A few years ago my parents gave me three dwarf apple trees for my birthday. You might think that’s a strange present but I love apples and they’re great to grow. I carefully set up supports and planted them as thin ‘cordons’ where they grow up at an angle to maximise the crop in a small space. Soon they were blossoming and then laden with lots of tiny fruit. Imagine my disappointment then when after a few weeks the apples started dropping off. What was the cause?
In fact, this is an entirely natural process often referred to as the ‘June Drop’ but occurring in late June or early July in the UK. In effect the tree is pruning itself, producing a hormone to limit the number of fruits to what it can support. Even so, you hear stories of fruit trees which have cropped so heavily that a branch bearing fruit actually breaks off under its own weight. Far more common is what I have experienced – one of my apple trees gave a great crop two years ago but exhausted itself and then didn’t even blossom last year. Apple trees can easily fall into a two-year fruiting cycle if they over-crop and it’s better to limit the fruit they bear rather than have this happen. This involves taking off extra apples, leaving only the best-growing healthy ones on the branches. I also gave the apple tree in question a dose of potash around its roots (ash from burnt wood) during winter, which is said to help revive them. Certain varieties of apple are more prone to a biennial (2 year) fruiting cycle than others and require more careful winter pruning and summer thinning of fruit to give an annual crop.
There are other good reasons for reducing the number of fruit on trees. Although nature is trying to produce as many seeds as possible per plant, we are after good-sized fleshy fruit. By removing some extra fruit by hand we help the tree to put its resources into a few good sized fruit rather than exhausting itself on lots of smaller ones.
However, it’s not easy to remove apples from your precious trees! I find that the biggest hurdle is accepting that it’s not in my best long-term interests to have all those wonderful buds turn into apples. To be ruthless and remove over half the fruit is so hard to do – in fact some people say that it’s better to get another gardener to do it for you as they will be more prepared to take out fruit where necessary!
So how many fruit should be left on a tree? Young trees, or those which have been newly planted, should only be allowed to bear just a few fruit – perhaps none in the first year – in order to establish the plant well. Many people recommend that you should thin fruits out in two stages: in early June you remove any obviously mal-formed or small fruit and then in mid-July, after the ‘June drop’ you thin them more stringently. Using sharp scissors or a knife small apples can be prised off, leaving the stalk behind. Generally eating apples should be thinned to one fruit every 4-6 inches and cooking apples to one every 6-9 inches. An easy rule of thumb is that each apple should have plenty of room around them when fully grown, though more space than this gives better sized fruit.
In a good year, almost all the blossom on an apple tree will produce fruit. Yet only 5-10% of the blossom needs to become apples if the tree is to crop fully. Being able to prune out the extras and not leave it up to the tree’s June drop is a hard lesson to learn but one that will pay back well in terms of beautiful apples and healthy trees that crop every year.