blemished, or insect damaged.
- Leave the most perfect fruit on the tree for harvest.
- Weak branches should have all of the fruit removed to prevent breakage. If you don’t want to remove them all, remove the majority.
- Consider removing all of the little fruit on trees less than two years old to allow the tree to put all its resources into forming strong root systems.
- Don’t rip or yank the fruit off. That will damage the spur or break the branch. I prefer to pinch them off, but you can cut them or bend them backward.
Pruning Helps Thinning
Pruning is important for a number of reasons, including contributing to thinning success.
When you prune trees, you remove wood that excess fruit grows on. A well-pruned tree kept compact and tidy, helps to prevent excessive fruit set.
7 Tips for Thinning Fruit
- Safety is first in the garden. Use an orchard ladder if you can. They are designed to be used on soft, uneven ground, and have a tripod base.
- Thin apples before they are the diameter of a dime. You want to provide the remaining fruit with as much energy as possible.
- Don’t break the spurs when you thin the fruit. The spur is the short twig off the branches that bears the fruit buds. They bear the fruit for next year as well.
- Thin fruit within 30 days of bloom for best results for plums, nectarines, peaches, and apricots.
- Once you’ve thinned the fruit, make sure you provide the tree with plenty of water. This is essential for healthy, good-sized fruit.
- Don’t be afraid to thin fruit. It’s estimated that if you looked at all the flowers of potential fruit on a tree, just 5 percent is required for a full harvest.
- Fruit thinning may be tedious, but it helps with the quality and size of fruit and the health and longevity of the tree.