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How to Thin Fruit on an Apple Tree

Updated on December 2, 2017
prokidwriter profile image

KA Hanna is a retired engineer who enjoys gardening and conducting performance tests on garden products.

Apple Trees

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.

Apples

Apples, ready for thinning
Apples, ready for thinning | Source

Tip

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 have a natural time when it drops fruit. This natural drop, often called "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 this "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, diseased, or overly abundant fruit that can increase diseases and pests that may cause stress to your tree. Thinning can be a great boost to young trees, by ensuring an open crown where sunlight and air can filter through its canopy.

The best time to thin your apple tree is after the "June drop." 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 slows dramatically or stops, you'll know it's time to hand thin the remaining apples on the tree.

Backyard Apple Tree

Established backyard apple trees do well with little care. Thin the fruit when the apples are set and after the natural "June drop."
Established backyard apple trees do well with little care. Thin the fruit when the apples are set and after the natural "June drop." | Source

A Question About Apples

What's your favorite apple?

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How to Thin an Apple Tree

To begin, 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 just the big center apple, but in the backyard environment this is not always possible, due to a variety of reasons. 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, but you may leave two or even three apples where necessary.

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
Look for clusters, remove the side growing apples, leaving the center one. Usually this is the largest and healthiest in the cluster.Remove apples infested by pests.Remove dead fruit, or partially eaten fruit.If a whole cluster of fruit shows signs of infestation, remove the whole cluster.Remove very tiny fruit.Remove significantly smaller fruit in a pair of apples.Leave only the healthiest fruit on the tree.
Look for clusters, remove the side growing apples, leaving the center one. Usually this is the largest and healthiest in the cluster.
Look for clusters, remove the side growing apples, leaving the center one. Usually this is the largest and healthiest in the cluster. | Source
Remove apples infested by pests.
Remove apples infested by pests. | Source
Remove dead fruit, or partially eaten fruit.
Remove dead fruit, or partially eaten fruit. | Source
If a whole cluster of fruit shows signs of infestation, remove the whole cluster.
If a whole cluster of fruit shows signs of infestation, remove the whole cluster. | Source
Remove very tiny fruit.
Remove very tiny fruit. | Source
Remove significantly smaller fruit in a pair of apples.
Remove significantly smaller fruit in a pair of apples. | Source
Leave only the healthiest fruit on the tree.
Leave only the healthiest fruit on the tree. | Source

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.

Gurney's Demonstrates Thinning Apples

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    • prokidwriter profile image
      Author

      KA Hanna 5 years ago from America's Finest City

      Thanks My Cook Book!

    • My Cook Book profile image

      Dil Vil 5 years ago from India

      Thanks for the interesting hub, i had a good read.

    • prokidwriter profile image
      Author

      KA Hanna 5 years ago from America's Finest City

      Thanks rose! I like to take pics of my garden..

    • rose-the planner profile image

      rose-the planner 5 years ago from Toronto, Ontario-Canada

      This was very interesting and informative. I especially loved your images. Great hub! Thanks for sharing. (Voted Up) -Rose

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