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All Things Garden,  Beginner Basics

Topping Pepper Plants and Pinching Flowers for Better Harvests

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. 

Between homemade chili powder, sweet and spicy fermented hot sauce, pan-blistered shishito peppers, and our favorite easy refrigerator pickled peppers… I say the more peppers, the merrier!

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.

Three pepper seedlings in 4 inch pots are lined up next to each other. They range in size from roughly 6-9 inches in height as the two shorter seedlings have been topped and are more bushy.
The two shishito pepper plant seedlings on the left were topped about 2 weeks prior. The one on the right (also a shishito) was not topped. Note how much bushier the topped seedlings are.
A two part image collage on topping peppers. The first image shows an un-topped shishito pepper seedling. The image on the right shows a shishito pepper that has been topped. The topped plant is far more bushy compared to the un-topped seedling.
Un-topped shishito on the left, topped shishito on the right. Don’t miss our easy but drool-worthy pan-blistered shishito pepper recipe!

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. 

The understory of a red chile plant, there are numerous red and green chiles growing amongst the foliage.

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! 

DeannaCat is holding a young pepper seedling that is in a 4 inch pot. Below lies a seedling tray with another 11 or so pepper seedlings of similar size.
The ideal size to top pepper seedlings.
Scissors are poised just under the top 1/4 of a seedling. Just above a node and below the top few nodes. Topping peppers can be a way to create more bushy plants.
Topping a Red Ember cayenne chili seedling. I could have also cut one node higher, just above the next stet of leaves.
The top of a plant after a portion of the main stem was removed. Two branching nodes are located just below the topped portion.
After topping.
Two pepper seedlings are sitting next to each other in 4 inch pots. The pepper on the left has been topped, there is a red circle superimposed on the area of the main stem that was topped where two leader stems have taken over. The pepper  on the right is much taller but isn't as bushy, the canopy of the plant is less full compared to the topped plant.
The same topped cayenne pepper seedling about 2 weeks later (left), with the same variety un-topped on the right. The red circle shows where I topped the main stem.
A two way image collage of topping pepper. The first image shows a young pepper seedling, the second image shows the same seedling after it has been topped. The center of the seedling looks much more open on top.
Un-topped on the left, topped on the right – with more branches and flower buds.

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.

DeannaCat is touching a flower coming out of the top of a small seedling.
Removing (pinching off) the first few flower buds from this young pepper seedling.
A large wooden bowl is sitting atop a light cement colored paver surrounded by green rock gravel. The bowl is filled with an array of peppers of varying color, size, and shape. Red, green, yellow, and orange colors are all represented.

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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  • Kat

    I’m not overly familiar with peppers (yet), which category do “snack” peppers fall in? The tag said “Gypsy” snack peppers. That’s all the info I’ve got lol.
    And do you have any suggestions for getting rid of slugs? Those disgusting things keep eating all the marigolds I plant, and they’re trying to take out my little pepper plant too! Last year I planted over 20 marigolds, only 3-7 survived long enough to handle the damage those disgusting things inflict.

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      Hi Kat, it’s too bad because slugs and snails really seem to love marigolds, check out our article on Organic Slug & Snail Control: 10 Ways to Stop Snails or Slugs. As far as peppers go, we often avoid topping snack, lunchbox, or other sweet peppers, we typically mostly top smaller spicy varieties, we have a couple poblano pepper plants going this year and I think we will leave them un-topped. Hope that helps and good luck with your pest problem, have fun growing!

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      Hi Trevor, the plant will still continue to grow tall while also getting bushier. Hope that helps and have fun growing!

  • Amy

    Hello! This is my first time starting from seed over her in New Jersey. So far, so good. But “topping” is totally new to me. Do you only recommend topping pepper plants, or other plants as well? Also, if I top a pepper plant, should I also pinch off the first buds? (If this was covered I’m sorry for the repeat)

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      Hi Amy, we typically top any pepper plant that produces smaller chilis as it does make it much more of a bushy plant which leads to more places for flowers and fruit. We also pinch any flowers or buds while the plant is still small as it allows the plant to focus its energy on growing larger instead of producing fruit. We have a few chilis this year that we are going to do a side by side grow of topped vs un-topped to show the differences. We don’t typically find ourselves topping too many plants in the garden aside from the occasional fava bean plant or trellising pole beans but it’s not something we are absolutely tied to either. Hope that helps and have fun growing!

  • Angela

    So, would you say either way for mini bell peppers since they’re kindof middle size? Is it the size of fruit that determines pinching? I started mini red bell and candy cane chocolate cherry ( which i think is another mini bell). Thanks

    • DeannaCat

      Hey there! I think mini bell varieties are more similar to large bell pepper plants in their structure/growth than they are to chilis, so I would lean towards not. We grow mini bells too and I dont think we’ve ever topped them, and still get ample fruit. I meant to do an experiment on mini bells last summer (trying some topped vs untopped to compare) but we ended up moving so I wasn’t able to see the results! Perhaps I will try on a couple this summer and report back. Thanks for reading!

      • Brandon

        Do you pinch the flowers on all your peppers? You specified for topping. Also, I have some mystery seeds that got mixed together. Should I stay away from topping those? First time pepper grower here. This was great article.

        • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

          Hi Brandon, we will usually pinch the flowers while the plants are still small in hopes that they focus their growth on getting bigger instead of producing fruit but we aren’t overly attentive with it either. If you have some mystery pepper seeds, just grow them normally without worrying about topping them and see what you end up with, they should grow great without topping no matter what variety they are. Hope that helps and good luck with your first pepper season!

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