It's one of the most contentious topics when it comes to growing peppers: to "top" a young pepper plant or not.
Supporters of the technique claim the practice increases yields and leads to bushier plants, while those in the "no-top" club argue it's unnecessary mutilation that greatly delays the plant's development — and the all-important fruiting stage.
Others will argue “it depends” – topping can be beneficial in certain situations but isn’t always a good idea. This is where we stand.
"Treat your plant right and you won’t need to touch it."
Whether you decide to top your plants or not is up to you, but you should at least consider the pros and cons before you pull out the snips.
If there's one thing you should take away from this is the simple fact that your pepper plants will grow completely fine if you choose not to top them.
How to Top
Pepper growers usually top the plant — if they choose to — around four to six weeks after sprouting when the plant has had the chance to put out several sets of true leaves. Some opt to top the plant even sooner than that.
Actually topping the plant is as simple as it sounds: snip off new growth just above one of the plant's developing leaf nodes, as demonstrated by Epic Gardening here (around the 4:18 mark).
That's it, you've topped the plant.
But before you start snipping, let's explore the pros and cos in a little more detail. Note: most of this information is based on a wealth of anecdotal evidence. There's essentially no empirical data on the practice to rely on here.
The Pros of Topping
Topping signals to the plant to shoot out more sideways growth that is sturdier and stronger. Growth hormones usually collect at the nodes below the cut. These hormones then cause the plant to send signals to start new growth.
The thinking is: the more branches and nodes the plant develops early on, the more bountiful the harvest towards the end of the season.
Stronger stems means more resilience to bad weather, including high winds.
If you are growing in a small space – say, a grow-tent in your basement – topping might be a solution when you can’t raise your lights any higher. With repeated topping you can sculpt your plant into what shape best suits you and your grow space. Khang Starr’s topping experiments are a good example for this.
Some pepper species also tend to grow lankier than others (not a hard and fast rule). Lanky growth can be more vulnerable to strong gusts of wind and in some instances fold over themselves.
Reminder: stake your plants if you think it looks a little too lanky! Make sure your plant gets enough light early on in its life to avoid lankiness altogether and if your seedling is getting too long too quick, replant it deeper into the soil.
The Cons of Topping
Of course, the pepper plant will be A-OK without any topping intervention. After all, Mother Nature has had millions of years of practice, long before pepper cultivation became a thing.
Some growers have also reported that topping doesn't actually lead to more nodes or higher yields in the first place.
"My biggest issue with topping is that people think you need to top. Which is just ridiculous," Pepper Lovers Community member Pepper Ranger pointed out. "Treat your plant right and you won’t need to touch it."
The most cited disadvantage to topping a pepper plant is that the practice will inevitably set back the growth development of the plant significantly. It can take time for the plant to readjust and kick into node development and foliage high gear.
And that's bad news if you happen to be in an area with a short growing season. The pepper plant may never have a chance to set a lot of fruit, if any, before temperatures start plunging again.
Some super hot Capsicum chinense and especially Capsicum pubescens (rocotos) varieties can take forever, upwards of six months, to fully ripen.
A bushier plant can also end up being too much of a good thing, with foliage preventing wind from circulating properly.
People of the "no-top" persuasion also often argue that nature is pretty good at taking care of business all by itself. Many pepper species usually form an overall "Y" shape after reaching a certain stage of growth — without any topping intervention.
Cutting the stem off of an already delicate seedling could also introduce pathogens if you're not careful enough with sanitizing your snips. How big of a risk this is however is up for debate.
At the end of the day, it's your choice to make. Every pepper species, variety — or even individual plant for that matter — is different. Combine that with a countless number of other variables like temperature and humidity, and it's nearly impossible to tell which is truly the more effective way to get higher yields.
Besides, some cons of topping may also not be a huge issue for you. Starting seeds very early in the season indoors may buy you enough time, despite the topping setback, to grow sturdier and bushier plants that can be moved outdoors eventually.
Perhaps give topping a shot! The best way to get a proper comparison is to start with two plants that are as similar as possible. For this we recommend using two similar cuttings from the same plant to ensure you at least have the same genetics.
You’ll see a lot of experiments that won’t go further than looking at which plant is bushier or higher a few weeks after topping. For a proper comparison, count and weigh all fruit as you might see more pods on one plant but then realize that the overall yield in weight was greater for the other.
See the results for yourself and let us know how you fared!