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From my office window, when the sun angle is just right, I can watch the beeline from my urban honeybee hives zipping back and forth to the pear tree across the street. The weather has been relatively warm and dry this spring, so the bees are very active. The wind and heavy rain hasn’t blasted away the blooms. That combination means trees clothed in nectar-filled flowers are soon to be weighted down with excessive tiny fruits, which over time will ripen into delicious harvests for our table. But, as those cherries, apples, pears and other tree fruits are developing, many will fall from the tree well before they reach maturation.
And, that’s okay.
The point of flowering and fruiting from the plant’s perspective is to create babies with genetic diversity. Pollen from one tree’s flower meets with another tree’s ovary, and a uniquely seeded peach or plum is born. But, sometimes one flower or many flowers fail for any number of reasons. A bird may peck off a blossom or a hailstorm may blast them away just before they open for pollination. When this happens, no seed-filled fruit follows, and the plant’s baby-making goals fail. In an attempt to beat the odds and at least get a few fruits through the season, trees will produce vast numbers of flowers. This way, if a few fail, others probably will succeed.
In years like this one, when the stars align and the bees can do their work on most of the flowers, the tree may end up with more fruits than it can nurture and bring to maturity. So, along the way, the tree will discard a few young fruits in late spring or early summer. And, in some cases, gardeners choose to discard even more of the abundant or less robust young fruits during the growing season. Whether done by the tree itself or by humans, this is called “green fruiting”.
So, why in the world would we want to remove young fruits from the tree?
On many trees, fruits grow in close clusters. If those clusters become too dense, your apple may end up yielding several tiny, bitter fruits rather than a couple of large, sweet ones. If the tree is over-laden by heavy pears, its branches may break. If several fruits continue to touch as they grow, they may fuse together or harbor disease in their moist connection points. And, even when a flower is pollinated, the result may not be an ideal match. When this happens, your apricot may develop slightly deformed or just whither on the vine. For all of these reasons, knocking off several young fruit and encouraging the development of those that remain can increase yield and produce a more flavorful harvest.
Because various fruit trees ripen at distinctive times, the time to remove the less desirable fruits in the crop changes plant-by-plant. Watch your orchard carefully, if you notice a sudden scattering of green nectarines on the ground, it’s time to inspect the tree and begin removing a few more fruits by hand. Take out one or two fruits from clusters knocking together. Remove the ones that appear weakest or may be pest infested. If you’re not sure which to remove, wait a bit longer. As the season progresses, continue to monitor the trees, popping out any additional fruits that are competing with what appear to be your strongest. It may seem like you are reducing your potential yield, but in the end the fruits you do get will be healthier, tastier and larger.