How to Thin Fruit for a Better Harvest

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Ripe apples

When some years ago as a gardening newbie I was advised to cut away and discard half my hard-won apple fruitlets you can imagine my reaction. Horror, disbelief and flat refusal – why, oh why, would I want to do that?! My horticultural superior soothed my troubled self and explained, in a reassuring tone, that by removing fruitlets you are, in essence, improving the quality and size of what’s left.

To those unfamiliar with thinning tree fruits, the process admittedly seems counterintuitive. But Nature herself is also in on the act – sloughing off excess fruitlets so that those left behind have a better chance of reaching the ripening stage. The human gardener just takes this natural process one step further, removing a few more fruits to concentrate on the production of beautiful and delicious fruits of a decent size.

The ‘June’ Drop

Mother Nature completes her fruit thinning in early summer, in a period called the 'June drop'. If you’re reading this in the Southern Hemisphere, I guess you could call it the December drop – but you get the idea!

Immature apples

Nature discards excess fruitlets by severing their lifeline so that they drop to the ground. To the uninitiated it’s a pretty alarming phenomenon, but it’s all perfectly normal. Nature’s priority is reproduction, not the size of fruits, so the June drop is all about maximizing the final count of viable seeds. We’re not concerned with that – we just want juicy succulence to sink our teeth into!

Advantages to Thinning Fruits

Most tree fruits will produce lots of smaller fruits if left to their own devices. By stepping in and carrying out an additional thinning, we can ensure that those fruits remaining are bigger, healthier and better looking.

While the main purpose behind thinning fruits is size and quality, there are a number of other advantages. When left to bear very heavy crops, some varieties can be tripped into a biennial-bearing pattern, where the tree becomes so exhausted that it fails to produce any fruits the following year. It’s also not unknown for exceptionally heavily laden branches to snap under the strain – so there’s an element of risk management going on here too.

Properly thinning fruits will allow more light and air into the canopy, encouraging even ripening and reducing the opportunities for pests and diseases to spread.

How to Thin Fruits

Not all tree fruits need thinning. The usual suspects requiring a trim are apples, plums, peaches and nectarines and, to a lesser extent, pears and apricots. Every tree is different, but there are some general guidelines that will help you to get the best results.

Apples before thinning

Apples: Start by removing any malformed or otherwise suspect-looking fruitlets; only the best-looking fruitlets go through to the next round! You should also remove the ‘king’ fruit, which lies at the center of each cluster, plus any fruitlets that are poorly positioned. Now thin out those left behind so that there’s one fruit every 10-15cm (4-6in) for dessert/eating varieties and one fruit every 15-23cm (6-9in) for culinary/cooking varieties. Use secateurs/pruners or long, sharp scissors to cut away the fruits. Or with a little practice just tug the fruits away between your thumb and forefinger.

Apples after thinning

Plums: These guys are among the most energetic of all tree fruits, so you’ll definitely need to flex the fingers and get thinning. Pick off excess fruits between finger and thumb, leaving 5-8cm (2-3in) between smaller fruits or one pair of fruits every 15cm (6in).

Peaches and nectarines: Start thinning peaches in spring when they are the size of a hazelnut to leave 10cm (4in) between fruitlets. Then complete a further thin once they reach walnut size – to 20-25cm (8-10in) apart. Nectarines are thinned in one go at walnut size to 15cm (6in) apart.

Immature apricots

Apricots: No need to thin unless a particularly heavy crop is on the cards, when the young fruits should be thinned to 5-10cm (2-4in) apart according to the size of fruits required. Thin the fruits when they are the size of a hazelnut.

Pears: They need less thinning than apples, though you’ll still get a better-quality crop if you take the scissors to them. Thin the fruits to leave two per cluster at 10-15cm (4-6in) apart. If the tree looks like it’s on course for a very heavy crop, be a little more selective, thinning to one fruit per cluster.

So be brave – not to say ruthless – and thin your tree fruits. It’s for the best, I promise!

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Comments

 
"It would be great to have a Print button to save or forward to others. It'd also be great to have an email button to send to others (best if site's email server used for more future links by receivers). Great article..."
Elise on Sunday 28 June 2015
"Elise, thanks for your comment - we're considering both of those features in our next site upgrade which will launch by the end of the year."
Jeremy Dore on Monday 29 June 2015
"I am interested to know the reasoning behind removing the king fruit. I have never seen this recommendation before."
Christie Higginbottom on Monday 6 July 2015
"Hi Christie. Removal of the king fruit is a well-established technique for producing bigger, better fruits in the apples that remain."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 6 July 2015
"Thank you, Ben. I really enjoy your instructional videos. I have been working for about 10 years to understand apple growing and to improve my apple espalier's production. I have great respect for the English expertise and traditions regarding this technique. I did a little more exploration on the king apple thinning and found that it is apparently a more common practice in England than here in the US. This is likely why I had never heard that advice before. A British website, Fruit Forum, had a very interesting conversation among fruit experts on the history of the practice. It can be found at https://fruitforum.wordpress.com in a July 9, 2009 post called "fruit thinning apples questioning the accepted wisdom". My US advice had recommended leaving the king as it had potential to be large, so I did that in my thinning in June. A US website page from cooperative extension at the Univ. of Arizona recommends saving the kings. I will observe the results of that this year to see if those fruits are in fact better, or if they drop off or exhibit the deformities and poor storage that the traditional English advice notes. Always fun to explore new/old approaches! Thanks for alerting me to this one. Christie"
Christie Higginbottom on Tuesday 7 July 2015
"Its 2016, Chirstie. How did it go? Im a newbie, so as in advice from the Mother-in-Law, etc. Kind of thing...Listen, take in what works and advise others what works for you. Southern Ont. Canada"
Donna on Thursday 30 June 2016
"Why do you recommend removing the king fruit. Many other places recommend leaving this as it will produce the best sized fruit"
Pagglukia on Thursday 13 April 2017
"We recommend removing the 'king' fruit at the centre of apple fruitlet clusters as it is sometimes misshapen. This means that all the fruits that are left are more likely to be an even, standard shape."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 18 April 2017
"I think this advice applies also to the humble, or perhaps underappreciated, gooseberry. One of the great things about the gooseberry is that it's a fruit tree in miniature, I'm so pleased to have had one as a child, and new gardeners of any age can quickly achieve a harvest, it's very encouraging. Thanks for a fascinating site! "
Tom Donald on Friday 16 June 2017
"Gooseberries are fantastic Tom, completely agree! We hope you enjoy exploring the rest of this site - there lots to read and enjoy."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 19 June 2017
"Freeze got most of my peach blossoms. I have a few surviving peaches but they're clustered close together. Do I still need to thin them?"
Kenny Kulbiski on Friday 25 May 2018
"I am also confused by the recommendation to remove the king fruit bc for the past decade and a half I have precisely thinned out everything but the king fruits unless there was a compelling reason to get rid of it bc of signs of insect activity or deformity. The king fruit seems to usually be the biggest and thus I thought the healthiest. I live in Western Washington in case that is relevant. Pls advise. "
Stephanie on Wednesday 11 July 2018
"Hi Stephanie. There is some debate about removing the king fruit. The generally accepted reason for doing so is purely that it's often a bit wonky or odd-shaped compared to the other fruits. This is because it's right at the centre of the cluster (hence 'king'), which means it's often squeezed on one or more sides, causing it to become a little malformed. Does this really matter? No, not really! But if you want more even fruits it's best to remove the king fruit. Your method of removing all the other fruits but leaving the king fruit, which is naturally slightly bigger too, is clearly working well for you, so I'd keep on exactly as you are. At the end of the day, so long as you're thinning your fruits so that the tree doesn't get over-burdened, you're doing the right thing."
Ben Vanheems on Wednesday 11 July 2018

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