Pruning Pepper Plants – How Prune Pepper Plants Right

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Pruning pepper plants is the simple process of removing portions of the plant to invigorate new growth. It is easy, but not always necessary. So, in this article, I’ll cover why you might want to prune your peppers, and how to do it properly.

Before you jump right into cutting your plants back, consider whether pruning is a good option. Most pepper plants will grow perfectly well without ever pruning. But, there are a few cases where you may want to give it a shot. Let’s get into it!

Pruning or topping pepper plants

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How to prune peppers (video):


Why Prune Pepper Plants?

Generally speaking, pruning pepper plants is a simple method of reshaping your plants. By cutting away certain branches or leaves, you’ll force the plant to focus growth and energy elsewhere.

Topping pepper plants, or removing the top few inches at the adolescent stage, typically leads to lower-growing plants, at least in the short term. The areas of the plant that you remove quickly recover and fill in with new growth from the lower nodes (more on nodes later).

However, it is important to only prune if it is necessary or beneficial. You wouldn’t want to take away too many of the plant’s leaves or branches. This could cause a setback that may lead to lower yields, especially if you live in a colder climate.


Do I Need To Prune Pepper Plants?

There are four different scenarios during the growing season when pruning might be beneficial to pepper plants. Be sure to consider carefully whether pruning is necessary for your plants.

Here are the major growth stages during which pruning may be helpful for peppers:

Topping (4-6 weeks after sprouting)

The first time to consider pruning pepper plants is a few weeks after the plants sprout. After 4-6 weeks of growing indoors under grow lights, your plants should be about 6-8 inches tall with a few sets of true leaves.

At this stage, your plant may look slightly tall or ‘leggy’ in stature. Topping may help protect the plant from strong winds and encourage a lower growth habit. To do this, you can prune away the top 1-2 inches of growth.

Topping pepper plant before and after
Just after pruning (left) and 2.5 weeks later (right).

This can encourage stockier and fuller plant growth in the long run. Having a stronger, thicker stem with a bushier shape may lead to better pepper yields, though there is no guarantee.

Note: It is worth noting that we no longer top our pepper plants (watch this video to learn why)! If you provide enough light during the early stages of growth, your plants should grow strong and bushy without the need for topping.

While topping does not cause long-term harm, and the plants do recover, the 1-2 week setback is just not worth it in our climate (zone 6). If you live in a cold climate, zones 6 or lower, I wouldn’t suggest topping at all. However, it can still be fun to experiment to try for yourself.

Bottom pruning

While topping can be controversial, I highly encourage growers to bottom prune their pepper plants. Bottom pruning is simply cutting off the lower leaves from the plant, keeping foliage up and away from the soil.

Bottom pruned pepper plant
Properly bottom-pruned pepper plant with branches left intact.

Soil can harbor pathogens that can be fatal to your pepper plants. By bottom pruning and keeping the first 6-8 inches of the main stem free of foliage, rain and wind will not splash as much soil onto the plant’s leaves.

Bottom pruning can be done shortly after moving plants outdoors in the spring, and as-needed throughout the season. Learn more about bottom pruning in our video here.

2-3 weeks prior to frost

So you’ve had a great harvest, but winter is now approaching. Your pepper plants are nearing the end of their life cycle, and the risk of frost is growing closer. Pruning can be done at this time to encourage the last of your peppers to ripen up.

At this stage, you can cut away any branches that do not hold any peppers, leaving enough leaves to continue photosynthesis. By removing excess stems, you will help direct the remaining energy from the plant towards ripening the existing pods.

With time running out for the pepper plants to produce, pruning can help get you a few more ripe peppers before winter!

Just before frost (overwintering plants)

If you plan to keep your pepper plants alive over the winter (overwintering), you will need to prune away most of the plant for the winter. This is the most dramatic pruning that we ever do, removing all foliage and many of the longer branches.

Calvin holding overwintered pepper plant
Pepper plant prepared for overwintering.

During overwintering, pepper plants will go from having dozens of stems and hundreds of leaves to having just a few branches.


How To Prune Pepper Plants

The method of pruning peppers I’ll focus on is known as topping the plants. It is done early on at around 4-6 weeks of age. These steps will show you where and how to prune pepper plants.

Supplies:

  • Pruning shears

1. Identify plant nodes

Nodes are like a crossroads along a pepper plant’s stem. They are important points from which new leaves and stems can grow. The long stems between nodes are simply called “internodes.”

As a plant grows larger, the stems develop more and more nodes, shooting off more leaves, flowers and stems along the way.

Nodes On Pepper Plant Diagram
Nodes on a pepper plant

It is important to be able to identify the nodes on your plant for pruning because we will use them to determine exactly where to cut.

2. The cutting point

For topping, you’ll just need to make a single cut. Ideally, do this while the plant has a single central stem, before there is a fork (or Y shape). We recommend pruning young peppers just above the 3rd or 4th node, counting up from the bottom.

Topping pepper plant
Make a single cut, just above a node.

This will trigger new growth from lower on the plant. Many pepper varieties have a tendency to grow tall and a bit lanky, especially under poor lighting conditions. Pruning can also help keep your plants a manageable size while they are still growing indoors.

3. Cut with sharp scissors, just above a node

Once you have chosen which part of your plant to prune, it’s time to make the cut. Make sure you use a pair of sharp scissors or pruning shears. Do not use your fingers to break or pinch the stems. This can cause damage to the plant.

Use pruners for a nice, clean slice that will heal quickly. This way, the pepper plant can recover and begin forming new growth sooner.

We love these sharp shears from Amazon.

Topping pepper

4. Propagate the cutting (optional)

If you don’t want to see your cutting go to waste, you can easily propagate it in water. Simply submerge the cutting in a few inches of water, making sure that at least 1 node is underwater.

Propagating pepper cutting in jar of water
Propagating pepper cutting in water.

After 2-4 weeks in a warm, shaded location or a bright window, you should start to see roots. Change out the water every few days for the best results. Once the roots are a few inches long, you can transplant it into soil.


Should I Pick Early Flowers Off Pepper Plants?

One common question that people ask about pruning peppers is, “Should I pick off early flower buds?” This is a tough question to answer because it depends on when you started your plants and how long your growing season is.

Read More: Should I Pinch Off Pepper Flowers?

If you started your plants early enough and have plenty of sunshine and growing time ahead, then we do recommend pruning early flower buds. I recommend you remove flowers until the plants have been established outdoors in their final growing location for 2-3 weeks.

Early flowers picked from pepper plant
Removing early pepper flowers and fruits in spring.

Pruning flowers will postpone pepper production and encourage more foliage and branching. The goal is to grow your plants large and strong before allowing them to set fruit.

Again, pruning off flowers should only be done early in the growing season (March-May in cooler Northern Hemisphere climates). It is also possible that your plants are flowering because they have outgrown their current container. In this case, it’s time to up-pot.

If you got a late start for your plants, or have a shorter growing season, you may want to allow your pepper plant to flower naturally. Flowers are ultimately what turn into your peppers. If you pick pepper flowers too late in the season, you may end up with fewer peppers overall.


Do All Pepper Plants Need To Be Pruned?

Pruning peppers is not required! All pepper plants will produce a healthy harvest without any pruning whatsoever. This is why we no longer top our plants. Instead, we just bottom prune leaves and pick early flowers.

Feel free to experiment with pruning your plants and let us know the results below. Some varieties may benefit more than others, so it may be worth testing for yourself.


I hope this guide helped you learn about pruning pepper plants. If you have questions or suggestions, feel free to reach out or comment below!

Calvin Thumbnail

Calvin

One of the original Pepper Geeks! When Calvin isn’t gardening or learning more about peppers and botany, he might be traveling new places or playing some music.

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23 Comments

  1. Hey Calvin, I’ve been growing a Carolina Reaper (potted) for about 4-5 years. I’ve pruned it yearly, however it’s very tall now. I saw your video on topping off newer plants and wondered, is it a similar process for mature plants, to get them to grow bushier vs tall? Any way to fix? I am worried about hacking back too much of my very mature plant. Wish I could send pictures to show. Any advice on pruning? Thanks!

    1. Feel free to post a picture on our Reddit here. However, I’d definitely recommend pruning back a bit to re-shape the plant and encourage new growth from the lower nodes. I would take off maybe 1/3 of the plant, ideally in late spring when growth is at its strongest.

  2. Hi, I am growing bell peppers in a raised bed on my balcony and it is fruiting and generally doing well. My problem is that the plant continues to grow vertically and is nearly 4.5 feet tall (plus 2 feet from the bed) becoming impossible to reach and out growing it’s tomato cage. Is there any way I can prune it at this stage or discourage further vertical growth? The top of the plant is fruiting as well. Thank you!

  3. going to transplant peppers from a small pot I have started to outdoor garden area,should I plant them at the same depth as are in the pot or can I plant them deeper to get a larger stem like a tomato plant?

    1. We don’t plant peppers deep. Some say it is okay (and they should survive) but they don’t make adventitious roots as quickly as tomatoes. If they are very lanky, then planting deep can help support the plant, but I prefer just using a stake for that.

  4. Hi guys i live in N.Ireland and have recently started to grow peppers and chilli which i love,obviously are weather here isnt the best and without a hothouse i struggle to get any real crops although this year may be better as i have had more success growing on seedlings.I cut all of my pepper and chilli plants back last year hoping i would get a headstart but they all seem to be dead with no sign of any new growth should i just bin them or wait a while longer.I didnt have great success last year but it gave me great pleasure to see what i was able to produce and many thanks for your weekly tips which i have found really helpful.A greenhouse is my next purchase .

  5. I planted a sweet pepper when it reached the seedling stage my siblings plucked off all the leaves I was wondering what’s the probability of it regrowing those leaves

    1. Very likely – we have had our cat eat an entire plant down to the stem. As long as there has been some root development and there is at least one node remaining on the stem, it should recover (eventually)!

  6. My 4 ft tall pepper plant has lost all of its leaves. The naked stem is still very green. Is it completely dead, or might it recover in spring? Should I prune it down to third or fourth node?

    1. If it experiences frost, it will die. If you only get 1 or 2 frosts, you may be able to save it by mulching thickly and insulating the roots against the freezing temps. We start our plants from seed each spring and allow them to die off in late fall/early winter.

  7. Hi, should I prune my cayenne pepper plants when peppers are growing? Will I get bigger peppers?

    1. We don’t really prune our plants often, only if they are getting too large, or parts of the plant are diseased/dying. If you just want to trim it up, you can prune it while it is fruiting. Pruning peppers off while the plant is still small/young can also help with overall yield.

  8. I have two plants in the same garden bed, 1 is tall and lanky with a copious amount of small, diminutive leaves while the other is shorter with only a few very large leaves- do I prune either, or both? I assume the plant with only a few large leaves would be pruned to encourage more stems to grow and therefore yield more peppers?

  9. Pepper Geek
    Normally rule is to plant two to three seeds per pot and snip away the smaller ones. I like one seed per pot. So the smaller ones that would normally be cut is in its own pot. Will the smaller one grow and produce normal peppers or will they remain small and just die off.
    Thanks

  10. So…how do we know which pepper plants need pruning? From reading above, you said not all plants need pruned.

    Thanks
    Donna

    1. @Donna Skinner, I cannot see an answer to your question, did you find out? I want to ask the same question, I have 3 different ones, can you advise please? should I prune or leave?? They are all at different stages of growth but some are tall and thin, just one stem, no branching, and some are still quite small but will grow exactly the same I guess. Shall I prune the tall ones?? – Anaheim, Friars Hat, Orozco

    1. It is a dynamic dance – depends on the soil you are growing in, age of the plants and any specific deficiencies. Generally, we recommend feeding once while at the seedling stage with a 1/2 strength fertilizer, and then normal strength once the plants are transplanted to larger pots. However, many potting mixes contain nutrients that can sustain growth for weeks or longer, so we say just read the packaging on whatever you are planning to use!

  11. But what are the rules for indoor plants?
    it feels like they don’t produce now anyways so thinking of pruning… but very unsure how!

      1. If your goal is to simply keep the plants alive through the winter, then you can prune away most of the foliage, leaving just a few leaves.

        However, if you want the plants to continue fruiting and growing under grow lights indoors, then don’t prune too heavily. You can, however, prune back any spindly branches to shape the plants and to make them more compact for your indoor grow space.

        Pruning for overwintering can feel dramatic, but as long as the roots are kept happy and healthy, the plants will survive.

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