Apple trees will soon begin to drop some of their unripe fruit. There’s little to fear, writes Fiann Ó Nualláin, as this natural shedding can ensure a healthier crop come harvest time.
I never know whether ‘the June drop’ sounds more like a medical euphuism or an English folk group — either way it conjures something to be avoided at all costs.
At least any time I’ve heard it spoken of — it’s as a calamity. Yet this natural occurrence is actually to the benefit of the fruiting tree.
The June drop is no more than the tree self-shedding excess fruit so it can bring to fruition a well-balanced harvest, or it is a coping mechanism with environmental or cultural factors to maximise its cropping in adverse conditions.
On such trees that need to create some space for fruits to swell and ripen correctly, or manage their load more efficiently, they will commence the drop generally in the last two weeks of June — hence the name.
The occurrence is predominantly with apple trees, but pears and other hard fruits can also figure.
Some years those trees have been thinned already at the flowering stage by frosts and the tree does not need to regulate itself that dramatically.
The first time you encounter it, it can look a bit scary — often with more than half the fruit you had on the tree yesterday you wake up to find on the ground today.
It’s like someone ordered in a bombardment of heavy ordnance, or it can protract over a few days with new thuds every hour, but once it starts, it’s on.
When nature decides it decides. But that’s the thing — it decides — there is good reason. And that is survival of the best crop possible. Each tree can only support a certain amount of viable fruit in any given year.
So while it starts around now, it can be weather dependent — in general there is a peak roughly eight weeks after first flowering that can see the drop continue into early or mid-July.
Recent winds can help the process. Apart from the natural shedding of excess or surplus fruits on established trees, it can be a sign of some cultivation stress — in that the tree is struggling a bit with water and nutritional resources or environmental factors are at play.
Fruiting trees need carbohydrates to form and maintain fruits.
They get that from photosynthesis not from fertilizer or feeds — so if we have had a cool May and lower than seasonal daytime temperatures in early June or cloudy skies for a few weeks, then the carb levels drop and so too the fruit.
A big part of the fuss with apple tree pruning is not just to get fruiting spurs, it is to let light in.
On the flip side of seasonal variances in weather patterns, any recent bout of balmy evenings or warm nights will increase leaf respiration and burn up those required carbohydrates.
Now, I’m not one to be bashing foreign politicians for the sake of it — we have enough idiots of our own in power here that need our full attention — but let’s see how Trump’s disregard for climate change fares with putting Mom’s apple pie on the endangered list. Climate change is real in the garden.
No one is hoaxing my early spring and the complications of that. The upshot is that our June drops may get more severe, may not stay as self-regulation of a bumper crop, but become more of a desperate need to conserve energy and survive climate shifts.
Newly planted and young fruit trees can be prone to excessive June drop as they are more sensitive to this carbohydrate need and to temperature fluctuations but upon establishing, it will level out.
If it’s not and you are experiencing heavy drops with your own trees, then there may be a problem with irrigation/drainage.
With young or established trees available nitrogen may be low or fast leaching from your planting position. I make a liquid feed from my lawn clippings twice a year for my apples and pears.
Potash can be in deficit and a good feed of it in autumn after harvest or an overwinter topdressing is beneficial. Resist the urge to mollycoddle; fruits don’t like too much nutrition — that’s the path to more foliage than fruit.
The June drop does not do all the work for you. Think of it as a helping hand. You may still want to thin some fruit in July or even August to swell up larger individual fruits.
Some apples and pears can seem to fall into biennial cropping and that can be rectified by judicious pruning to promote more spurs and by careful thinning.
Young and newly planted trees are often thinned even after a June drop to maintain a small harvest and establish their roots instead — this will stand to you in subsequent years.
Even after the June drop, you can be vigilant in removing small, malformed or pest/ disease-infected fruit.
Then you create the space for the good ones to swell up and ripen to perfection — it is space to manoeuvre in, but also air circulation and all the benefits that brings.
Thinning will depend on your variety but in general, post drop thinning is to provide a space of 10-15cm between fruits of eating apples and 20cm for cooking apples.
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