The debate about whether or not to prune tomato plants seems to be a constant in the gardening world. There are a million different ways to do it and everyone swears their way is best. As a result, pruning the second most popular home garden crop – peppers – always seems to be forgotten. But did you know that pruning pepper plants can result in many benefits? I know plenty of gardeners who don’t prune pepper plants, and that’s okay, but there are lots of good reasons why giving your pepper plants a strategic and well-timed trim pays big dividends.
Reasons for pruning pepper plants
As you’re about to learn, the reasons why a gardener should be pruning pepper plants depends on when the pruning takes place. If timed correctly, proper pruning encourages strong sturdy stems, good branching, reduced disease and pest pressure, fruits that ripen quickly and evenly, and for many pepper varieties, it also results in improved yields.
Is pruning pepper plants necessary?
Just like tomatoes, the answer is no; it isn’t necessary. But does it have benefits? Absolutely. Do you have to prune your pepper plants in order to get a good harvest? Certainly not. But, once you’ve perfected the pruning techniques below, there’s no doubt that pruning pepper plants results in plenty of perks that make it well worth your time and energy.
When to prune pepper plants
There are three main seasons for pepper plant pruning, and which type of pruning technique to use depends on the season. The three main pepper pruning seasons are: early season, mid-season, and late season. Let’s discuss each of these three pepper pruning times and the specific techniques to use during each time frame.
Early-season pepper plant pruning
The main goals of pruning pepper plants in the early season are:
• to improve plant branching
• to encourage good root production
• to provide good air circulation
Here are the three primary ways to prune pepper plants early in the season.
1. Prune off the growing point to improve branching
Prune out the main growing point when the plants are very small. At the transplant stage, simply remove the top ½ to 1 inch of growth, down to a set of leaves. Either pinching or pruning out the central growing point of a young plant promotes branching and bushy growth. This is especially important for small-fruited varieties that typically have a lot of branching. Examples would be shishito, Thai hot, habanero, fish, and jalapeno peppers, among many others.
This method of pruning pepper plants is less important for bell peppers, poblanos, cubanelles, and other large-fruited types that naturally grow into a large Y-shaped plant. In fact, removing the growing point may stunt the growth of large-fruited varieties. For small-fruited types, however, removing the central growing point early in the season leads to higher yields because it encourages more branching and a bushier plant with more flowers.
2. Remove early pepper flowers to encourage healthy roots
Prune off the first few flowers to improve root growth. It may seem counterintuitive to remove flowers if you want lots of peppers, but when planting young pepper transplants out into the garden, you want the plants to focus first on establishing a sturdy, extensive root system before they put any energy into producing flowers and fruits. Pruning pepper plants by simply clipping off any flowers that form for the first 2 to 3 weeks after planting your pepper transplants is a great technique for getting plants established quickly. If your plants already have flowers on them when you purchase them from the nursery, remove the flowers prior to planting.
3. Prune out extra side shoots for good air circulation
Prune young pepper plants to a few main stems early in the season to open up the plant and encourage a lot of air movement. This method of pruning pepper plants limits disease and increases the amount of sunlight that reaches the interior of the plant. Since fungal diseases thrive in wet, humid conditions, pruning out extra side shoots – especially those formed very low on the plant – keeps the air moving and helps foliage dry off quickly after a rain.
Mid-season pruning of pepper plants
The main goals of pruning pepper plants in the summer are:
• to protect from pests
• to limit diseases
• to keep plants from getting too heavy with foliage
Here are the three primary ways of pruning pepper plants in the middle of the season.
1. Pruning pepper plants to limit pests means removing the lowest leaves
Prune off the lowest leaves to keep them away from ground-dwelling pests. Slugs and snails and other pests find pepper foliage delicious. When pepper leaves touch the soil, or they’re very close to the ground, these pepper pests have an easier time gaining access to a favorite food source. Use a sharp pair of clippers to prune all the bottommost leaves off of your pepper plants until the lowest 6 to 8 inches of stem are leafless.
2. Prune to prevent pepper diseases and limit their spread
Prune off any damaged leaves to prevent the spread of disease and remove any leaves that contact the soil to discourage soil-borne diseases. Fungal diseases quickly spread from leaf to leaf. By pruning pepper plants to remove yellowing, spotted, or rotten leaves on a weekly basis goes a long way toward limiting fungal diseases common to peppers. You should also trim off any leaves or branches in direct contact with the soil, even if they are higher up on the plants and arch down to touch the soil.
3. Trim off the suckers to encourage good plant form
Remove the suckers from large-fruited pepper varieties to promote good overall plant form. Large-fruited peppers, such as bell peppers and the others listed above, have a natural Y-shaped growth habit. I recommend pruning off any suckers that threaten this natural shape (suckers are small shoots that grow out of the nodes where the leaves meet the stems). Leaving the suckers grow makes a very top-heavy plant that puts a lot of energy into growing leaves and stems, instead of focusing on growing fruits. However, you should NOT remove suckers and side shoots from smaller-fruited peppers that have a bushier growth habit. For these varieties, the more shoots you have, the more fruits you’ll be able to harvest.
Late-season pepper plant pruning methods
The main goals of pruning pepper plants late in the season are:
• to hasten pepper “coloring up”
• to force fruits to ripen before a frost arrives
Here are the two primary ways of pruning pepper plants toward the end of the season.
1. Prune off extra leaves to let sunlight reach the developing fruits
Pruning pepper plants to remove any leaves or branches directly overhanging the fruits late in the season exposes the peppers to maximum sunlight and hastens the arrival of their mature color. While you can eat all peppers when they are green, many types of peppers are meant to mature to a brighter color that better attracts the mammals and birds who eat and disperse the seeds. They often taste better when they’ve reached their full coloration, too. Many (but not all) varieties of red, orange, yellow, and even purple peppers need to be left on the plants for a long time before they develop their rich colors. Other varieties display their bright coloration even when the fruits are immature. If you’re growing a pepper type that needs to “color up”, pruning off overhanging leaves hastens the process.
2. Topping plants forces the peppers to ripen and mature to their full size and color faster
To top pepper plants, prune off all of the growing points about 3 to 4 weeks prior to the arrival of the first expected frost. This forces all of the remaining peppers to mature and develop to their full color. Use a pair of pruners to trim off the topmost 3 to 6 inches of every branch and side shoot. Also remove any flowers and immature fruits that definitely won’t mature before frost arrives. Doing so forces the plant to shift its energy into the ripening process. This is the easiest way to get the fruits to “color up” before frost arrives.
A few more tips for pruning pepper plants
As you can see, these 3 early-season, 3 mid-season, and 2 late-season ways to prune pepper plants all result in healthier plants and higher yields. Regardless of which ones you decide to do in your garden, here are a few more things to think about when considering how to prune pepper plants.
- Always make sure your pruners are clean. Since disease can spread on equipment, spray your pruners with an aerosol disinfectant (like this one or this one), or dip them in a 10% bleach solution prior to use.
- Always prune on a dry day. Fungal spores love to enter plants via pruning wounds. They also love moisture. Do your pruning when no rain is in the forecast and the plants are dry.
- Always throw diseased foliage in the trash, not in the compost.
- Always wear gloves when pruning if you’re a smoker. Peppers are susceptible to tobacco mosaic virus which can easily spread from the hands of a cigarette smoker into pruning wounds. Plants that become infected with this virus have to be culled.
For more on growing peppers and other veggies, check out these great articles:
• The fish pepper: A living heirloom
• How far apart to plant peppers
• Growing hot peppers
• How to manage blossom end rot on peppers
• Starting a patio vegetable garden
Have you been pruning pepper plants? We’d love to hear about your experience in the comment section below.