August 9, 2018 8:31 AM   Subscribe

Is there any way to suppress fruit production on a backyard apple tree in an environmentally-friendly manner?

We moved into our new house last fall and this summer discovered that we have an apple tree in our backyard. Yay! But now we have discovered that this tree produces SO. MANY. APPLES. Hundreds, most of which fall off the tree before they ripen or are half-eaten by squirrels. The falling apples kill a fair amount of plants underneath the tree. It partially overhangs our deck and makes it impossible to sit there for fear of being hit by falling apples. We have completely run out of room to place the rotting unripe apples - compost is full, two different backyard corners are overflowing with rotting, insect-attracting apples. Collecting them and dragging them out to the garbage is exhausting. We went away for a week and returned to, no joke, a sea of mealy, decomposing apples in the backyard.

We don't want to cut down this beautiful tree. We don't want to use chemicals like Ethephon that could harm our kid or cats or the environment. Endless googling finds ways to selectively prune and score to reduce growth, but it seems these actually encourage fruit production (?). The fallen apples are mostly unripe, rotten, or half-eaten, so collecting and donating them is a non-starter. There are simply too many to use ourselves. We would prune it way back if it helps and doesn't damage the tree.

Is there some way to drastically reduce apple production while saving the tree? We are in Montreal.
posted by googly to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
At the non-solution solution hour or two of picking flowers next spring? Fewer flowers, fewer apples.
posted by annabear at 8:38 AM on August 9, 2018 [14 favorites]

We pruned our apple tree WAY back and then it didn't produce apples for 2 years. I think if you went less aggressive you might get less and not none like we did? The tree itself is thriving, it's leafy and green. Although this year I did spot two flowers that did eventually turn into two apples that fell to the deck where they got bites taken out by something so we didn't even get a chance to eat those.
posted by like_neon at 8:44 AM on August 9, 2018

I would call an arborist/tree trimming service and see if they could trim it back in a way that would not compromise its health but would result in less fruit-bearing branches. With part of it overhanging your deck in a problematic way, I can't imagine not doing this, no matter what other techniques you use in addition.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:45 AM on August 9, 2018 [8 favorites]

This doesn't strictly answer the question but it could address the problem: there is an organisation in Montreal (and similar ones in many other cities) that you can call to pick your unwanted fruit. In Montreal it is called Les Fruits Défendus and they will (if you live in one of their serviced areas) come to pick your tree and they donate a bunch of it (the proportion varies, but I think for Les Fruits Défendus) to a local food security organisation so that it doesn't go to waste. Usually they give a portion to the fruit tree owner, but you can probably forgo that and give it (or a portion of it) away as well.
posted by urbanlenny at 8:56 AM on August 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

Have you considered attempting to have it produce fewer but better-formed, riper apples? It sounds like they would still be a hazard (plus, sweeter apples might lead to bees), but it might be worth thinking about. It sounds like the tree is not doing what it's supposed to do in any case. Maybe calling upon the wisdom of orchardists who _try_ to achieve edible fruits will help.
posted by amtho at 9:00 AM on August 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

I would do 2 things:

1. Trim back aggressively, up to 1/3 of the tree's wood. (This is best done in winter.) A horizontal branch tends to fruit. A vertical branch tends to grow more wood.

2. Similar to annabear's suggestion, thin the fruit. In June when the fruit has just set (past flower stage) and the fruits are about the size of your thumbnail, in each fruitset remove all but the largest fruit. This will give you better quality, larger, fewer apples.
posted by Emmy Rae at 9:09 AM on August 9, 2018 [17 favorites]

Prune it aggressively. I had a quince tree at my old house; it may have been root stock for an apple tree, had been cut down, but suckers grew back. Pretty while in bloom, but quinces have extremely limited use. I pruned it, then the next year pruned it a lot more, and got less fruit and a much prettier tree.
posted by theora55 at 9:10 AM on August 9, 2018

Just reading the other responses, just want to clarify that when I say "we pruned our apple tree" I mean "we hired professionals to prune our apple tree". They also did a wonderful job with our camellia tree, so definitely look to bring in professional tree trimmers for their take!
posted by like_neon at 9:16 AM on August 9, 2018

Pruning it back will work, it’s what my family did after Dad got too enthusiastic and planted 3 apple trees in the backyard. If I remember correctly we had to do it yearly, maybe after they flowered in the spring, an arborist will be able to tell you what time of year is best and prune it correctly.

We got rid of fallen apples by forgetting to close the yards gate and having a small herd of deer show up, but that option may not be available or desirable.
posted by lepus at 9:24 AM on August 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

If you've got email lists or Discords or anything for your neighborhood, maybe ask if anyone local wants them for compost? This won't solve your long-term problem but it might get a bunch of the rotting fruit out of your yard.
posted by bagel at 10:27 AM on August 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Pigs also love apples, and will eat fruit of lesser quality. Maybe there's a backyard pig farmer near you? If you were closer I'd come get them myself!
posted by libraryhead at 10:43 AM on August 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the great advice! Looks like we will be enlisting some professional tree-pruners in the winter/spring to cut the tree back.

urbanlenny, thanks for the tip. We did think of Les Fruits Défendus, but apparently they were overwhelmed this year, and our apples tend to fall before they become edible.

libraryhead, I wish! We were in VT last week and visited a farm that had a huge barrel full of apples for their goats and thought the same thing...
posted by googly at 10:58 AM on August 9, 2018

I second thinning the apples. If you have bug problems, that's even a good time to put on socks. (Tedious, but time spent with one's head in an apple tree is pretty nice.)
posted by clew at 11:23 AM on August 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

OK, I just looked up how to fertilize fruit trees to get _more_ fruit, and apparently, if that's your goal, you need to avoid too much nitrogen.

So, fertilizing with more nitrogen will apparently lead to less fruit.
posted by amtho at 11:42 AM on August 9, 2018

Apples are every-other-year heavy bearers, so if you got the bumper crop this year, next spring you'll notice much fewer blossoms and fruit set, if that's any consolation.

If you can knock more of the flowers and young fruit off the tree, that'll keep the number that mature down, too. You might want to try a power washer, or a pole trimmer that would enable you to snip off the biggest blossom clusters. A power washing done a couple of times during full bloom will probably knock enough blossoms and pollen off to significantly reduce fruit set. You could do it after dark so as not to knock any bees ass-over-teakettle.

We used to have two standard apple trees in our backyard. The fallen fruit was indeed a terrible nuisance, but when I created a garden that bordered the trees, I began chucking the windfalls into the garden. I didn't mind the vinegary smell of the decaying apples, and they were under the foliage and out of sight. I got an unexpected bonus from this practice: after several years of accumulated rotted apple compost, the flowers and vegetables grew and produced fantastically compared to before they got the windfalls.

The trees eventually died and I took them down. Sigh - after a couple of years, the garden's bounty was no longer so impressive. If I had the means to collect windfalls and compost them, I'd do it.
posted by Lunaloon at 12:20 PM on August 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

Excess nitrogen makes my trees vulnerable to frost and really annoying to prune correctly, so I wouldn't do it on purpose. Not fertilizing at all would likely be preferable. Check if you're fertilizing elsewhere in a way that washes past the apple roots.
posted by clew at 12:21 PM on August 9, 2018

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