Skip to Content

Why You Need to Top Your Pepper Plants & How to Do It

I’m a lazy gardener. I am, I’ll admit it. If something is going to double my cucumber harvest, but it takes too long to implement or involves a big setup or lots of tools and potions, I’ll pass. I’m okay with my normal cucumber harvest, thank you very much.

But if it’s easy, if it’s something that takes mere moments to do, then I’m all ears. I want to hear about it.

Because let’s face it, few things in gardening are quick and easy. But topping your peppers certainly is!

This simple practice, which takes a few seconds to do, has a big impact on your pepper growth and yield for the rest of the growing season. Who wouldn’t be interested in that?

What is Topping?

The practice of topping or pinching peppers is exactly what it sounds like. You remove the topmost portion of the plant. You selectively cut off the very tippy top of the plant, just above two side branching stems. This stops the plant from putting more energy and nutrients into growing taller and instead redirects all those resources to pushing out more lateral growth.

A lot more! It’s odd, really. You pinch off such a small portion, but it has such a big impact on how the plant reacts.

This is a hot pepper plant (Buena Mulata, I grow them every year), that I topped a couple of weeks ago. The arrow shows the new growth that was a bud when I topped the plant, and the circles show all the new leaf buds since then.

Topping plants is nothing new. It’s recommended for other nightshades, like eggplants and especially tomatoes. And while I can’t recommend the practice for tomatoes (Click here to read why), I definitely think it’s a good idea for peppers. It’s one of those little things that offers benefits all season long.

Benefits? What benefits, Tracey?

I’m so glad you asked, my friend.

Why Should I Bother Topping My Pepper Plants

While you don’t have to top peppers to enjoy picking a peck of peppers, you gain some serious benefits that make growing that peck easier.

Prevent Sunscald

My Buena Mulata peppers turn the most beautiful purple when grown protected from the sun. No sunscald here!

Like most nightshade vegetables, peppers are susceptible to sunscald. Fruit that receives too much intense, direct sunlight can develop spots that become shrunken and wrinkled, ruining the fruit. This problem is exacerbated when it’s also extremely hot out.

Topping your peppers and encouraging a bushier plant will give it more foliage to shade and protect growing fruit from both intense sunlight and extreme temperatures.

Ever since I started topping my peppers, I haven’t had to worry about sunscald anymore.

Grow Tough, Storm-Resistant Plants

Summer storms can be devastating to your garden. Heavy winds, downpours, and sometimes even hail come ripping through with every thunderstorm. The aftermath can be heartbreaking when you’ve worked so hard to grow vegetables – knocked over plants, snapped stems and fruit fallen from the vine before it’s ripe.

Along with more side growth, topping encourages secondary growth as well, which means a nice, thick, sturdy main stem. And all that extra lateral growth makes for a much more damage-resistant plant. So, even if you do end up with a snapped stem or two from a serious summer storm, it’s far less of a big deal with topped plants.

While they may still need to be staked, topped pepper plants stand up to stormy weather better than their taller, non-topped compatriots.

Topped Peppers Grow Their Own Mulch

Man, I love shishito peppers! But take a look at the soil beneath them. Not a weed in sight.

One of my favorite reasons to top peppers is that they get so bushy that they completely shade the ground beneath them. They create their own mulching effect. Weeds won’t grow in the shade, and because the ground is kept shaded and cool, there is less water evaporation.

I’ve often discussed the importance of mulching plants for both of these reasons, but it’s even better if the plant will do it for you. Add a layer of mulch around the base of the plant while it grows out, and you’ve now got a pepper that will do better longer without rain.

Grow More Peppers Per Plant

Finally, the biggest benefit to topping peppers is a bigger yield. (Just what every gardener hopes to hear!) Bushier plants with more side stems tend to put out more flowers, which in turn means more peppers overall.

Making your own hot sauce? Canning pepper relish? Or, my favorite, are you freezing up batches of peppers and onions? Then you’re going to want to top your peppers.

Bonus tip:

If you really want a big harvest, top your pepper plants and pinch off flowers for the first couple of weeks after you plant your peppers. This encourages the plant to put all of its energy into growing bushier. Those new lateral stems end up putting out even more flowers.

 It’s a bit like telling a teenager “no.” Oh, I can’t put out flowers, huh? Just watch me!

When Should I Top My Pepper Plants?

The best time to top pepper plants is shortly after you’ve planted them in the garden. I like to give my peppers a few days to recover from transplant shock, and then I top them. Topping them at the beginning of the season means the plant will begin growing more side-growth right from the start and will start working on that secondary growth.

You can see where the plant is scabbed over after being topped.

Start as you mean to continue, right?

But if, for whatever reason, you weren’t able to do that (maybe you’re finding this article in July), you can top your plants mid-season and still enjoy the benefits. Topping the plant will have the same effect; you may not have as much time for the plant to fill in and bush out with that new growth.

How to Top Pepper Plants

This is the easy part.

While you can use your fingers and simply pinch off the top, I prefer to use scissors for a cleaner cut that doesn’t do extra damage to the stem.

Don’t forget! Sanitize your tools before you top.

Now, you’re simply going to cut off the top portion of the pepper plant. It’s usually a little fuller, a small cluster of newly developing leaves. Cut it as close to the next two later stems growing below it.

If your pepper plant is especially tall or a little leggy, you might even want to cut further down, taking a couple of lower sections with it.

Usually, you can already see new growth at the notch where the side stems meet the main stem. Once you top the pepper, these little buds will start growing like crazy.

Peter Piper? He’s got nothing on you and your peppers.

Get the famous Rural Sprout newsletter delivered to your inbox.

Including Sunday ramblings from our editor, Tracey, as well as “What’s Up Wednesday” our roundup of what’s in season and new article updates and alerts.

We respect your email privacy

Tracey Besemer

Hey there, my name is Tracey. I’m the editor-in-chief here at Rural Sprout.

Many of our readers already know me from our popular Sunday newsletters. (You are signed up for our newsletters, right?) Each Sunday, I send a friendly missive from my neck of the woods in Pennsylvania. It’s a bit like sitting on the front porch with a friend, discussing our gardens over a cup of tea.

Originally from upstate NY, I’m now an honorary Pennsylvanian, having lived here for the past 18 years.

I grew up spending weekends on my dad’s off-the-grid homestead, where I spent much of my childhood roaming the woods and getting my hands dirty.

I learned how to do things most little kids haven’t done in over a century.

Whether it was pressing apples in the fall for homemade cider, trudging through the early spring snows of upstate NY to tap trees for maple syrup, or canning everything that grew in the garden in the summer - there were always new adventures with each season.

As an adult, I continue to draw on the skills I learned as a kid. I love my Wi-Fi and knowing pizza is only a phone call away. And I’m okay with never revisiting the adventure that is using an outhouse in the middle of January.

These days, I tend to be almost a homesteader.

I take an eclectic approach to homesteading, utilizing modern convenience where I want and choosing the rustic ways of my childhood as they suit me.

I’m a firm believer in self-sufficiency, no matter where you live, and the power and pride that comes from doing something for yourself.

I’ve always had a garden, even when the only space available was the roof of my apartment building. I’ve been knitting since age seven, and I spin and dye my own wool as well. If you can ferment it, it’s probably in my pantry or on my kitchen counter. And I can’t go more than a few days without a trip into the woods looking for mushrooms, edible plants, or the sound of the wind in the trees.

You can follow my personal (crazy) homesteading adventures on Almost a Homesteader and Instagram as @aahomesteader.

Peace, love, and dirt under your nails,