Thinning Fruit on an Apple Tree
Apple trees are a rewarding fruit tree for the backyard gardener. They require little care beyond basic watering and pruning - some gardeners will even tell you to ignore the tree completely for a great crop.
But after a few productive years in the ground, you may find that your apple tree seems to be on an "every other year" fruit cycle; one year you have a bumper crop, and the next you have a very sparse crop with small fruit to boot. One way to help prevent this from happening is to thin the fruit by hand each season.
If you missed the signs of the "June drop," or if your tree didn't drop any fruit at all, you can choose to thin fruit by the calendar, in late June, or by visual test: when fruit is set and small, there are no visible new blossoms, and all blossoms are brown and dried.
When to Thin Apples
Apple trees will have a natural time when it drops fruit. This natural drop, called the "June drop," happens because the tree can only support so many apples. In the late May to end of June time-frame, the tree will drop its excess apples naturally.
Because of the "June drop," many gardeners feel that hand thinning isn't necessary, but often times, hand thinning is the only way to ensure that your backyard apple tree won't fall into an every other year fruit pattern. It also helps to keep your tree healthy by removing puny fruit, diseased fruit, or overly abundant fruit that can harbor diseases and pests or overly stress your tree. Thinning can be a great boost to young trees, by ensuring that young, rapidly growing trees keep an open crown where sunlight and air can filter through its canopy.
So the best time to thin your apple tree is after the "June drop," when your apple tree naturally drops its excess fruit. When you see the ground beneath your apple tree littered with small fruit, you'll know that the June drop is underway. Sweep up and toss the dropped fruit, and, when the tree is no longer dropping fruit, you'll know it's time to hand thin the remaining apples on the tree.
Backyard Apple Tree
A Question About Apples
What's your favorite apple?
How to Thin an Apple Tree
To thin fruit from an apple tree by hand, start by looking for the clusters of apples on your tree. A cluster is usually made up of one big apple in the center, surrounded by smaller apples that grow to the side. Ideally, you want to keep the big center apple, but in the backyard environment, this is not always possible due to backyard pests. So within the clusters, you will remove:
- Apples that are obviously infested by wasps or other pests;
- Rotten apples or those half-eaten by animals;
- Very puny or small apples;
- Apples growing to the side of the one central apple;
- Apples that won't get any sun.
Your goal is to leave only one healthy apple per cluster.
If your apple crop is very heavy, you may wish to make additional decisions about what fruit to thin. In this case, consider removing the following:
- Apples on weak branches that are bowed, where the apples may touch the ground;
- Apples on excessively loaded branches that could break;
- Apples that look like they are ripening too early.
What Fruit to Remove?Click thumbnail to view full-size
Backyard Apple Tree
My backyard apple tree was planted about when the house was built - around 1974. We have no idea what variety of apple it is, just that it is a sweet eating apple that ripens around September. At nearly 40 years old, the tree is a reliable over-producer of apples. It has a tremendous "June drop" in the first week in June, when the fruit is already fairly big. Since about 2005, the tree hasn't had a lot of fertilizer or even water, it has been attacked by an unidentified wood borer, yet it continues to produce. We thin the fruit by hand every year in mid June and prune the tree lightly in winter.
My best advice when it comes to thinning a backyard apple tree is to be ruthless. Really try to thin it to one apple per cluster. You'll have more consistent crops from year to year and your tree will remain healthy for decades.