How To: Thin Out Apple and Pear Fruitlets

June is the ideal time to examine your fruit trees and assess their fruit-set – the volume of blossom that has been pollinated and is forming fruitlets – and then decide on how many of them are in need of thinning out.

Thinning out – removing a number of fruitlets from the tree by hand, with scissors or secateurs – is an operation that’s essential for both the quality of the fruit you’ll be harvesting later in the year, and the health and longevity of the tree.

In later posts I’ll be talking in much more detail about the research into thinning that I’ve been reading up on. For now, here’s a quick ‘why and how-to’ guide, with photos from the thinning work that I carried out on the Plot #79 orchard last Sunday afternoon.

Why You Should Thin Out Fruitlets

In a much-condensed form, the main reasons for removing a proportion of each tree’s fruitlets are:

Avoid Unnecessary Damage

The sheer mass of un-thinned fruitlets puts a lot of strain on a tree’s branches, especially if the tree is a relatively young one, with thin branches with wood that isn’t all that strong. Branches will naturally bend under the weight of fruits as they develop – it isn’t a problem per se – but if they bend to breaking point then it can become a problem for the tree.

A broken branch could drop down through a tree canopy, causing more damage as it falls. Or it could tear away from its parent branch or trunk, leaving a large, open wound that could become an entry point for tree diseases, such as apple canker.

Thinning fruit reduces the overall load on branches and hopefully helps prevent this sort of damage.

Better Quality Fruit This Year

The more fruits left on the tree all summer, the more widely stretched the tree’s resources will be and the smaller and less sweet the fruits will be on harvest in Autumn.

Massively over-simplified version: if 100% of the tree’s available resources – the outputs from photosynthesis, mainly carbohydrate (sugar and starch) compounds – are divided between 100 fruitlets, then each one receives 1% of the resources. If the number of fruitlets are reduced to 50 then each one receives 2% of the resources, and can potentially grow twice as strongly. Reduce them to 25 and the growth potential doubles again.

In reality the situation is far more complex, but all studies into thinning have shown that removing a proportion of the fruit improves the quality of the remaining fruit on harvest, compared to un-thinned control trees.

More Fruit Next Year

Not many amateur growers are aware that next year’s fruit buds are already forming right now, whilst this year’s fruits are growing and ripening on the trees. Apple and Pear buds develop and differentiate into potential fruiting buds over the warm, sunny months of summer and then go into dormancy over the winter. Then, if conditions are right next spring, they break dormancy, fully differentiate into fruiting buds and produce blossom.

Again, it’s a question of the division of the tree’s resources. If a tree is producing a lot of fruit then the majority of its resources will go into attempting to grow and ripen the fruit (or more specifically, the seeds inside the fruit), leaving fewer resources for the development of next year’s potential fruit buds.

At worst, this can result in the tree adopting a ‘biennial bearing’ pattern, following an overly-fertile year in which it produces masses of fruitlets, with a barren year in which it produces hardly any, or none at all. If allowed to continue, this can become a regular cycle of boom and bust, bumper harvest and exhausted rest.

Thinning out fruitlets helps to balance the division of resources between this season’s fruit production and next season’s potential fruit production, which is generally better for us, as growers, who would prefer a steady supply of fruit every year.

When To Thin Out Fruitlets

The timing of fruit thinning will and should vary, depending on local conditions – which part of the country you’re in, the specific topography and situation of the orchard – and recent weather patterns. As a general rule-of-thumb though, I tend to wait for evidence of the ‘June-drop’ – when trees naturally shed a proportion of fruitlets that haven’t taken well – and take that as my cue.

Evidence of the June-drop

How to Thin Out Fruitlets

Not every tree is easy, or even possible, to thin out, and not every tree requires thinning. The larger a tree is, the less likely you are to be able to reach the fruit clusters safely or easily. What you can do in that case is give the tree (if it’s not to massive), or as many individual branches as is feasibkle, a gentle shake to dislodge any loosely-attached fruitlets and help the June-drop along. Beyond that, try to thin out as many of the lower-positioned fruitlet clusters as you have time for, and then you’ll just have to let nature take its course in the inaccessible parts of the tree.

Smaller trees, and particularly young, recently-planted trees should be thoroughly hand-thinned if required. We have 16 three-year-old apple and pear trees in the Plot #79 orchard, and I hand-thinned the 14 that are bearing fruit this year in just under and hour and a half, so it shouldn’t be too lengthy or laborious a job.

The process itself is relatively straightforward. Examine the fruitlets on a cluster-by-cluster basis. For each one, decide whether it is bearing too many fruitlets and, if so, which one(s) need to be removed. You should ideally be keeping just one fruitlet per cluster. Two if it’s the only cluster on a branch, or other clusters are spaced out well. None at all if there are other clusters very close by – which can be common on spur-fruiting trees – that have stronger fruitlets.

Start with any fruitlets that are obviously damaged, miss-shapen or under-sized and snip them off, cutting the stalk as close to the point of origin (where it joins the stem) as you can without risking damage to the fruitlets you want to keep. Don’t forget to gather up all the fallen fruitlets for the compost bin, to avoid attracting slugs and snails.

The same principles apply to pears as well as apples, although pears are less likely to form densely-packed clusters of fruitlets. They’ll still benefit from being thinned out where pairs of them are growing too closely together.

Here are a few examples from last Sunday’s thinning session to give you a few pointers. The cultivar is ‘Lord Clyde’, a mid-season (October) cooking apple (that was raised around 1866, in Stockport).

Isolated Cluster

This cluster has four well-formed fruitlets and one – in the center – that has failed to pollinate. I decided to leave two fruitlets here, because it was the only cluster on the branch and so wasn’t likely to be competing for resources with many others. You can see some slight damage to the fruitlet on the right, which was removed, and that decision then dictated which other fruitlet I needed to remove, based on allowing the best spacing between the two remaining. This is a cooking apple, after all, so each fruit has the potential to grow quite large if it’s given enough space to grow into.

Grouped Clusters

Here we can see a cluster of clusters; many fruitlets crowding together on a fruiting spur network, all coming off a single branch. I removed most of the smallest fruitlets, leaving just one fruit per spur.

Poorly-formed Cluster

Here we have another tightly-packed cluster of small fruitlets, with another two clusters in the background. As I started checking the fruitlets a few of them dropped off under very little pressure, suggesting they weren’t at all well-formed, and in the end I decided to remove all the fruitlets from the main cluster. One fruitlet was left on each of a pair of clusters slightly further down the same branch (you can just see them in the background).

End Results

By the time I’d repeated the process for the whole tree, I’d cut off a fair number of fruitlets:

It might look a bit drastic, but remember the dual goal: to improve the quality of the remaining fruits as they develop, and to improve the chances of repeat-blossoming next year, rather than a barren rest-year.

Of course, there are no guarantees. The remaining fruits could be affected by drought over the summer, torn loose by high winds, or damaged by apple scab, codling moth, pigeons or other pests. But thinning should also help to lessen the danger of infection or infestation, by increasing the air-flow around the fruits, and allow them to grow and strengthen against attack.

Likewise, poor spring weather could prevent blossom-set and pollination next year. But at least thinning this year will free up the tree’s resources to establish potential fruit buds in the first place. If they remain dormant for another season, then that’s just how it sometimes goes.

If you have any questions, queries (or corrections of the above) please feel free to post them via the comments and I’ll get back to you as soon as I’m able to.


  1. This was absolutely brilliant. I know now why my apple tree doesn’t produce any fruits this year, after having millions last year. It looks like it’s having a rest. However, now I know what to do if it’s overcrowded next year. Thank you very much.

    1. Thank you Oltice, I’m very glad it was helpful. Thinning really is one of the most useful and important things you can do to help your trees produce good fruit year on year. Happy snipping!

  2. I know nothing, but do you think it would be better to thin earlier when there are just blossoms so that no energy is wasted producing apples you would thin anyway?

    1. Hi Trace – That’s certainly an option, yes. In fact, I think commercial orchards spray their trees at blossom time with a plant hormone that encourages the dropping of something like 40% of the flowers. (I might have mis-read or mis-remembered the proportions, but it’s something like that.)

      For smaller scale growing though, it can be a little risky. If you thin down the blossom, and then there’s a late frost, or if the pollinators aren’t active when the remaining blossom is open, or if there’s a wet spell that prevents pollination, then you might lose the rest of the flowers you’ve left behind. Whereas if you wait for pollination to happen and the fruitlets to start forming before thinning, you’ll hopefully miss any last late frosts (although that’s never guaranteed) and you’ll be able to see which fruitlets are forming well and can remove the ones that aren’t looking so good, leaving the strongest to grow on. It all depends on the size of your trees and how much time you have available, of course.

  3. Really useful thanks. I’m in NZ so heading towards summer (Dec=June!). I’ve inherited an old grafted apple tree and I’m gradually bringing it back to better performance after a couple of years. This should be the final stage for a bumper crop of healthy apples this year so it’s great to have clear advice. Cheers

  4. Many thanks for a clear and helpful explanation. I have two young conference pear trees, one that has hardly any fruit on it and the other that has just exploded with five or 6 pear-lets to a bunch. I would rather have 25 good pears than 50 small attempts. I am grateful for your expert advice and input.

  5. Thank you so much ! Last year we lost all of our fruitlets in June. I was devastated. I didnt know about the June drop ! This year our tree is loaded with fruitlets and now I know what to do to hopefully help some of them remain through to harvest .

    1. Hi Fay – Good luck with the thinning. With a bit of luck, weather-wise, it should help fruit quality this year and next as well.

  6. Does the June drop apply to all zones? I live in East Texas. Also do you advise on pecan trees?Thanks

    1. Hi Chad – Well, ‘June Drop’ is really a general term for an observed natural phenomenon rather than a hard-and-fast rule. So if you’ve noticed your fruit trees shedding immature fruitlets round about June then yes, but if the trees behave differently in your area and don’t tend to shed fruitlets, then no.

      I’m afraid I know nothing about pecan growing, I’ve never had the pleasure of looking after a pecan tree. Best bet would probably be to get in touch with a University Extension Department in your area, see what advice they offer to local growers.

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