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Time to thin fruit trees

by JoAnne Skelly
An apple tree in need of thinning located in Genoa.
Kurt Hildebrand

Look under your fruit trees. You might see dozens of tiny fruit on the ground. Don’t worry; it’s the June drop. Since trees often set more fruit than they can support, each June they shed an abundance of underdeveloped fruit. This natural thinning lessens competition for nutrients and allows the fruit most likely to thrive to remain on the tree. This year, because of the strong frequent winds, it seems as if there are a lot more fruit on the ground than previous years. Don’t despair. Nature is doing some of your thinning work for you.

However, even after the June drop and help from the wind, you will want do additional thinning. You can of course not thin your fruit trees, but the resulting small, although abundant, fruit you do get probably won’t make you happy. Who prefers a puny little apple over a big ripe juicy one? Or, tiny peaches that are more skin than flesh? In order to have luscious big fruit, thinning is required. It is also advised in order to keep a tree healthy and strong and prevent limb breakage that can occur when a branch is overloaded.

Thin peaches, apricots, nectarines, plums (stone fruits), apples, European and Asian pears (pome fruits) immediately, for the thinning window is rapidly closing. Bartlett pears are often self-thinning. Cherries do not need thinning. If you thin too late after bloom, fruit size may not increase. Apricots and plums are thinned to 2-4 inches apart on a branch. Peaches and nectarines should be 3-5 inches apart. Apples and pears often have a cluster of fruit at each bud and need to be thinned to retain the largest fruit of the cluster. Space the clusters no less than 6-8 inches apart. The goal is to avoid fruit touching at maturity. Remove more fruit at the terminal end of the branch than from the inner branch area to reduce branch weight. In the past, I haven’t thinned enough and have had to build branch supports, which is not optimal. Remove any disfigured or damaged fruit.

Twist fruit off instead of pulling it. Or, use pruners to clip the fruit off. Be sure to throw all thinned fruit into the trash to avoid codling moths, other insects or diseases from infecting remaining fruit. Good cleanliness practices now will save headaches later.

JoAnne Skelly is Associate Professor & Extension Educator, Emerita, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at skellyj@unce.unr.edu.