To prune or not to prune, that is the question. While there is a debate on whether you should prune back (top) pepper seedlings at the beginning of the growing season, for overwintered peppers, the answer is yes.
Pruning your peppers before and after winter is straightforward. As long as you prune above at least one (preferably a few) growth nodes, your peppers will grow back healthy and strong.
Read below for a guide on how to prune pepper plants before and after winter, as well as some more tips on overwintering your peppers.
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How To Prune Pepper Plants Before Winter
Before you take your pepper plants inside for the winter, prune heavily along the branches above the nodes (joints along branches where new shoots grow) where you want new growth to occur. For tall, lanky pepper plants, you can prune down to the main stem, but make sure you have at least a few visible nodes to ensure new growth will occur.
Pruning pepper plants before winter is very straightforward. Prune down to the main 2-4 branches, or optionally down to the main stem, as long as there are multiple nodes for new growth to occur. These nodes are like joints or knots along a stem where new growth occurs, and sometimes you can already see tiny leaf buds on each node. Make your cuts with clean garden scissors or pruners just above the nodes.
When you bring them inside, you do not need to fertilize them, but you can apply a light fertilizer once and then apply again after winter. Read the section below on keeping your overwintered pepper plants alive.
How To Prune Pepper Plants After Winter
After winter, before or right after you take your overwintered pepper plants outside, prune above the nodes (joints along branches where new shoots grow) where you want new growth to occur. For tall, lanky pepper plants, you can prune down to the main stem to promote more compact, bushy growth, but make sure you have at least a few visible nodes to ensure new growth will occur.
Overwintered pepper plants benefit from pruning before they’re taken back outdoors in the spring. When you prune back your pepper plants, they will regrow new branches along the nodes below the cuts.
Below are the basic steps to take when pruning your pepper plants after winter:
- Use clean (preferably sanitized) garden scissors or pruners.
- Select branches you want to prune back, each with a few nodes. Nodes are joints along branches where new shoots grow. You may already see tiny undeveloped shoots already at your nodes.
- Cut right above the nodes you want to see new growth from.
- You might also want to remove some branches entirely, such as those that are growing across the center of the plant.
- Having 2-4 branches with
- Remove any tiny green branches with flowers and flower buds; this will help your plant focus on vegetative growth–growing new branches and leaves.
- If you have a tall, lanky pepper plant, you can prune down to the main stem, but ensure there are at least a few nodes to support new growth. Cutting all the branches and leaving just the stem is riskier, so ideally, you should do this if you already see tiny shoot buds on the nodes, so you know for sure that they will grow back.
Pro-Tip: After pruning, your pepper plants will take up less water, so you will not need to water as frequently until it starts growing back, but still make sure the soil is evenly moist and water when the top inch or so of potting soil is dry.
Pro-Tip: Applying a light feeding of balanced or high-nitrogen fertilizer after pruning will promote new shoot growth.
Pro-Tip: Whether you prune right after or right before taking your pepper plants outside in spring, slowly acclimate your pepper plant to outdoor conditions by gradually exposing them to direct sunlight over several days. Start with an hour of direct sunlight or a few hours of partial shade per day, and gradually increase the number of hours of sun exposure over 7-10 days until keeping them permanently outside.
Should I Prune Pepper Plants in Winter?
Pepper plants should be pruned before overwintering, and can benefit from being pruned after winter before taking them outside again.
While you can keep your pepper plants unpruned when overwintering them, it’s strongly recommended to prune them before you bring them indoors. Pruning serves several benefits when overwintering:
- Pruning reduces overall plant size, saving space indoors. Instead of bringing in a large, shrubby pepper plant, you can cut it down to a more manageable size. If you are transplanting your pepper into a smaller pot (either from a larger pot or dug up from the ground) then pruning will lessen transplant shock.
- Pruning encourages more compact growth and with adequate lighting, can lead to a larger flush of new flowers and peppers during the winter. Peppers absolutely grow back after being pruned, and when you prune a mature pepper plant, its larger root system will cause it to grow back relatively quickly, because of its large root system, it will grow back even faster. Furthermore, it will branch out and grow into a more compact growth habit that is more stable and bushy. A good grow light can even promote more flowering and fruiting, so you can enjoy pepper harvests in the middle of winter.
- Pruning helps remove any pests hiding on the leaves which can cause serious problems indoors. Even if your pepper plant doesn’t have a pest problem, a few aphids or other pests can quickly multiply and cause a serious infestation once your pepper plant is in a warm place indoors with no natural predators to control their numbers.
Pruning is also recommended after winter, before you take your pepper plants outside in the spring. This is mainly for reason #2 above, in that it will rejuvenate your pepper plants with new growth that will lead to new blooms and peppers in spring.
Will Pepper Plants Come Back After Winter?
Pepper plants cannot survive a hard frost. However, if kept out of freezing temperatures, pepper plants can survive the winter and grow back when pruned.
It may come as a surprise to many, but both sweet and chili peppers are shrub-like perennials, meaning they can keep growing for years. However, they cannot tolerate frosts or extended near-freezing temperatures, so most gardeners grow them as annuals.
If you shield them from the cold or bring them indoors over the winter, you can overwinter them and take them back outside in the spring when temperatures warm up. Follow up with some pruning right before or after you take your pepper plants outside again. Peppers readily grow back after being pruned.
When Should You Overwinter Peppers?
Pepper plants can be overwintered any time before the first frost, but preferably when nighttime temperatures are consistently below 50°F (10°C). One rule of thumb is to bring your pepper plants indoors a few weeks before your average first frost date.
Peppers are perennials but they are also frost-tender, meaning they can suffer damage or die at temperatures just below freezing. Even if you don’t experience frosts in your area, you should overwinter your peppers indoors if your winter temperatures are consistently below 50°F (10°C).
Exactly when to overwinter peppers before that point is at your own discretion. Many pepper growers start overwintering their peppers at least a few weeks before their average first frost date.
Keeping Overwintered Peppers Alive
To keep your overwintered pepper plants alive, ensure they have adequate light, nutrients, and water. Nevertheless, they don’t need as much as when they are growing outside.
Light requirements for peppers are much lower if you just want to keep them alive. A fluorescent shop light or low-wattage LED grow light is sufficient if you want to keep your peppers green and healthy. You also do not need to fertilize your pepper plants often during the winter; a light application of fertilizer in early winter and again in late winter is more than enough for overwintering. Pepper plants still need to be watered regularly, but the soil won’t dry out as frequently. Water when the top inch or so of potting soil is dry.