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Why and how to thin apples

Apple tree in need of thinning

I really didn't expect to have to thin, but two of our apple trees (Enterprise and Early Transparent) set such a substantial crop this spring that they required a little TLC. And even a few of the other trees have pairs of apples in excessively close proximity despite a hard April freeze having nipped 90% of their crop. Time to thin!

Apple cluster

"Why thin?" some of you are saying. "Don't you want as many apples as you can get?" There are all kinds of reasons to thin but they tend to come down to size, flavor, future yield, and disease/pest resistance. Basically, if you don't thin a tree that is loaded with potential fruits, it'll make lots of small apples that are more likely to get sick by trapping moisture between the fruits. And some apple species tend toward biennial bearing, skipping a year after fruiting heavily the season before.

Tree self thinningYou can work around all of those issues pretty simply by going in at this time of year and pinching off excess fruits that set in the same cluster. Don't be too precipitate about this --- the image on the left shows a cluster that is self-thinning and you should definitely wait until the tree has decided which ovaries to abort before removing yet others. On the other hand, if you wait too late (which one study I read said was June), the tree will assume it's going to have to ripen all of those fruits and will decrease it's production of bloom buds for next year accordingly.

My other caution is to pinch off the fruits rather than breaking off the whole spur since apples fruit from the same spot year after year. A lost spur is a lost apple next year and for many years in the future.

Those caveats aside, thinning is simply a matter of choosing the best-looking apple --- usually the biggest, but sometimes the least insect- or frost-damaged --- and removing everything else in that cluster. Now we just have to wait with baited breath for homegrown fruit!

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