Everything you need to know about topping your pepper plants
Topping is an important technique for any pepper gardener to know about. Read on to learn everything you need to know about topping your pepper plants, including the pros and cons, when to top them, how to do it properly, and what to do with your cuttings. Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or just starting out, this guide will give you the knowledge and confidence you need to successfully top your pepper plants.
What does “topping” a pepper plant mean?
Topping a pepper plant simply means snipping off the top of the plant when it is still young. This practice stimulates the growth of side shoots instead of allowing the plant to grow taller and taller. The result of the topping is a bushier plant instead of a taller one.
By removing the top of the plant, the growth hormones usually concentrated at the top of the plant are redirected to the lateral branches, resulting in more side shoots. Gardeners often use this technique to encourage a fuller, more compact plant that produces more fruit.
Does topping pepper plants increase your yield?
Does topping pepper plants really work to increase yield? Let’s explore the evidence.
Topping and yield: What the research shows
While there is some anecdotal evidence that topping can increase yield for certain peppers, scientific research on this topic is limited. One study of pimiento peppers found that topping the plants resulted in a higher yield in the first harvest but did not significantly impact total yield throughout the entire season (Humadi, 1980). Another study showed that pruning by thinning out branches produced a higher yield than topping the pepper plant and a 7% higher yield than the control group (Hu et al., 2016).
However, it is important to note that bell peppers, in particular, do not produce more when they are topped, and in fact, topping can negatively impact yield (Alsadon et al., 2013).
What it all means
Scientific research is only one of many ways to gauge whether or not something is effective in the garden. For example, many people report that they saw improved yield when they topped their plants — and I’m experimenting with it this summer!
It’s also clear, both from research and anecdotal evidence, that there are a number of benefits to topping pepper plants besides yield.
Experiment with topping and pruning at home
If you’re curious whether topping will increase yield for your pepper plants, trying it out for yourself is easy and low-risk. Topping and pruning is a simple technique that can be done with a clean pair of scissors or pruning shears. Experiment with topping at different stages of growth to see what produces the best results for your particular variety of pepper and growing conditions
Why top pepper plants? (pros and cons)
We’ve already explored the impact of topping on the yield of your pepper plants, but there are many other benefits and downsides to topping your plants to consider in the equation.
Pros of topping pepper plants
Topping forces your pepper plants to create more offshoots, forming a shorter and bushier plant. This results in a sturdier plant that can withstand wind better and support more pepper growth without tipping or breaking. It can also make maintaining a compact plant in a small garden or container easier. If you use a cage or stake for support, you may not need to top for sturdiness purposes.
Shorter, bushier plants can also be beneficial because peppers are less likely to shade plants around them. In addition, one study found that topping pepper plants resulted in fruits that were higher in Vitamin C and sugars, so it may improve peppers’ nutrient content and taste (Buczkowska & Najda, 2001).
Cons of topping pepper plants
If you prune too much and remove too many leaves, it can limit the plant’s ability to perform photosynthesis and stunt the growth of the plant. Topping also delays fruit production by a couple of weeks, which may not work for gardeners in climates with short warm seasons. Finally, as we learned earlier, as with bell peppers, topping can reduce the total yield in some cases.
Overall, topping pepper plants can have several benefits. Still, it is crucial to consider the type of pepper you are growing and your gardening setup before deciding whether to top. If you want to experiment with topping, start with a few plants and compare the results to untopped plants.
What kinds of pepper plants should you top?
Personally, I’m growing more than a dozen varieties of chili peppers — so if your garden will be similarly abundant with peppers, you might wonder which ones to top and which to leave alone. Here’s a rundown of which types of pepper plants might benefit from topping.
Pepper plants to top:
Smaller pepper varieties, like tabasco, serrano, jalapeños, and biquinho, tend to do better when topped because they produce a sturdier, bushier plant structure. If you notice that any of your pepper seedlings are particularly “leggy,” you may also want to top them to create a more robust, sturdier plant.
Pepper plants not to top:
Some types of pepper plants are naturally compact, like habaneros, so there is less benefit to topping. Large peppers, like bell peppers, do not do as well when topped, and it can negatively impact yield (Alsadon et al., 2013).
How to top pepper plants
Gardeners put a lot of love and care into their plants, so cutting your seedlings down may make you hesitate. Luckily, topping peppers is a simple process that can be done in just a few steps. Follow these guidelines for successful topping:
Step 1: Prepare your tools
Use sharp gardening shears and clean them thoroughly to avoid introducing pathogens that can damage the plant.
Step 2: Make the cut
Avoid pulling or tearing the stem with your hands when making the cut. Instead, use the shears to cut about 1 inch off the top of the plant, just above the node.
Step 3: Leave a nub
When making the cut, leave a little bit of nub on the stem. Do not cut directly on the node, which can damage the plant.
When to top pepper plants
Topping your pepper plants is typically done around 4-6 weeks after sprouting before transplanting them into your garden. At this point, the seedlings should be around 4-8″ tall and have several sets of true leaves. If your plants look “leggy,” topping can be especially beneficial.
Topping at the end of the season
Topping and pruning can also be done 2-3 weeks before your last frost date to concentrate the plant’s energy into maturing the fruit already on the plant. However, it’s important to avoid topping the plant immediately after transplanting. After transplanting, the plant needs to put its energy into developing a strong root system.
Naturally dividing plants
Some pepper plants will naturally divide at the top rather than having a single main branch. When this happens, you do not need to top the plant.
What about pinching buds?
Pinching buds refers to cutting off the buds on a pepper plant before they flower and produce fruit.
When to pinch buds
If you’ve started your peppers indoors or purchased seedlings and the plant has buds before transplanting, it’s wise to pinch them. This allows the plant to put more energy into growing rather than fruiting and can result in a bigger, healthier plant. Pinching new buds at the end of the season also helps your plant put its energy into maturing the last fruit before it frosts rather than trying to grow new fruits that won’t have enough time to mature.
When to avoid pinching buds
If you have a short warm season, you may want to avoid pinching the buds at the beginning of the season, as this can delay fruiting by a few weeks. It’s also unnecessary and unhelpful to pinch buds mid-season when the plant is already established and the fruit has plenty of time to mature.
Topping vs. pruning
Topping and pruning are terms often used interchangeably but have different meanings. Topping is a specific form of pruning that involves cutting off the top of a plant, while pruning can refer to removing foliage from any part of the plant.
What to do with your cuttings when you top or prune your peppers
Once you have topped or pruned your pepper plants, you may wonder what to do with the cuttings. Believe it or not, you can actually grow new plants from them!
To do this, take the stem you have cut off and place it in a shallow glass of water to submerge the cut end. If you have rooting powder, you can add it to help the cutting root more quickly. Once the roots have grown to about 1 inch in length, you can transplant the cutting into the soil to grow a new pepper plant.
Alternatively, you can compost the trimmings if you do not wish to propagate new plants.
Am I topping my chili peppers?
I’m growing over a dozen types of hot and sweet peppers this year, and I’ve decided to top some of them to see if I notice a difference in growth and fruiting. I started the process a couple of weeks ago, snipping the top from a few plants. I’ve already noticed side shoots emerging, and will be transplanting them soon, so I will report back with the results once they start fruiting.
A few of my plants also fell victim to hungry mice who ate off the tops, and those ones also put off side shoots, so they may have just helped me top them anyway.
Be sure to sign up for my email list (you’ll get my guide to growing peppers for free!) to get updates on my pepper-growing experiments!
Topping your pepper plants can be a simple yet effective way to help them grow stronger and, in some cases, produce more fruit. But it’s not for everyone! Make sure to consider the varieties you’re growing and your own climate and circumstances before you decide to make the snip.
Alsadon, A., Wahb-Allah, M., Abdel-Razzak, H., & Ibrahim, A. (2013). Effects of pruning systems on growth, fruit yield and quality traits of three greenhouse-grown bell pepper (Capsicum annuum L.) cultivars. Australian Journal of Crop Sciences, 1309–1316.
Buczkowska, H., & Najda, A. (2001). Impact of plant topping on chemical composition of sweet pepper fruit. Zeszyty Naukowe Akademii Techniczno-Rolniczej w Bydgoszczy. Rolnictwo, (46), 33–37.
Hu, Q., Wei, Y., Gan, X., Zhang, O., Huangpu, J., Hu, B., & Wu, L. (2016). Effects of pruning methods and harvest time on yield and benefit of pepper in greenhouse. Jiangsu Agricultural Sciences , 44, 182–185.
Humadi, F. (1980). Effects of plant growth retardants and mechanical topping on growth and yield of pimiento pepper (Capsicum annum L.) (dissertation). Tennessee Research and Creative Exchange. Retrieved May 8, 2023, from https://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_graddiss/7869/.