Thinning an Orchard

It’s the most gut-wrenching thing an aspiring orchardist has to do every spring: thin the crop. Amidst the flush of life and potential on display in the many subtle hues of green, an orchardist must bring cold-hearted callousness to bear on his or her bearing trees. Fruit abortion. Plucked in their innocence. Too young…far too young. But thinning an orchard is part of responsible stewardship of the trees. Modern fruit varieties can be a bit aggressive in their desire to please uneducated planters’ desire for “Fruit at all costs! And NOW!” They have been bred to bear heavy, and bear young, at the expense of their own vitality. Many do not understand the enormous amount of energy it takes for a tree to generate a “seed”. Thinning the fruit of an orchard, especially when trees are young, is not only responsible, but utterly necessary for the long term health of the tree.

A 5-gallon Bucket of Potential
A 5-gallon Bucket of Potential

If an orchardist lets a tree bear to its heart’s content, a sliding scale of bad outcomes will ensue. Best case will be a reduced overall yield by weight, meaning the tree will bear a lot of small fruit. That’s the best case. Next on the downward scale, a tree could overbear, exhaust itself, and fall into a biennial cycle, where it only has enough strength to bear (a lot of small) fruit every two years. Finally, a tree can overbear to the point where it literally kills itself. Remember: bearing fruit is the tree’s idea of procreation and survival. It bears fruit in order to propagate itself. If it feels it only has one shot at that outcome, it will channel every ounce of available energy into generating fruit, and very little energy into storing overwintering reserves in its roots. The result is a lot of (small) fruit, and a dead tree next spring. Yes, thinning an orchard is necessary.

One positive aspect of thinning the fruit on your bearing trees is increased vitality and a stronger branch structure. A tree only has so much energy, and thinning a fruit crop causes the tree to put more of that energy into growing roots and strong wood.

Many young potted trees are labeled “Bears in 2-3 years” at the local nursery. While this may be technically true, it’s actually just marketing. I personally refuse to let a tree bear more than a token few fruits until it’s at least 5-8 years planted and established. This doesn’t include the several years it spent growing in a pot. The way I see it, as a homesteader, every year I cull a tree’s fruit is like putting a deposit into that tree that I’ll be able to draw on when times get tough.

At about 5-8 years, or when the tree’s trunk is pushing 4”+ in diameter, I will begin to let it bear, but will still thin the crop down to 1 fruit every spur, or approximately 1 every 6”. I do this in mid-June when the fruitlets are well on their way.  I do this first by walking up to the tree, grabbing each major branch and giving it a shake. Any fruit that the tree can’t hang on to is part of its “June Drop” – trees routinely drop bug-infested fruitlets in June. Some orchardists put out tarps under trees to catch their June drop and dispose of them in order to reduce pest pressure. I simply walk around the tree and pick up all the June Drop after giving the tree a good shake. Next, I start from the bottom and painstakingly work my way through the branch structure pulling fruitlets. I aim to cull the small, misshapen ones first, and then any that look like bugs got past the organic defenses. But then the hard part: continuing to cull perfectly good fruit until I reach what I feel is a responsible amount of fruit left on the tree. It’s heartbreaking to pull a perfectly good fruitlet that looks healthy and bug free – but it’s better for the tree. When I think I’ve thinned it enough, I bow my head, thank the bucket of fruit abortions for their sacrifice….then steel myself to thin some more. As long as the apocalypse is not imminent this year, I continue to thin until it hurts.

In my experience, apples tend to be “smarter” than stone fruits. Apples tend to shed everything but their king blossom fruit in their June Drop, which is interesting to see: one fruit neatly set at the center of every spur. It’s one of those redundancies in nature we don’t quite understand – if something goes wrong with the king blossom, the spur has 5-6 other opportunities to get it right. We could learn a thing or two from an apple tree. Stone fruits on the other hand tend to vomit forth fruit with reckless abandon, pollinating and holding just about every fruit blossom on a spur. It’s not uncommon to see 5+ peaches hanging on for dear life to a drooping spur that doesn’t quite know what it got itself into. If left unattended, the poor spur will likely break loose in the July flush, at which point all the fruit is lost. Thinning could have saved several fruits.

Thinning an orchard is not an easy task. It’s important to get over the mental hurdle that you are somehow throwing out potential food. Like thinning garden seedlings so only the strong survive, thinning an orchard crop makes sure your trees are strong when you need them. Invest the effort – it’s worth it in the long run.

1 Comment

  1. APB

    Alas, with regard to her prized peach tree, Mrs. P will hear none of this. Every peach is precious. Every peach is great. If a peach is missing, Mrs. P gets quite irate.

    I just tried shaking the tree, but nothing came off. Looks like I may have to try stronger measures to persuade her. Can’t say that I know any such measure, though, even after 23 years together. Guess the health of the tree will just have to be the next guy’s problem.

    Reply

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