Guide to Topping Chilli Plants

Do you want bushy chilli plants? Strong & sturdy, multi stemmed, eventually laden with fruit?

Early Red Primavera Habanero from 2019. Topped in April to encourage extra branching and more fruit. Ripe from in late July.

Well of course you do! But maybe your plant are not quite there yet. If not, then look no further than The Birdhouse Miracle Cure!

How do we achieve the ideal chilli plant?

Some plants are just born this way but others need more help. Some will just do their thing regardless of how you tend them but there is nothing wrong with encouraging them in the right direction.

By applying The not-yet-patented Birdhouse Miracle Cure – otherwise known as topping – we can encourage side shoots and bushy growth which lead to strong, multi stemmed, hopefully super fruity plants later on.

In addition to resulting in a good strong, bushy plant, topping will nip out any very early flower buds from the single growing shoot. These buds often drop and do not set fruit. Even plants that do set early fruit can be negatively affected and fail to produce any more flowers. Topping may well avoid flower abscission entirely.

Is there some sort of science that can convince me topping works?

Plants have hormones. These hormones make different parts of the plant act in certain ways. In this instance, we are messing around with the growth hormones, auxins and gibberellins.

These hormones work together in the top growth shoot of a chilli seedling, causing cell elongation and increased cell division resulting in a rapidly growing shoot.

By removing the lead growing shoot we are sending the hormone concentration out to other areas it can be effective, namely the leaf axils where buds can develop. The hope is that each axil will produce axillary buds that eventually turn into extra branches. Thus creating a bushy plant with many growing shoots rather than a single stem.

In previous years topping has largely been very successful. And so we repeat the process this year. However, what occasionally happens is that just one of the axils produces an axillary shoot and that in turn just becomes a new single lead shoot, rather than a larger number of new side shoots. Resulting in a lop sided and unstable plant. Not bushier, not extra flowers or fruit. Just top again!

2019’s results can be seen here

But HOW do we top the plants!?

Patience. Start by selecting appropriate candidates for treatment. Look for plants that are all or most of the following:

Oooh, perfect to whip its top off
  • Tall;
  • Leggy (not necessarily that same as tall) Leggy means ‘larger than desirable gaps between leafs sets’;
  • Single stemmed – best to treat them before they have split to the classic Y ;
  • No side shoots naturally forming;
  • Have 4 or more pairs of true leaves.

Annuum plants are often perfect for topping treatment at this stage in the season. They can take an early top and maybe even another in a couple of weeks. A second top may be necessary if one new axillary shoot becomes dominant.

Annuum chilli plants ready to top

Chinense types are usually a bit slower to grow to start with. They stay shorter too. Good results come from topping but make sure they have enough true leaves before attempting. Keeping in mind that Chinense take longer to produce ripe fruit you don’t want to top too late either.

Chinense type chilli plants ready to top

Baccatum are often sprawling, branched plants. An early top could help them to produce even more branches.

Baccatum chillies ready to top

Rocoto chillies have branched plants. Catch them before they split to the first Y and topping can help reduce the spindly nature of their initial growth.

Rocoto chilli plants ready to top

Come on now, how do we DO this thing?

OK, like this.

  1. Put on your brave pants, this could get scary;
  2. Gather the tools: clean, sharp scissors in one hand (we like embroidery scissors or tiny snips for bonsai work);
  3. Take the selected victim in the other hand;
  4. Carefully position the scissors to snip out the growing shoot, leaving behind at least four good true leaves.
  5. And breathe out. Honestly, within a week, probably five days, new buds of side shoots will have appeared in the crooks of the remaining leaves.

Are there any reasons not to treat the plants this way?

Topping will check the production of flower buds as the plant will concentrate on producing more growing spikes. Too late in the season and you risk not achieving fully grown and ripe chillies.

Some plants natural form side shoots, grow short and bushy, are covered in fruit anyway. No need to top. Let them get on with the job themselves.

Slow growing chillies – often Chinense types – do not need further excuses to take longer to flower and fruit. Consider if the extra fruit you might gain is worth the longer wait or even the risk of the first frosts arriving before your chillies are ripe!

Any cut is a possible introduction of infection to the plant. Ensure scissor are clean and each plant is checked for signs of disease.

Discarded growth shoots

And there we have it, a seemingly crazy attack on our precious babies, all in aid of more hot pods at the end of the season.

Good luck!

How and when to pot on chilli seedlings

Here we go again. The seeds have germinated, true leaves are growing. All seems well. And then, suddenly it dawned on us that these precious babies might need a bit more than a teeny tiny pot and seed compost. What next?

Reporting, ready to POT ON, Sir!

Have a look

A seedling that is ready to pot on for the first time will be showing certain key signs:

  1. It will actually be growing. Smaller leaves becoming bigger leaves. The plant will be getting taller. New leaves green up. Plants just sitting there, existing with two seed leaves, sulking, are not ready for a bigger pot yet.
  2. The water is being used up quickly in the first pot. Another sign the plant is growing well and using what you give it.
  3. Maybe a root or two are poking out of the bottom. Chillies like to be potted on incrementally. Not straight into a whopping great 20L pot. The surest sign they’re ready to move home is little white roots peeking out underneath.

Get prepared

The seedlings will wait a couple of extra days whilst you prepare their new home. Get the next size pot in from the cold shed/garage/backdoor step/unheated greenhouse. Bring in any soil that is going to used and let it warm up. Prepare your work station, table coverings, labels, pens, dibber, watering can, chilli feed, trays, capillary matting. It’s like preparing for the arrival of a new baby. Get all the kit sorted in advance. We all have our preferences but make sure you’ve got all your fave tools to hand. We like a teaspoon and a chopstick at this stage.

Your pot of choice will depend on your preference and circumstance. We have been collecting and reusing 9cm square pots at this stage for some years now. These suit us for many reasons: they come to us via purchases at a favourite nursery (West Kington Nurseries name check)… friends and family give them to us…they fit together with no spaces… they fit well on the trays we use on our window sills in the Winter months… easy to stack and store… easy to keep clean… good to write on with chalk pens for labels… discourages roots from going round and round…durable and last for a number of years. Some of our pots are easily seven years old, if not older. Virtually family.

Pick a pot that works for you.

Ahh, but what type of soil?

A free draining soil mix will suit chilli babies

Much has been written about soil type. Lots of advice is out there. Last season we spent many hours researching, sourcing, combining, mixing and using a very special Birdhouse Mix. It all seemed very important at the time. You can read our 2019 soil post here:

https://birdhousechillies.com/2019/02/06/the-quest-to-find-the-best-soil/

But this year, we are doing things a little differently. We have saved and are reusing the Birdhouse Mix soil from pots last year. *Gasp* I hear you all draw breath. It is not the done thing according the the Wise Growing Elders. And it is certain that some of you will just plain disagree with our actions. No problem, we all garden our own way. However, in this day & age of recycle, reuse and reduce, it surely makes sense to reuse the soil we so lovingly created. So we are.

If we’re not convincing enough then why not listen to Alys Fowler, gardening extraordinaire.

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/may/18/how-to-reuse-old-compost-alys-fowler

So how to ensure the old compost is put to good use…and is actually good for our chillies?

Check the texture. Is it good and friable (best word EVER)? Rub through any clumps as if making pastry. The baby chilli roots need air around them and need to be able to push through the soil to spread out. Fluff the soil up nicely for them.

Check the content. Are there pests, seeds, twigs, berries, fungus, or other microbes that could cause harm to the new plants? If so, discard. Pick out any old roots. Our soil store is directly under a gargantuan Holm Oak tree. Great volumes of waxy leaves fall into the soil. They too have to be picked out. Grrr!

Check your intentions. Do you intend on feeding your plants? (Yes!) A liquid feed is perfect for reused compost. If not then you may need to add a general fertiliser or want to consider a more nutritious soil to start with.

Check any supplements. Some people add water retention beads. You may want to add grit, perlite or vermiculite (or cat litter, Alys). Good drainage is best for chillies. Our soil mix has plenty of grit, sand and perlite already so we just added a 10% of peat free multi-purpose compost, just to add bulk and a touch of all round nutrients for the next few weeks. We also add a layer of horticultural grit at the bottom of each pot to avoid the roots sitting in anything too wet.

Are we ready to pot now?

Potting on and on and on

And now you can pot on. This is how we do it:

  1. Select your first seedling, check which variety it is and label its new 9cm square pot. We use chalk pen.
  2. Put a layer of horticultural grit in the bottom of the pot, followed by a layer of lightly damp, warmed soil.
  3. Our seedlings are in newspaper pots. Then can just be popped on top of the soil layer.
  4. Back fill around the pot. If the seedling is leggy then top the soil up until just under the seed leaves. Gently not to damage the stem as that could cause weakness later on.
  5. Pick up the pot and gently knock it on a surface to settle down the soil without compacting it. Top up if need be.
  6. Place the pot on a tray lined with capillary matting.
  7. Water with a weak feed. Warm water, from the base.

Presenting the Class of 2020 in their new pots

Of course a chilli head’s work is never done. Here are the rest of the Class of 2020. Chinense on the right, gradually putting on bulk. On the left are the late germinators. Mostly Annuums so they should be fine. All too little for new pots yet.

Not quite ready to pot on.