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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

21 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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. :)

  4. 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.

  5. ANNIE KING permalink

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

  6. 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! :)

  7. 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.

  8. 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! :)

  9. 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 :)

  10. 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!

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