Have you ever heard that you should top pepper plant seedlings, or pinch off their flowers? Some sources say do it, some say don’t…. Talk about confusing! So, let’s clear things up. Read along to learn everything you need to know about topping pepper plants, including exactly when, why, and how to do it. We’ll talk about the benefits of pinching pepper flowers too.
Should I pinch or top pepper plant seedlings?
The answer is: it depends! In some instances, topping pepper plants can lead to more abundant fruit production. But it certainly isn’t mandatory.
Topping pepper plant seedlings encourages them to grow more bushy. By pruning off the top of the seedling when it’s young, the plant will focus its energy on growing side branches – rather than getting tall and lanky. The more side branches, the more places to grow flowers and fruit! So, that’s why topping pepper plants can help you get larger harvests.
There are a couple additional perks of topping pepper plants. Bushier plants with more dense leaves can offer better protection from the sun, and therefore reduce sun-scalding or sunburn on the peppers. The plants also tend to be less top-heavy, and are easily supported with a stake or basic wire pepper cage.
On the other hand, topping pepper plants (especially older seedlings) can slightly delay when they’ll start to form fruit. So, gardeners with especially short growing seasons may not want to top their peppers.
What varieties of peppers should be topped?
Topping pepper plants is typically recommended for pepper varieties that produce small fruit. For instance, jalapeños, Thai chilis, serranos, cayenne, shishitos, habaneros (I prefer habanda), or other petite chili peppers. Chili peppers generally grow fairly bushy on their own; topping them simply pushes them to do so sooner and even more!
On the other hand, topping bell pepper plants may have a negative impact on growth and fruit development. This applies to any large, thick-walled pepper varieties. Topping bell peppers is rumored to potentially stunt the plants or reduce the number of fruit they produce (and they already produce far fewer fruit in general). So when in doubt, leave those big ones un-topped. Or, do an experiment! Top some bell peppers, leave the others au natural, and compare how they perform.
For medium-size fruit like banana or poblano peppers, you could go either way – top them or not.
Topping Pepper Plants: When and How
Top pepper plants when the seedlings are at least 5 to 6 inches tall. On the other hand, don’t wait too long to top your peppers or it can stunt their growth. We usually top our pepper seedlings about a month after they germinate, before transplanting them outside.
Simply trim or pinch off the very tip of the main stem (an inch or so), right above an upper set of leaves. I like to use my favorite small pruning snips. See the photos below. Be sure your pruners or scissors are clean to prevent spread of disease!
When topping pepper seedlings, it’s important to always leave behind several leaves on the plant. New branches will grow from the main stem at the nodes just above each leaf. Plus, the plant needs plenty of leaves to continue to photosynthesize and grow!
Pinching Pepper Flowers
While it may seem counterintuitive, pinching off early pepper flowers is another way to encourage larger, more productive pepper plants. Rather than focusing all of its energy on growing fruit right away, removing the first few flower buds will redirect the young plant to continue to grow bigger in size first – so it can produce more peppers later in life!
To pinch pepper flowers, simply use your fingers or small pruners to gently remove the first round of flower buds that the plant produces – especially when the plant is still small (about 8 inches tall or less). I do this for small chili peppers and larger bell peppers alike. You can remove all the earliest flower buds, or only some of them. Either way, it will help the pepper plant grow.
And that’s the 411 on topping pepper plants!
Well, I hope that settles it. As you can see, there are some great benefits to topping pepper plants. However, that doesn’t mean you have to do it to get a good harvest, so feel free to experiment and see how your favorite pepper varieties respond! Need more pepper tips? Check out our comprehensive pepper grow guide here. Happy planting and pepper pruning!
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