Thinning Apple Fruit

Apple trees typically produce more flowers and fruit than are needed to produce a full crop of marketable fruit.  Many of the excess fruitlets will drop shortly after petal fall or later, during June drop.  In a good crop year, the remaining crop load will still be too large for the individual fruit to develop marketable size.  Also, heavy crop loads inhibit the ability of the tree to develop blossom buds for the following year, resulting in biennial bearing.  Thinning the crop will maximize fruit size and quality, and allow for adequate flower bud initiation.

Fruit size is determined by the total cell number per fruit.  In apples, cell division ceases by about 30 days after full bloom.  Therefore, final fruit size is influenced greatly within the first month after bloom.  Likewise, initiation of apple flower buds for the subsequent year’s crop also occurs within the first month after bloom.  To optimize both fruit size and return bloom, excess fruit must be removed during this period.  Chemical thinning preferentially removes small, weak fruit.

Determining Crop Load

The following questions will help you evaluate whether your crop needs to be thinned.  Remember, it’s better to be conservative when applying thinning materials.  It’s possible to take more fruit off but not to put fruit back on.

  • How many seeds are present?  When fruitlets are 3-5 mm, cut open a few and count the seeds.  Fruitlets with fewer  than five seeds are more likely to drop naturally and will be easier to thin than fruitlets with more than five seeds.
  • What color are the seeds?  Tan or brown seed color at this time of the season indicates that the seeds are not viable, whereas viable seeds will be white to yellow.  Fruitlets with fewer viable seeds are more likely to drop naturally, and are also more sensitive to chemical thinners. In some cultivars, the color of the pedicel (stem) is also an early indicator of whether or not the fruitlets will persist beyond June drop.  Red color in the pedicel indicates that the fruitlet will likely not persist.
  • Does the tree have too many apples?  If fruit clusters are within 6-8 inches of each other and if there are more than two fruitlets developing in each cluster, there are too many apples on the tree.
  • What was the crop load like last year?  Trees will thin more easily in the year following a heavy crop.
  • What was bee activity like in the orchard?  Were pollination conditions good or less than ideal.  Remember that bees don’t like to work in cloudy, rainy, windy weather any more than you do.

PGR Products for Thinning Apples

Currently four materials are available for fruit thinning. The best material to use will depend on the cultivar, the condition of the trees, and time of application.

  • Carbaryl (Sevin) is an insecticide that has thinning action.
  • Benzyladenine (Maxcel) contains a synthesized plant hormones involved in regulating cell division called cytokinin.
  • Naphthalene acetic acid (NAA) is a synthetic auxin growth regulator.
  • Naphthalene acetamide (NAD) is also a synthetic auxin growth regulator.
Most have a timing recommendation based on the size of the king fruit. Since fruit diameter tends to vary with time of day, measure the fruit at the same time each day beginning at petal fall to determine optimum timing. See table below.
Rate Timing Effectiveness Compatability Notes
Carbaryl (Sevin)
¼ to ½ lb per 100 gallons of water Within 28 days after petal fallIf cool weather persists, instead apply when king fruits are 10-15 mm in diameter Very effectiveProduces larger fruit than NAD or NAA NAA or NAD will improve resultsCan also be mixed with BA May harm bees or beneficial insects; use the XLR formulation, lowest rate, and apply in evening, after petal fall
Benzyladenine (BA or Maxcel)
75-200 ppm When king fruits are 5-10 mm in diameter (generally 7-21 days after full bloom) Use at 70-75°F for peak effectiveness Only with carbaryl (¼ lb)Do not mix with other pesticides High temperatures within 8 hr of application will increase thinningApply at night for greatest drying time
Naphthalene acetic acid (NAA)*
10-15 ppm When king fruits are 8-12 mm in diameter Very effective and potent, use with caution Use at 70-75°F for peak effectiveness Carbaryl, decrease amount of NAA by half, for hard-to-thin cultivars Use only on cultivars that mature after Sept. 1Fruit may not size up as well as carbaryl or BA thinners, but NAA helps with return bloom
Naphthalene acetamide (NAD)
35-50 ppm Between late bloom and petal fall (4-8 days after full bloom)Applications after petal fall result in poor thinning   Carbaryl For cultivars that mature before Sept. 1On Red Delicious, it can cause excessive pygmy fruit
*Additional notes on NAA:
  • Weak trees and young trees are more sensitive to NAA.
  • Shaded limbs tend to over thin.
  • Light rain or dew within a few hours of application will increase uptake and thinning action.
  • For some hard-to-thin cultivars, a combination of NAA and carbaryl will increase thinning. For this combination, the concentration of NAA should be decreased by half.
  • NAA should not be combined with other PGRs such as Maxcel or Promalin.  Studies with Red Delicious in Michigan indicated that applications of NAA and either Maxcel or Promalin within the same season resulted in excessive “pygmy” fruit.