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4 Benefits of Thinning Fruit Trees

by Stark Bro's on 06/03/2014
Overbearing Plum

As a fruit-tree grower, you will become familiar with the concept of thinning fruit trees. Thinning is the process of removing a selection of fruit from your trees while the fruit is still small.

Now, it may seem counterintuitive to be instructed to pluck some of the newly developing fruit before it is ripe, but thinning fruit trees ultimately works in your favor and, more importantly, it benefits your fruit trees in the long run. In this article, we’ll discuss why you should thin your fruit trees as well as how and when to do it.

4 benefits of thinning fruit:

  1. Discourage overbearing & early fruit drop.
  2. Improve remaining fruit size, color, & quality.
  3. Help to avoid limb damage from a heavy fruit load.
  4. Stimulate next year’s crop & help avoid biennial bearing*.

*“Biennial bearing” is a tree’s tendency to bear fruit every other year. Left to its own devices, a fruit tree may bear heavily one year, then light (or not at all) the next year. Certain types of fruit tree, like many peach trees, and certain varieties of fruit tree, like Golden Delicious Apple trees, are more likely to bear biennially if the current year’s fruit crop isn’t thinned.

How to Thin Your Tree’s Fruit

What you need: Thinning fruit trees is an easy task. All you need is your fingers, or a small pair of sharp pruners, to remove the excess fruit and get the job done.

When to thin out fruit: The window for thinning fruit trees opens after pollination takes place and in the early stages of fruit development — this is usually before the young fruit exceeds an inch in diameter. In most locations, you will no longer need to be concerned with thinning your fruit trees after July.

Thinning Fruit on Apple Trees

Apple King Bloom

The best time to thin apple trees is a month or so after their peak blooming period. When you thin your apples, break up any fruit clusters so that one choice fruit remains. It’s usually wise to leave the fruit from the “king bloom”, or the middle bloom in the cluster of flowers, since it is the best candidate for developing into a large, healthy apple. Leave about 6-8 inches between remaining fruit.

On spur-type apple trees, fruit develops on spurs along the inside limbs — bearing fruit from the trunk, outward. These may need to be thinned out to encourage bigger and better fruit from the remaining spurs.

Thinning Fruit on Apricot Trees

Apricot trees are known for their productive nature, so fruit drop will be an issue if the trees aren’t thinned. Break up any fruit clusters throughout the tree. Leave about 6 inches between the remaining fruit.

Thinning Fruit on Cherry Trees

The fruit of sweet cherry trees and sour cherry trees are not typically thinned, but, if your trees are having issues with fruit drop due to stress, you might consider thinning some of the fruit. No more than 10 cherries should be on any given spur, so thin clusters that may be creating crowding issues or contributing to cherry drop.

Peach Tree Overbearing

Thinning Fruit on Nectarine Trees & Peach Trees

These fruit trees are notorious for overbearing, which also means they are more than likely going to need to be routinely thinned — especially to avoid damage to the tree. These fruits can get heavy as they mature, and a peach or nectarine tree that is allowed to bear that weight is at risk of its limbs breaking and tearing the bark. Break up any fruit clusters and fruit “twins” that may develop. Leave at least 6 inches of space between remaining fruit.

Thinning Fruit on Pear Trees

Pear trees (both Asian pears and European pears) seldom require thinning, but if your healthy pear tree historically drops fruit while it is still small and unripe, or has a tendency to bear biennially, then consider thinning as a remedy. Remove small, misshapen or injured fruit as soon as it appears. Break up any clusters of fruit, allowing one to two fruits from each cluster to remain in order to improve mature fruit size. Leave about 4-6 inches between remaining fruit.

Thinning Fruit on Plum Trees

Plum Fruit DropJapanese plum trees are as notorious for overbearing and fruit drop as nectarine and peach trees. These trees have a tendency to bear in clusters along the branch. When the fruit is large enough to be easily picked, thin these plums and break up the clusters, allowing room for the fruit to grow in size and helping to avoid premature fruit drop. Leave about 4-6 inches between the remaining fruit.

European plum trees tend to require less thinning than their Japanese counterparts; however, if your prune-plum fruit matures but remains small due to overbearing, then you might want to thin the fruit to improve remaining fruit size in the future. Leave remaining single fruits every 2-3 inches, or remaining pairs of fruit every 6 inches.

It’s important to note that, even if you don’t thin your tree’s fruit, you might discover the tree will get rid of the excess fruit — and sometimes all of the fruit — itself. Learn more about this natural shedding process called fruit drop in our article, ‘Shedding Light on Fruit Drop’ here.

Topics → Fruit Tree Care, Tips

36 Comments

  1. Robert D. Maddox permalink

    NEED YOUR EXPERTISE AND RECOMMENDATIONS. i HAVE ONE RELATIVELY NEW PEACH AND APPLE TREES. BOTH ARE PLANTED AND DOING WELL. QUESTION: DO BOTH TREES REQUIRE CROSS POLLIN TO BEAR FRUIT? I LIVE IN SO FLORIDA ZONE #10 [34990]. WHICH PEACH & APPLE TREE WOULD YOU RECOMMEND FOR CROSS POLLIN AND THAT HAS THE BEST CHANCE FOR SURVIVAL IN OUR. ZONE. THANKS FOR YOUR TIME AND ADVICE.

    • Hi Robert! It depends on the variety you’re growing, but most peach trees are self-pollinating. Chances are you won’t need another peach tree for cross pollination to get fruit.

      The apple tree (also depending on the variety you’re growing) will more than likely need another apple tree for cross-pollination and fruit production. The good news is, if there are any crabapple trees growing/blooming nearby, they will probably be able to pollinate your apple tree. The only variety we carry that is heat-tolerant for zone 10 is the Cinnamon Spice Apple, but most fruit trees require “chill hours” and a dormancy period to be fruitful. Without this, you may just end up with a nice heat-tolerant tree but no fruit.

      Dave Wilson Nursery, out of California, suggests a few “low chill” apple varieties — recommended for fruit-production even in the south, like the “Anna” apple tree. You might do a search for “low chill apple trees” and see what else you can find. :)

  2. laurence erussard permalink

    In the description of diseases, there was no comment about what to do about the kind of brown/black knots that appear on some plum trees. I usually remove the infected branch as soon as I notice it. Is there a way to prevent them knots from happening?

    • This article doesn’t really address disease — sorry Laurence!

      In the case of black knot on plum trees, removing the infected branches is necessary, so you’re doing the right thing. Also be sure to sterilize your pruning equipment after each cut to avoid spreading the disease (alcohol wipes will do it and also protect your tools). Most resources recommend cutting 4-5 inches below the knot, often to the next lateral branch.

      In addition to pruning out (and destroying!) the infected limbs, you should also use a fungicide spray treatment that is known to control the fungus that causes black knot in plum trees. We used to carry a lime sulfur product that was recommended as a dormant control, but it was discontinued by the manufacturer. Until we can find a suitable replacement, I’d recommend contacting your local county cooperative extension and see what they recommend you use there for black knot control in plum trees.

  3. Mike C. permalink

    I just bought 150 apple tree from you this spring. About 25 of the trees have blossoms on them. The Liberties seem to have the most. Some people tell me to pluck all the blossoms and others are saying it is ok to save a few king blossoms just for fun. If I save 3-5 king blossoms will it hurt the tree and slow down it’s growth rate? Thank you

    • My, what precocious young trees you have! :) The way I see it, fruit trees have one job their first couple years in the ground: get established so they can grow.

      When a tree goes into fruit-bearing mode, it uses its energy for the fruit instead of for its own growth, which is why most people will recommend you remove flowers and fruit from the trees, especially their first spring. Ultimately it’s up to you*, but I would recommend removing all of the blossoms (or young fruit) so that your trees get a good foundation as trees to support fruit before they are allowed to bear fruit.

      *Remember: it takes around 40 leaves to adequately “feed” 1 piece of fruit!

  4. Donald D. Tattersall permalink

    Thank you this is very good to know . I have some older trees say 4 or 5 years old and have yet to blossom. I know they are still young and may be OK yet I wonder most my pear trees are blossoming. I also have six bee hive.

    • How many years it takes for fruit trees to bloom and fruit depends on what you’re growing, where you’re growing them, and how they’re cared for.

      A rich well-drained soil in a sunny location will make a happy, fruitful tree. Pruning helps encourage balanced, healthy growth.

      Read more about how many years before you see fruit from different kinds of trees here:
      http://209.184.23.10/blog/how-many-years/

  5. I already have peaches growing on the tree in SW VA, would thinning them now even though the peaches are more than 1 inch in diameter do any good?

    • Thinning peaches is essential to prevent limb breakage, so with that in mind, it’s not too late to thin them now. Even if you’d already thinned earlier in the spring, if you notice that the branches are too weighed down by the fruit as it grows, you can thin the crop again to spare your tree damage. :)

  6. Jim H. permalink

    If a young fruit tree is allowed to bear fruit too early will it stunt the growth of the tree keeping it from attaining its full size?

    • If a young tree is allowed to bear fruit too early, it will temporarily stunt the growth and establishment of that tree as it tries to support a fruit crop (with a less-than-ideal foundation). It won’t permanently have an effect on the tree’s mature size.

  7. ANNIE KING permalink

    HOW CAN I TREAT BROWN ROT ON PEACH AND PLUMN TREES?

  8. scott mcdonald permalink

    i just bought 2 peach trees from you, and when they arrived the wet paper media used to keep the trees alive wasn’t even near the root area. is this normal? there was nothing used to keep it on the roots during shipping. i did soak the roots in water before planting. will this hurt my trees?

    • Sometimes that wet paper does move around in the shipping process. Fortunately, the way our boxes are designed with the plastic liner, the shipping environment of the tree is kept moist even if the paper is not in direct contact with the roots, so they should be fine. You did the right thing for your new bare-root trees, soaking the roots a couple of hours prior to planting! :)

  9. Dave Tanner permalink

    I have Alberta peaches. They grow staying very firm and never ripening enough to harvest what causes them to never ripen.

    • Does the fruit drop before it ripens, or does it just hang onto the tree the entire time without ripening? Also, where are you located and how many Elberta peach trees do you have that grow fruit like this?

      The reason I ask is because certain pests can get into the young fruit, causing it to drop before it can ripen. You can tell that it’s a pest issue, especially if the fallen fruit has a half-moon shaped mark on it (curculio beetle damage). Spraying for pests would help in this case. Trees that are overbearing may drop the young fruit before it gets to a ripened state as well. Thinning the fruit, like this article describes, would help with overbearing-related fruit drop.

      It’s helpful to know where your tree is planted, since some locations don’t have a long enough growing season to get ripe peaches before they’re hit with killing frosts (especially later-ripening varieties like Elbertas).

      If it’s just one peach tree that you’re experiencing this with, my thought is that maybe the Elberta variety was overtaken by its rootstock at some point, and what you’re seeing is the rootstock’s fruit. Rootstocks aren’t used for their fruiting characteristics, but for things like their size restricting characteristics.

      On a similar token, if it’s just one tree, you might have accidentally received an ornamental peach tree instead of the Elberta you intended to plant. Ornamental peach trees tend to produce small fruit that doesn’t ripen. This would be less likely to happen to several trees, so if you’re growing more than one Elberta peach and they’re all bearing hard, unripe fruit, then this may not be the reason.

      If the tree you’re growing came from planting the pit of an Elberta peach fruit, then tree that grows would not be an Elberta peach tree. It would simply be a seedling peach tree with no certain characteristics, and the hard green fruit may simply be the fruit it produces.

      Hopefully one of these suggestions helps guide you to the answer, Dave!

  10. Jim SaNogueira permalink

    I have a peach tree (as well as a number of other fruit trees) that is not in it’s fourth year. It seems to be growing quite vigorously, but it has never flowered as yet. This year a planted another peach tree nearby, not that i think that is the answer, but i wanted to have a seond tree especially if this first one (semi Dawarf) has a problem.

    I am wondering if this tree should be floweringt by now or if this is “normal”. I’ve not pruned the tree, but do plan to do so as it really needs it. Hoping that will work. Any thoughts? I’d wondering if perhaps it is not getting enough sun? Now that other trees are leafed out it’s not in full sun but does get several hours of it. Early in the spring it had more than 6 hours of sun. All of my other fruit trres except my apricot tree flower and did from the first year. Thank you. Jim

    • Peach trees usually fruit for the first time in their second or fourth year, since they have a tendency to fruit on 2-year-old wood. Light plays a big role in the development of fruiting buds in a tree, and pruning helps to open up the tree to light. Full sun is ideal for quality fruit production, and 6-8 hours is usually the minimum “full sun” light requirement. If you can improve their light in that location, I’d encourage you to try that, but pruning may help a lot as well.

      After you prune your trees this year, try to routinely prune them at least every year when they’re dormant, so that the task is easier on you and better overall for the balance between vegetative wood (leaves and branches) and fruiting wood (fruiting buds) of your trees.

      When you prune your trees, try to do it in the winter or early spring while they’re dormant. Aim to remove dead, damaged, and diseased limbs, crossing limbs, and limbs that grow inward toward the center of the tree. Head back the new growth from this season by a third (it will be more smooth and less like the bark on the older growth of your tree). Be sure not to completely remove all of the new growth, since that becomes the fruiting wood next year. :) I hope this helps!

  11. Gary Lytton permalink

    I have a sweet cherry that is in it’s third year , last year it lost its leaves 4 times . This year it produced nice big buds that so far haven’t opened . The limbs feel nice and flexible but the buds haven’t shown any change for a month . Any suggestions ?

    • Did you ever determine why the cherry tree lost its leaves four times last year? It’s certainly a stress (and a result of stress) for a tree to lose its leaves when it isn’t doing so for dormancy reasons. That may help determine a cause for why it’s not growing well this year (if there is an ongoing health issue).

      That aside, try the scratch test to check for life in the trunk of the tree. The branches aren’t a very good indicator of how the tree is doing, but the trunk is more reliable.

      If you find green in the cambium tissue from the scratch test, take it as a good sign. Harsh winter, late frosts, and fluctuating cold temperatures during the spring can inhibit growth, especially if there was any damage to the emerging buds.

      Try pruning the limbs back to the next best bud to try and stimulate growth from them, especially if you notice any dead limb tips. Other than that, they may just need more time to recover from this past cold winter/spring.

  12. Laura Neuman-Howe permalink

    I thought I killed a “Blackgold” semi-dwarf cherry tree from Stark last summer by inadvertently over-watering it. It was planted fall 2011. I left it alone, and didn’t go check on it until end of May. Discovered robust grown from the base of the tree — about 2 feet tall, but w/ some leaves trimmed by groundhogs (I’ve protected the tree now). Should I encourage this growth, or is it likely below a graft? I e-mailed this question w/ a picture to info@starkbros.com on May 30 and haven’t gotten an answer. Would appreciate some assistance. Thank you.

    • Hi Laura! From the location and robust nature of the growth you’re seeing — and the timing between thinking it was dead and now — it is likely the rootstock that is sending up the growth. It won’t be the Blackgold variety in this case. Unfortunately, rootstocks are used for characteristics like size control and not really fruit quality. It’s not usually worth the effort to encourage rootstocks to grow into trees, especially when you could plant something you know you want instead.

  13. Walt permalink

    Would it be OK to prune back grape vines that are excessively long to a point where they remain within the confines of the grape trellis.

    • Right now you can prune to thin out any tangled growth and to keep the vine under control along your trellis. Save the heavier pruning for later, after the vines have dropped their leaves — usually in the winter or early spring.

      Grape vines do need to be pruned regularly to keep the tops balanced with the roots, and to encourage fruiting.

  14. Dennis Wolf permalink

    I planted four years ago, 2 Contender peach trees (standard) the had a huge crops of beautiful peaches last year. Last winter we had so much sub zero weather that this spring the tees failed to leaf out. One tree has two branches with some leaves and the second tree has only one branch with some leaves. The second tree has a lot of growth from the base of the tree. Questions. Can I remove the branches that have not leafed out and allow the remaining branches with leaves to continue to grow? A neighbor who has an apple orchard sometimes removes all the large branches except two or three branches which then continue to fruit. Also, are the contender peach grafted to a root stock or are they growing on their own root stock? Thank you for your assistance. I have found your fruit trees and nut trees to be of excellent quality!

    • Thank you for the kind words Dennis! You can certainly remove the branches that are leafless/lifeless. Sometimes, especially after a harsh winter and spring like we experienced this year, the cold temperatures can cause limbs to slowly die back. Pruning these limbs stimulates new growth from the remaining living tissue and also removes “dead weight” your trees don’t really benefit from supporting. Your trees can use their energy to support the leafed-out branches and bounce back from the shock of the past seasons.

      The Contender peach trees are grafted to a different peach rootstock, so the growth coming from the base won’t be the Contender peach variety. I’d suggest removing the root-suckers coming from the base of your tree (below the graft) because these will selfishly steal energy from the top portion of your tree. I hope this helps! :)

  15. lynn permalink

    Sarah,
    You are so nice to answer our quettions.
    I love my fruit trees. I have made a lot of mstakes, but enjoy learning to take care of them.
    Thank you.

    • I’m happy to help, Lynn! Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts :)

  16. Theresa Overstreet permalink

    I have a star fire Peach tree It is loaded with fruit! What can be done with the fruit? So far there is no recipie. Please help.

    • Besides eating the fruit fresh from the tree (my favorite!), you can do SO much with peaches. We have a delectable Peach Tart Recipe as well as the “Best Peach Jam Ever” recipe, if you’re looking for something we recommend — or you can do a simple search online for other recipes. Trust me, there are plenty out there. Good luck!

  17. Beverley Fonzi permalink

    I know that purchasing standard cherry trees, they need to be cut down, they can become enormous. To harvest, you must keep them in a lower lever, or they will not be harvestable. So, one must chop the top of the trees. The base of the tree will get thick. Tis “big trunk”.
    A great amount of cherries will produce. Thing is that items must reachable. So, I am topping them, or rather my husband is as I have some limits.

  18. Susen Shapiro permalink

    In the spring I purchased a Stanley prune plum from you. The weather was horrible, and having just moved into the house, I wasn’t entirely sure where to plant it. So I planted it in a very large pot, planning to plant the tree this fall. Is this the best time, or should I wait until next spring.? The tree is healthy and doing well. When I do plant it, should I prune it at all, or just leave it as it is? (I had a prune plum tree from you years ago that was stupendous in every way so I just had to have another at my new home.)

    • It was clever of you to plant your tree in a pot since you weren’t sure about the weather this spring. It gave you the opportunity to move the tree indoors in the event it needed some extra protection! :)

      If you typically plant in the fall where you live, it would be an excellent time to get your plum tree in its permanent home in the ground. For now, you can simply leave the tree in the pot and allow it to go dormant with the rest of nature this fall. The cooler outdoor temperatures and first frosts will help it along. Once it loses its leaves, usually around October or November (depending on where you live), you can dig a hole in the ground to accommodate the current root system, allowing room for the roots to grow, and plant your dormant tree this fall!

      Fruit trees are hardier than we sometimes give them credit for, but you know your location better than we do. If you don’t usually plant in the fall there, or haven’t had success doing so, you might want to give your plum tree exposure to the fall temperatures — enough to trigger it to go dormant and lose its leaves — and then (leaving your plum tree in its pot*) bring it into a protected area like an unheated basement, garage, shed, etc. until the soil thaws enough to plant next spring instead.

      *You don’t have to water a container tree very frequently when it’s dormant, just enough to keep the soil from completely drying out. Damp soil also helps protect roots from winter injury, which is more damaging on dry soil/roots.

      I hope this helps! :)

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