A Few Garden Questions

By Steve Reiners, Professor and Chair, Horticulture Section, Cornell University, Cornell AgriTech. This is part of a series of columns that he wrote about vegetable gardening during the pandemic that ran Spring-Summer 2020. Read more articles from 2020 | Read later articles in this series.

June 5, 2020


My wife planted sweet bell peppers next to very hot habaneros.  My neighbor says they will cross pollinate and the bells will be hot.  They are still small – should I move them?

Keep them where they are and don’t always believe your neighbor.  Yes, bees could move pollen across the varieties., But you’d only feel any unexpected heat if you saved the seeds, planted them out next year and ate the fruit from those plants.  The peppers this year will be as expected – sweet bells and hot habaneros, despite them growing next to each other.

We often see crosses like this occur between zucchini squash and pumpkins. Again, the resulting cross, or “squampkin,” will only be seen in fruit from the saved seeds the following year.  Sometimes you will see the results of the cross emerge as volunteers from your compost pile.

When selecting tomato transplants at my garden center, I noticed that some already had small fruit and most had flowers.  I chose the ones with flowers only but wondering if I chose well?  Would the ones with fruit produced earlier?

You chose well.  Plants with small fruit may give you earlier tomatoes but at a price.  Often the fruit fall off as they undergo stress from planting.  If they stay on, the size of the plants and fruit as well as the total fruit number will be reduced.

Fruit development takes a lot of the plant’s energy.  If a fruit is developing when the plant is small, it will drain the resources of the plant.  Instead of developing a very large plant with lots of photosynthesizing leaves, all the energy goes to the fruit.  Transplants with flowers are fine.

As I was planting my beans, I noticed what looked like tiny white, fibers in the soil.  I had prepared the bed with lots of compost two weeks ago but only planted yesterday.  I noticed a few small weeds were just germinating when I planted.  What is it and should I be concerned?

What you see are likely annual weeds that have just germinated but have not cracked the soil surface.  The weeds are in what we call the “white thread” stage, and the threads are just the developing roots and shoots.  This is the ideal time to lightly rake the soil to kill these weeds.  Let them go another week and weeding gets much harder.

Growers use this method to manage weeds. It’s called the “stale seedbed” technique.  Prepare the soil as you normally do but wait ten days to two weeks to plant.  Then lightly fluff the soil with a hoe, a stirrup hoe being the ideal tool.  Don’t turn the soil over again as that will only bring up more weeds. A light touch is the key.  Do this over time to reduce the weed seed reservoir.

I was told the chlorine in my drinking water is bad for my garden and I should only irrigate with rainwater – is that true?

Although rain is always the best option, watering the garden with the same water you drink is fine.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, our water contains less than 5 ppm chlorine and studies have shown that levels as high as 100 ppm caused no issues for plants.

In the soil, chlorine typically dissipates either by volatizing into the air or leaching away.  Chlorinated water can be dangerous for fish and other aquatic animals as they absorb water directly into the bloodstream.  But not an issue for our outdoor plants.

This week in the garden

Now is the time to get all your warm season crops planted.  Keep harvesting greens and watch your peas so you can pick at just the right time.  It’s been hit and miss with rain this week so check your soils and water as needed.  New transplants may need a cup of water every day to help get them established.  And don’t forget to keep your compost pile moist.  A dry pile will slow breakdown.