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The beautiful bloom is over and now is the time to start thinning your apple trees. Thinning apples can seem counter productive but it is one of the most important aspects of growing apples and the most time consuming. Many large orchards use different chemicals to thin out their crops however these chemicals are hard to use and could risk losing your entire crop if you use it wrong. That is why we hand thin over 4,000 trees, yes you heard me 4,000 trees. It is an overwhelming task but is what has worked for us through the years. We spend hours and hours clipping of small apples on each individual tree. When I go home at night and I close my eyes all I see are those little apples.

So why is it so important to thin your tree?

I have come up with four reasons:

  1. To discourage over bearing and early fruit drop
  2. To encourage fruit size, color and quality
  3. Help avoid limb damage due to heavy fruit load
  4. Stimulate next years crop and help avoid biannual bearing

What is biannual bearing?

Let’s talk about the last one we mentioned biannual bearing. All 4 of these benefits to thinning come back to a very important thing to remember about your apple tree and that is that it takes energy to produce apples. If the apple tree has too much fruit it will have all kinds of problems. All of its energy will be used and will have no energy for next year. That is what they call biannual bearing. You may have a tree at your house or family member, neighbor or whomever and notice that one year they have all kinds of fruit and the next year have nothing. That is called biannual, the tree used up all of its energy and had nothing left for the next year.

Now let’s get really nerdy about apple trees. Some varieties are more likely to be biannual then others. Jonagold for instance will more then likely always produce fruit with minimal thinning. Honeycrisp on the other hand are very susceptible to biannual production. You may ask what makes a tree biannual? The short answer is this; At 10-12 mm fruit size once it starts to develop seeds the applet actually releases a hormone that builds up on the next year’s spur. This hormone tells the tree if it needs an apple or whether it should rest next year. This gives you a relatively short amount of time to thin with Honeycrisp.

So how much should I take out when thinning apples?

This is a great question without a very good answer. It all depends on the size of your tree and the health. Obviously the larger the tree the more fruit can be left on the branches. If your tree does not look very healthy, I would suggest taking out more apples to let it push energy into getting healthy rather then making fruit. On a large tree I would start with just leaving the largest applet per cluster, expect Honeycrisp. Then look at the tree and think about crop load, once those apples get bigger can that tree handle it. Normally if a tree is growing vigorously we put on 20-25 apples per tree its 1st year of production. From there we double it as long as the tree is doing well each year. But like I said it all depends on your tree size and health.

It is very important to thin your trees to improve the health of your tree and quality of your fruit. Hope this blog helps you in your quest to grow the perfect apple tree.

If you have not been out to trim up those apple trees, now is the time to go out there and start hacking away through apple pruning. A question we get quite regularly is how should I prune my trees. Although we cannot possibly teach you everything about pruning in this blog post, we will try to explain the 6 basic steps we try to remember when pruning our apple trees without trimming it down to nothing or leaving too many branches.

A few most before you start; Be sure to have sharp pruners, a cut on a tree is similar to one on your own body. A rough cut with dole pruners will take longer to heal and can cause disease. When using sharp pruners the tree is more likely to heal much faster and lessen the chance of disease. Remember to pick up all your branches off the ground. These branches will decompose and carry diseases if not removed. Make sure you have a good ladder. Nothing is worse then being unstable in high places.

Now that you have the essentials here are our 6 steps to apple pruning:

1. Reduce your crop load

One of the first thing you will need to get over is that it is ok to cut branches off that have many fruit buds. I know personally I still struggle with this aspect of pruning. Apple trees are precocious by nature though, meaning they will naturally set a lot of fruit thus making fruit very small if not thinned. By pruning your apple trees you are taking potential apples off your tree allowing the tree to put more energy into less apples making them the desired size.

2. Keeping trees in their space

This is more for the commercial grower. In our orchard we have trees about two to three feet away from each other. You at home are not going to have this problem however it is a good way to think about pruning. Think of your tree like its in a bubble anything outside of that bubble and infringes on another object needs to be taken out.

3. 50% apple pruning rule

This is a big one and is often times not done correctly. Once your tree starts to produce past the first few years its important implement this rule. The 50% rule is when a side branch gets 50% or larger then the truck or lead branches it is time to take out the smaller branch. If you do not take out those larger side branches they will start to compete with the lead which you do not want happening on your tree.

4. Allow for Sunlight

This is probably the most important thing to keep in mind when you are deciding what branches to remove. Most all red apple varieties and especially in western Washington need as much sunlight as possible to ripen. Most all vertical growing branches we take out because these are the most likely to shade future apples. If your apples are shaded by other branches, they will not turn that beautiful color of red when you expect them to and in some cases not ripen at all. So look to always allow sunlight.

5. Stimulate new growth through consistent apple pruning

A big part of why we prune is to stimulate new growth. Your best producing branches are 3 to 5 years old. After that time period size and quality are reduced. By taking out older branches it will increase the quality of your crop.

6. Remove dead or dying wood

This is a fairly easy and straight forward rule to remember. Over time some parts of the tree become infected with bacteria and in our case here in Western Washington, fungus. By removing these branches it keeps your tree fresh and healthy.

Pruning apple trees is a difficult thing to master. Not every tree and situation is the same. We personally here at Swans Trail Farms make plenty of mistakes. But try to remember these 6 steps and hopefully it will improve your confidence and increase the quality of some nice juicy apples in your near future. As my beautiful Texan wife would say “Happy Pruning Y’all.”