Topping for a second time

We’ve learned a lot from the first topping…

Different varieties of chilli like topping in different degrees. Some just don’t seem to understand what to do and others get it right first time.

A good example of a slow learner is Poblano. At the initial topping, Poblano was topped carefully to leave four true leaves. All seemed well. However, each of the plants has grown just one (or maybe two) new branch from the leaf node. This has then become the main growing stem again. It’s like the Auxin only made it down as far as that node and stopped there. Result: minimal branching, one main growing point AGAIN.

Topped Poblano, falling back into its old habits: one growth spike, minimal branching.

The best in class when it comes to branching out has got to be the Chinense group. Again, they were topped to leave four true leaves. This was difficult as they were tightly packed. Every single node has sprouted a new branch. Result: lush, dense plants with plenty of growing branches to bear lots of fruit.

Just look at all those new shoots. The Chinenses may be slow to grow but when they do it is ALL GOOD.

Espelette seems to know what to do with itself once its top has been whipped off. The difference is obvious looking at plants that have and haven’t been topped. Well done Espelette. We salute you.

Left: topped plant with branching at every leaf node. Right: taller plant, no branching, beginning to show a Y at the top. Flower buds.

Overall, topping HAS resulted in the chilli plants growing extra branches, lower down, before they form the Y. It has delayed flower formation and therefore flower drop or fruit developing too soon. Sometimes chillies forget to produce more flowers if they have an early fruit or two.

The Demon Scissor Snipper has been back. A second topping has occurred. Any plant that had not yet formed a Y has had its new branches topped too. Mwwwhhhhhaaaaarrr!

Why? In aid of even bushier plants, with more flowers, less chance of branch snapping and plants that topple over. And of course, many more chillies!

How and when to top your chilli plants?

Our chilli plants are progressing nicely. Lighting has been au natural so they are not the deep, dark, dense green & glossy beasts that some people have lurking beneath their grow lights. Maybe Father Christmas will bring us lights this year, who knows. Until such time, we have our lovely honest plants that have germinated and grown in a UK Winter. As a result, they have slightly petite leaves, longer stem spaces between pairs of leaves and a grassier green colour.

It is time to top.

What does that mean?

You might call topping, pinching out, top pruning or even FIMming (Google that for an explanation). The Chelsea Chop works on the same idea too. They are all pretty much the same thing. Snipping off the growing shoot at the top of an immature chilli plant, before it has split to a Y or produce flower buds.

You can tell if the plants might benefit from a topping if they are leggy. Look at the space between each set of true leaves. Is it bigger than you would like? Does the plant bend a little too much? Are you worried you might snap the plant when you move it around? If yes to these questions then your plant is ready to take its top off.

Why? What are the benefits:

More fruit: the removal of the main apex growing shoot sends the key plant growth hormone, auxin, down the stem to encourage many more growing shoots to develop further down the plant. The result is more growing branches, more flowers and ultimately more fruit. Yay! Better order that chest freezer now.

More compact plants: naturally grown plants can be a little leggy at this time of the year. This can be dealt with in a few ways. When repotting they can be buried up to their seed leaves, encouraging more roots to grow and reducing the height of the plant. Topping also deals with a plant that is undesirably tall early in the season. Don’t be scared now, it will all work out fine.

More stable plants: another benefit to reducing the height of the plant and sending it out sideways will become apparent later the season. Some chilli plants (jalapeño, guajilo, padron to name a few) could reach up to 2 metres tall. By encouraging a bushy style plant you will avoid plants that can be blown over in the wind, or knocked over if they are dry. Single tall stems can be easily snapped, especially ones that have larger fruit. Multi stems not so much. All that hard work could end up for nothing. You might find there is less need for staking too.

Are there any negative effects?

Delayed flowers and fruit: so of course, by topping the lead growth shoot you are delaying the onset of flowers and fruit, essentially checking the plant. If you have a short growing season and are only interested in a smallish crop then go right ahead, let the chilli plant grow as it wants, with little interference, and you’ll be harvesting your chillies a week or two before us toppers. Although, you might find that those early flowers do not hang around to set fruit as the plant is too immature to support them.

Less side shoots: Hmm, maybe. If you have a chilli plant that likes to bush out and make side shoots all on its own then cutting off some of the plant will leave less leaf joins to sprout new shoots. Don’t top if you have all the space in the world. A side shoot variety (padron for example) will just get on with things itself. As long as you are prepared to stake and support as the fruit sets and enlarges.

Does this work for every type of chilli?

The topping principal totally works on any chilli. But, with naturally small, bushy plants, or plants that send out side shoots you might choose not to bother. Our Chinense types are half the height of the larger Annuums at the moment. No need to do anything with them just yet, maybe not at all. They take a lot longer to get on with things. Bactuum types are often spindly and branched anyway. Topping could help keep them more sturdy.

Top left: Trinidad Perfume (Cap. chinense), bottom left: Aleppo (Cap. annuum)

How to top?

Well now, if you are a You Tube kinda chillihead then settle down to watch Veronica Flores explain all things topping. You’ll be rushing off for your tiny scissors in no time at all.

  1. Wait until the plant has between 3-5 sets of true leaves.
  2. Find a nice sharp pair of scissors.
  3. Take a deep breath.
  4. Snip out the main growing shoot. Leaving one or two pairs of true leaves, depending on how brave you are.
  5. Sit back and watch the side shoots grow.
  6. The side shoots can also be topped later on in the season if they are leggy.

Five days later and our plants are already showing sign of side shoots.

Do be warned: topping is addictive.

Learning some lessons

An update, with added advice to self for next year:

The sprouted seedlings have been transferred to their paper pots, 135 of them so far. Thank goodness for grandparents and all their newspapers. The seed soil was cold and waterlogged (it is January after all) The pots were filled and warmed gently on the radiator.

Paper pots are quick to make and take less paper than you would think. Hopefully the pots will be soft enough for the first roots to break through meaning there will be no need to disturb the seedlings when potting on the next time.

 

Do not let the moisture in the chitting pods evaporate completely or the roots shrivel and dry. This has happened to Habanero Primavero Red. Hopefully some of the remaining seeds will germinate as we have no more in the packet. Not buying any more.

Also, don’t leave the sprouted seedlings too long in the chitting pods as their roots  become intertwined with the capillary matting. Some of the roots have snapped in the transferring process. Not sure whether they will survive or not but they will sulk for at least a week, no doubt. Maybe a vermiculite mix to germinate in would be best next year?

 

New Year Resolutions

Despite lack of posts, chillies did grow at The Birdhouse. Actually they grew in the greenhouse at The Birdhouse. So big and so strong they were bursting out all over the place. Neighbours, friends and family and indeed actual strangers were gifted copious bags of multicoloured, mega Scovilled goodies.

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We spent the Summer tasting, cooking, preserving, researching, stalking and fermenting chillies. Hits of the season were the Jalapeños. Wow, what a flavour and a heat that everyone can enjoy. The plants were tall (the height of our small greenhouse really), prolific, early too.

Big Bomb were also pretty darn good. Loads of fruit, great colour, sweet heat and plenty of chillies on each plants. Easy to prepare. The plants were a manageable size. Quite upright and strong. Surplus chillies were pickled to be stuffed at our leisure, like homemade Peppadews.

The surprise hit was the Scotch Bonnet. Only four plants germinated. Not promising. They sulked at every stage of the growing process. Hid at the back of the greenhouse for a month. But then, once they got going, they were truly excellent. Stunning shiny scarlet baubles, wonderfully fruity flavour and vast quantities of crisp chillies. Hot hot hot. Made a phenomenal hot pepper sauce with them. Nom. We cooked up a a similar sauce with Aji Lemon and Bulgarian Carrot too. One red, one orange and one zingy lemon yellow. Definitely worth the effort.

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And so to this year. What will 2019 bring to The Birdhouse? Here come the New Year Resolutions…

  1. Start the growing process a little earlier. Order seeds asap and then chit. Don’t give up on seeds that take longer than a few days to germinate. Some can take WEEKS! Consistent temperature, good air circulation and perhaps a bit of scarification on the hotter seeds as they were the harder to kick start.
  2. New varieties this year to include milder chillies, ones that are noted for their individual flavour and types suited to cooler climes. As well as a few faves. Don’t waste time on tiny chillies, pretty chillies, chillies that are mind blowingly hot.
  3. Make sure the height of the staging in the greenhouse is not too high. Chilli plants were generally much taller than expected and so were squashed up against the roof. Any chillies growing outside need structure to support them.
  4. Don’t be afraid to give plants away. Too many plants lead to pests and diseases spreading quickly.
  5. Sort a watering technique/system that works simply. Especially during the Summer hols when we are away. Maybe ventilation too. Oh, and an adequate heater for the early months.

And there we have it. Izzy whizzy, let’s get bizzy.