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In favourable conditions fruit trees set more fruit than is ideal. Fruit thinning involves removing excess fruit to improve fruit size and quality. It is carried out on apples, pears, plums, peaches and nectarines.
Sometimes apples need to be thinned to avoid overcropping. Image: RHS
Many healthy fruit trees drop fruit naturally in early summer in what is known as the 'June drop'. Where a heavy crop has set, too many fruitlets may remain on the branches, resulting in a final crop of disappointingly small fruits. Deliberate thinning of the fruitlets produces better-sized, ripe and healthy fruits, albeit in smaller numbers.
Fruit thinning may be necessary on a range of tree fruit including apples, pears, plums, peaches and nectarines for the following reasons:
Experienced growers tend to thin in early summer, as this results in the greatest increase in size of those fruits remaining. But for inexperienced gardener, it is best to wait until after the June drop, other than removing malformed fruit. Finish thinning by mid-July.
Apples: Cooking apples are thinned harder than dessert apples to obtain larger fruits; aim for one fruit every 15-23cm (6-9in). Dessert apples can be thinned less severely, with one or two fruits every 10-15cm (4-6in). Leave just one fruit per cluster. Thinning can be done using secateurs, long scisssors or with a firm tug between thumb and forefinger. Remove misshapened, blemished fruit or poorly positioned fruit and the ‘king’ fruit at the centre of the cluster which is sometimes abnormally shaped. Aim to leave the strongest and best shaped.
Pears: Can be prone to over-bearing but usually need less thinning; thin clusters to two fruits (one for a small cordon), 10-15 cm (4-6in) apart.
Peaches and nectarines: Thin peaches to one every 10cm (4in) when the size of a hazelnut, then again to one every 20-25cm (8-10in) when the size of a walnut. Thin nectarines to 15cm (6in) at walnut size.
Apricots: Are less prone to over-bearing; thin only if the crop is excessively heavy, to 5-8cm (2-3in) apart when hazelnut sized.
Plums: Are particularly prone to overcropping, so thinning is vital. Heavily laden branches may need additional support with stakes and/or ties even after thinning to prevent them breaking. Use thumb and forefinger to remove fruit to leave one fruit every 5-8cm (2-3in), or a pair of fruits every 15cm (6in).
Apples and pears: winter pruningApples and pears: summer pruningApples and pears: renovating treesCherry fruit dropFruit: biennial bearingFruit: harvestingPlums: pruningRHS video: Apple thinning
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