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Is fruit thinning really necessary? A greater amount of smaller fruit better than a few large fruit?

 
garden master
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There's a very common recommendation that I hear a lot with fruit trees (mainly the larger types of fruit like apples, pears, and plums etc.), that the fruit on the tree should be thinned, so that the tree will produce bigger and better fruit.

However, from a permaculture stand point, it makes sense to me that it may be better to have more smaller fruit, than a few larger, perfect specimens. It's also a very time consuming process to thin fruit trees.

This will obviously not apply with very new and young trees due to the small production at first, but should definitely be an option a few years into production once the tree starts to set a good amount of fruit.

I have a Santa Rosa plum that's in its third year of setting a good amount of fruit.

The last two years' harvests were claimed by very unusually late, very hard frosts and freezes, but this year is looking more normal, and I expect to have a decent harvest this year!

Some later frosts have still claimed some of the fruit and the pests are already targeting some of the fruit also, so there has been a natural "thinning" of fruit that occurs this way, and also the tree may drop fruit later if it does not have the nutrients and water to support it all.

By letting the trees naturally thin themselves, they may carry more fruit, and therefore produce smaller fruit than if they were manually thinned.

However, I've found I really like small fruit. Some of the apples in the stores today, I feel are more of a double portion snack, and I feel stuffed if I eat a whole one by myself.

Also based on what I've seen, not thinning the fruit goes hand in hand with very minimal or almost no pruning.

There was an older existing pear tree that was at our home when we purchased it. That first year I didn't prune or thin the tree and it produced a bumper crop of slightly below average size pears, that were later thoroughly enjoyed by a big raccoon.

The next year (before I had discovered permaculture), I decided to give it a hard prune because it was "wild looking and unkept" and to "increase" its production because I had no personal experience and that's what all the "experts" said I should do. What resulted was the pear tree going into severe shock and taking another two years to start producing a small crop of fruit again.

Not pruning and not thinning seem to give the tree extra vigor from not having to recover from the severe wounds of being pruned, and the tree can instead put that energy into ripening a bigger crop of slightly smaller sized fruit.

Have you had success with not thinning your fruit trees? Are you going to try this on any of your fruit trees this year, if so, what types of fruit trees are they? Do you like smaller fruit?
 
gardener
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My thoughts:

Branches can break from overbearing, which can damage the tree and lead to infection. Around here thinning is good for young trees because otherwise the tree may drop all its fruit during the dry season. Another consideration is energy, especially with young trees. The sugars used to make fruit can be used for other functions metabolically, including root growth, so thinning the fruit or removing it entirely on young trees can be beneficial. I've heard of trees getting stunted from not doing this, though I've never seen it personally.

I agree that on older trees it's fine. Standard fruit trees take a while to bear fruit, and thus, by the time they do, they are usually fairly developed and don't suffer from the above concerns as severely
 
pollinator
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I prune fruit trees for 2 reasons.....
#1- to limit their height. I'm too old to be climbing up trees or swaying around on a ladder. So I limit the height of fruit trees so that I can easily harvest fruit either by hand or by using a fruit picker.
#2- to prevent a tangle of branches that would impede air flow. Living in a humid area, fungal diseases are quick to start and spread when airflow is reduced.

I thin fruit  to ......
#1- prevent branches from being overloaded and thus breaking.
#2- to even out the harvest from year to year.

Not all my trees need to be thinned. Some varieties pretty much don't overbear. But some varieties will have a year of really heavy production, followed by 2-3 years of minimal production. By thinning, I can even the years out.

By the way, I'm talking about trees such as various citrus, macadamia nut, eggfruit, sapote, mango, pear, peach, breadfruit, avocado. Using a fruit picker, it doesn't take long to thin out a tree.
 
master pollinator
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Many people process fruit in some way. Whether you're making apple pies or getting peaches ready for canning, a few larger fruit are easier to deal with.

When someone has a bunch of little kids, smaller fruit is good, since the Little Devils are going to want to have their own. There's no point giving a two year old an apple the size of a volleyball. I've seen too many rat chewed apples and snot covered peaches, for one lifetime.
 
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My observation from my plum tree is if I don't thin the fruit, they grow so closely in clumps that they mould as they ripen. So no fruit for anyone/anything that enjoys it. Also the weight of fruit can break the younger branches.
This may be a product of rootstock being inappropriate or the fruit being cultivated for gardeners who expected to fiddle with their trees.
I have a sinking feeling that the answer to the original question on thinning is 'it depends'. I aim for the middle ground - neither the biggest fruit possible nor the greatest number of unmouldy small fruit.
 
pollinator
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They need thining for many reasons,
1. branches will break under excess weight plums seem especially prone
2. Many trees (especially apples) become biannual bearers if not thinned. i.e they produce a bumper crop one year and then take the next year off.
3. big apples (and pears) keep better than small ones.

I have Mirabelle plums that I never thin because they are standard trees and I cannot reach! Some years they produce so much they snap large 8inch+ branches. It actually seems to be how the trees reproduce, the branch hits the floor and roots creating a new tree, one tree becomes a thicket over time.
 
gardener
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Larger fruit is preferable because:

  • Small fruit is almost impossible to peel, and the percentage of mass that is wasted during the peeling process goes down as the size of the apple or peach goes up.  If I'm making dried apples or a peach pie, I don't want to waste my time and effort on a bunch of undersized little pieces of fruit.
  • While it takes more work to thin the fruit when it's small, it takes much less work to pick it at a later date.  When we protect our fruit (like apples) with individual bags, it would be virtually impossible to do so without first thinning aggressively early in the season.  For higher sale value, such individually bagged fruit needs to be large enough to justify the extra cost and effort.
  • A lot of that smaller fruit is simply wasted.  It doesn't grow enough to justify even trying to eat it.  Why bother to pick a nectarine the size of a walnut?  Basically, it was wasted energy for the tree.
  • A larger piece of fruit seems to taste better.  I don't know if that's because it ripens more evenly, or it gets a higher percentage of sugars supplied to it, but biting into a nice big nectarine tastes better than biting into 4 little scrawny ones.  The same goes for plums, cherimoya, blood oranges . . .
  • Larger fruit sells much better.  People walk by and say, "Look at the size of that pomegranate!  Look at the size of that watermelon!  Those peaches look amazing—big and juicy."  I've never had someone say, "Oh, look at those cute undersized apples -- lets buy them."
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    Steve Thorn
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    Thanks for the input everyone.

    I'm going to try not thinning a heavy bearing plum tree this year just to see what happens as an experiment, and to see if I like how it works, and also to save time, which is always nice.

    I'll try to post updates as it progresses.
     
    pollinator
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    My plum and almond don't seem to need thinning. Same size crop of the same fruit without the fuss. The peaches self-thinned, and if I wanted to thin more I could shake the tree in early summer then eyeball it to decide if it needed more. Peach trees seem to be more fragile and prone to branches breaking, although we always trained the branches downward so they could support the weight. The nectarine, on the other hand, without thinning will bear prodigiously with little tiny fruit that I can either snack on or juice. If I don't thin enough, I go for juice because it's less bother than skinning and pitting hundreds of tiny fruit.
     
    Marco Banks
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    Plums, apricots, papaya, avocado, guava, citrus and nut trees -- you don't need to thin them.  

    But apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, pomegranates, cherimoya . . . you won't get anything decent size unless you thin and thin ruthlessly.
     
    gardener
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    One thing to think about is that our fruit trees have been cultivated to be managed through these sort of techniques. I think we might need to consider the possibility that new strains of fruit trees that are selected for less fruit production but that would not need to be thinned might actually be best from a permaculture perspective.

    This could be one of several reasons why fruit trees grown from seed can be a good choice for permaculture projects.

    Just something to think about
     
    Steve Thorn
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    Daron Williams wrote:One thing to think about is that our fruit trees have been cultivated to be managed through these sort of techniques. I think we might need to consider the possibility that new strains of fruit trees that are selected for less fruit production but that would not need to be thinned might actually be best from a permaculture perspective.

    This could be one of several reasons why fruit trees grown from seed can be a good choice for permaculture projects.



    Those are some great points Daron!

    It seems like a lot of the most common varieties today have been bred to produce huge amounts of fruit and are usually not very vigorous growers as well, which ends up not being an all star combination.

    I've been really interested in older varieties, that seem to be more vigorous growers and have more normal fruit loads.

    I think the best option, like you mentioned, is to grow a lot of fruit trees from seed, which will help create new varieties that grow best in the planted area, and can be selected for growing vigorously, disease and pest resistance, and natural growth shape and fruit cropping. I was reading the other day about how the 1800's were considered the golden age of apple trees due to all the new and unique varieties that emerged during that time due to a huge increase in the number of apple seeds planted!
     
    steward
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    I notice on my fruit trees, that bugs often enter the fruit where two fruits touch each other. Therefore, to minimize damage from bugs, I thin fruits so that the mature fruits will not be touching each other.
     
    master steward
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    Marco Banks wrote:

  • Larger fruit sells much better.  People walk by and say, "Look at the size of that pomegranate!  Look at the size of that watermelon!  Those peaches look amazing—big and juicy."  I've never had someone say, "Oh, look at those cute undersized apples -- lets buy them."


  • Having young children, I totally buy the little apples. They each want their OWN apple, and they never finish it. A small apple is just the right size, and if they drop it in the dirt, it's not like I just lost a giant apple--it's just a small amount of apple.

    I was a farmer's market, and they had these HUGE apples, and I totally was not interested in them. I wanted something to snack on, not to bake with.

    Though, when we took home a bunch of apples from my parent orchard, I very much appreciated the large apples when making apple chips. But, 90% of the time, I want snack-size apples.
     
    pollinator
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    James Landreth wrote:My thoughts:

    Branches can break from overbearing, which can damage the tree and lead to infection. Around here thinning is good for young trees because otherwise the tree may drop all its fruit during the dry season. Another consideration is energy, especially with young trees. The sugars used to make fruit can be used for other functions metabolically, including root growth, so thinning the fruit or removing it entirely on young trees can be beneficial.



    Ok, so I read this thread and decided to thin one of many plum trees. The one that looked most likely to be damaged if I didnt thin it.

    So now what? Anyone have recipes for unripe green plums? Am thinking of boiling them with gatlic scapes and then adding fresh onion and cilantro as a sort of plum chimichurri.

    Advice / recipes appreciated.

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    James Landreth
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    I know that in Asia they pickle unripe flowering apricot fruits, and I've heard of that with plums too
     
    James Landreth
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    Other than that, I've heard of making vinegar
     
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    Thinning fruit can encourage further production and prolong the season.
    It can also reduce fruit fly damage (both by removing old fruit as a vector and increasing the vigour of remaining fruit).
     
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    James Landreth wrote:
    So now what? Anyone have recipes for unripe green plums? Am thinking of boiling them with gatlic scapes and then adding fresh onion and cilantro as a sort of plum chimichurri.

    Advice / recipes appreciated.



    With unripe apricots I made a nice sweet-sour chutney much like the mango chutney my parents used to buy.
    Chopped green unripe apricots (and I'm sure plums would work though I picked them much closer to ripening time, not as early as you did).
    Sugar to taste.
    Salt to taste -- it's a condiment so use plenty.
    Powdered chillies to taste.
    Either minced garlic or asafoetida.

    It was a bit hard to get the pits out of the hard unripe apricots, so we tried boiling them first till they softened a bit, and then squashing them between two flat hard things, and that worked pretty well.

    I cooked the apricots with sugar just as I do when making jam with ripe apricots. Once they soften and release some juice, I add the salt and other things, and keep cooking for a while. I canned it, ie filled it in sterilised jars and then boiled the closed jars for 5 to 10 minutes, and they kept for months like jam does.

    It is a yummy sweet-sour-spicy condiment.
     
    pollinator
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    I'm guilty!  I didn't read all of the posts but I did scan them.

    If someone already said this I apologize.

    At least for apples and pears not thinning your fruit can cause the tree to be alternate bearing.

    Alternate Bearing and Hand Thinning
     
    gardener
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    Other than the reason already presented here there is one very important reason to thin fruits and that is the overall health of the tree.
    For the same reason you shouldn't breed a female animal more than once a year, they can wear out and stop producing young (or fruit in trees, bushes and shrubs).

    Letting trees bear all the fruit they set can shorten the life span of the tree's productive years, and that is if their branches don't end up broken from the excess weight in high winds or just overall strain.

    Redhawk
     
    J Davis
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    Rebecca Norman wrote:

    James Landreth wrote:

    It was a bit hard to get the pits out of the hard unripe apricots, so we tried boiling them first till they softened a bit, and then squashing them between two flat hard things, and that worked pretty well.



    Yes, getting pits out was work. I boiled them and let them cool and then had my 5 year old use a potato masher to smash em good. Then we added warm water and I had her remove pits by hand. I ended up helping but it was relaxing fun together time. I boiled the pitless mash one more time for sanitary purposes, then added the pulp to a standard chimichurri recipe more or less.

    Turned out great. Feels good to have found a use and I am sure this chimichurri is nutrient packed!

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