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!

One thought on “Guide to Topping Chilli Plants

  1. Pingback: How and when to top your chilli plants? | Birdhouse Chillies

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