The Q&A Archives: Alternate bearing fruit trees

Question: I have Golden Delicious and Cortland apple trees that bear fruit abundantly, but on alternate years. How should I prune them to remedy this problem? Anne Weber Durham, NH

Answer: Fruit thinning is a simpler way to correct the problem than pruning. When the diameter of young fruit is the width of your little finger, thin them to one apple per foot of branch to get a good crop and prevent alternate bearing, advises Jim Cummins, professor of pomology and fruit breeding at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva. Alternate bearing is triggered when seeds in the fruit release a hormone that inhibits the development of the next year's fruiting buds. So a tree laden with too many apples one year will produce many fewer fruits the next. Removing excess apples restores the balance, Cummins explains. Once the tree is bearing annually, it should stick to that schedule naturally. However, be on your guard for any occurrence such as a late freeze that could wipe out all the apples or buds in a single year, causing the tree to revert to alternate bearing, Cummins adds. You can do the job by pruning, too, says Cummins. The year you're expecting a heavy crop, prune out two thirds of the fruiting buds in spring a few weeks before bud break.

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