It was March 28th when the Big Snip occurred. The tops of the seedlings were unceremoniously chopped off and they have been nursing their wounds ever since. All in the hope that new side shoots would appear and make bushier, sturdier and more productive plants.
That was two weeks ago…what do the plants look like now?
Here they are, in all their glory: tight plants with side shoots a plenty. A bit awkward, in the teenage phase if you will, but their small leaves will soon catch up with their big leaves and all will be bushy and well.
The plants need to have a good space around each of them. They are currently wedged together on windowsill trays and under a grow light in our study. Not ideal. There are now some critical issues:
Shortage of compost: many plants need potting on but compost is in short supply. We are reusing last year’s spent compost, mixed with extra perlite and garden compost. No grit this year as it is too expensive and difficult to get hold of.
Over crowding: by not potting on yet we have larger plants in smaller pots, with less gap between each plant. Light, air flow and good space is what each plant needs to grow to its full size potential. All those new side shoots will grow leggy if they are over crowded.
Pot bound root ball: yet again roots are starting to be seen from the bottom of pots. If they are not potted on the roots poking out will wither and the ones inside will become pot bound.
Space indoors is running out: an entire room has been taken over by chillies. This is not practical anymore.
Solutions are coming.
A 900L bag of compost is on the way (there are also tomatoes, squashes, cucumbers, beans to consider you know). A 3m x 2m poly tunnel is ordered, staging is being prepared. Perhaps within this week our plants will be heading out into the great outdoors (heated poly tunnel).
Do you want bushy chilli plants? Strong & sturdy, multi stemmed, eventually laden with fruit?
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!
Patience. Start by selecting appropriate candidates for treatment. Look for plants that are all or most of the following:
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.
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.
Baccatum are often sprawling, branched plants. An early top could help them to produce even more branches.
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.
Come on now, how do we DO this thing?
OK, like this.
Put on your brave pants, this could get scary;
Gather the tools: clean, sharp scissors in one hand (we like embroidery scissors or tiny snips for bonsai work);
Take the selected victim in the other hand;
Carefully position the scissors to snip out the growing shoot, leaving behind at least four good true leaves.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The last few weeks have been busy. Spring has finally sprung in Hampshire. The garden is waking up and our Family and other Animals are demanding attention. The chillies have been quietly doing their thing on the window sill. After a sunshine-tastic Easter Bank Holiday it is time for a progress report.
Roots were starting to appear at the bottom of the smaller pots. A sure sign it is time to pot on. Not too big too soon or the plants will spend all their time growing new roots to fill the massive pot and forget to grow up top.
The same mix of soil was used. Seemed to work well for the first round of pots so why change it? No need for staking any plants yet. This time last year the Jalapeños and Big Bombs were already needing a small stake to stop them flopping over. Topping has helped the plant stability.
86 plants potted on. Very satisfying.
As a result of topping…
The plants have responded well to their growing tip being pinched out. Some plants were showing signs of branching anyway but others, less natural spreaders, have really bunched up and sent out side shoots galore. Excellent work. Although none of the topped plants have flower buds they all have many, many more growth points, rather than one leading spike.
A comparison of topped and not topped plants show significant differences (significant to us, anyway) Topping has slowed flower development, created more leaves, bushier and shorter plants. The non-topped plants are destined to be sold at a Summer Fete. They are tall, flowering plants with big leaves. They should do well in their new homes.
The late-to-be-sown Rocoto plants have just been topped. They are rapid growers and have a good number of true leaves. Snip snip snip. Time to bush out.
Last year the solo Rocoto plant we grew was a real pain in the greenhouse. Sprawling and brittle, it decided it needed other plants to support it. This made moving them around almost impossible. It was definitely worth the hassle (as is clear from the last minute seed planting) but there is nothing wrong with attempting to keep them more compact this year.
Moving up to the greenhouse…
The plants been up in our heated, bubble wrapped greenhouse for nearly a week and the results are good. All round light, controlled temperature and gentle air flow has really allowed the plants to flourish. We’ve been trying to keep the temperature above 15 degrees at night, so far no problem, despite outdoor temperatures hovering around zero. Temperatures during the day are less than perfect. It can often be well over 35 degrees in there, with window and door open. We’ve attempted some strategic placing of the hotter types on the South side and the ones that are less tolerant of high temperatures on the North side or somewhat under the shelving. Generally all the plants have added a couple of extra sets of leaves and are looking tip top.
There are a selection of plants that will be gifted to friends and family. These are not necessarily going to be potted on or placed in prime location though, just kept ticking along. They will be left in their first pots or potted on into odds and sods pots. A good chance to clear out any unwanted pots. These are in the cold frame, covered over at night and will be fleeced if a cheeky frost makes a surprise appearance.
All the Trinidad Perfume plants are showing good growth but have odd looking central new leaves. Pale and crinkly. Investigations and results will follow.
Time to consider the feeding regime again. Should we increase the Chilli Focus mix to 10mls per litre? Should we go to twice a week or stick with once a week? Is an Epsom Salt spray needed again? And what about banana tea?
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.
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.
Wait until the plant has between 3-5 sets of true leaves.
Find a nice sharp pair of scissors.
Take a deep breath.
Snip out the main growing shoot. Leaving one or two pairs of true leaves, depending on how brave you are.
Sit back and watch the side shoots grow.
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.
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