How to Thin 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.
When to Thin Apples
Apple trees have a natural time when they drop 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 timeframe, the tree will drop its excess apples naturally.
Because of this "June drop," many gardeners feel that hand-thinning isn't necessary. Oftentimes, however, 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. Thinning can also 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. When this process slows dramatically or stops, you'll know it's time to hand-thin the remaining apples on the tree.
The Visual Test
If your tree didn't drop any fruit at all, you can choose to thin fruit by conducting the "visual test." When fruit is set and small, there are no visible new blossoms, and all blossoms are brown and dried, you'll know it's time to hand-thin.
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. This is not always possible in the backyard environment, however, 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.