Your questions answered

Now that we have entered the year of 2021, it is time to start looking forward to better days and hopefully, better gardens! It is a good time to reflect on what worked for us in 2020 and what problems we encountered. I enjoy getting email from readers with specific gardening questions. Here is an email I received earlier this week.

“The chipmunks were a problem again this past year. They ate every corn and pea seed before they sprouted. I suspect they ate some of my potatoes as well. Would adding cayenne powder to the planting holes deter the chipmunks?”

Chipmunks have almost replaced deer as the number one critter complaint I hear about. They are hard to trap and virtually impossible to exclude from a garden. Their burrows are as much as three feet deep, as long as 30 feet and very hard to destroy. They can climb over almost any fence. Many of the commercial rodent spray repellents you can purchase at garden centers are effective, but they must be reapplied frequently. Home remedies of hot pepper flakes or sprays are also somewhat effective. Garlic is often suggested as a general mammal repellent, but last fall, they even ate my newly planted garlic cloves. I believe they recognize any newly tilled soil and investigate to see if seed has been planted. I am now beginning to think that the problems I have had with my potatoes not coming up, may be due to chipmunks.

Getting rid of hiding places, such as wood piles, stone walls and debris will help, physically destroying as much of the burrows as possible may also help. Snap type rat traps placed inside a cardboard box, to exclude other animals, baited with peanut butter may kill a few. Live traps may also capture a few, but the chipmunks need to be killed after capture and not just moved a few miles, since it is illegal to transport live animals in New York state. Spilled bird seed from feeders is another reason to remove feeders each spring, (besides not attracting bears) as soon as the chipmunks become active in April. I don’t think any single strategy will be completely effective, but a combination of efforts should help. I see many ads for “ultrasonic” devices that are claimed to be effective and these devices surely do seem to sell well, but to my knowledge, there is no scientific research to back up the claims. If you have used any of these devices, I would like to hear from you if they worked or did not work. Back to the email.

“Every year my wife insists that I don’t need to rototill. She claims this permaculture is better. I am planning on buying a new tiller in the spring. Is this a mistake?”

Annual rototilling is not required, but it does make soil preparation a lot easier. Setting up permaculture beds is pretty complicated and usually involves using lots of organic mulch, such as straw. Critters, like chipmunks and mice or voles, will love this cover. Consider switching over to framed, raised beds to make soil preparation a lot easier and reduce the need to till every year. Raised beds can sometimes be turned over by hand with a pitchfork or shovel. I have not had to rototill my raised beds in many years but I do add organic matter each year and work it in by hand with a potato fork or a pitchfork.

The rest of the email asks: “More importantly my wife says: I should prune tomato plants to one stem by removing the suckers; cut off the tops of the tomato plants in August to prevent further vine grow; de-leaf the tomato plant so that the tomatoes get more sunlight. Are all of these true?”

Well, you should always listen to your wife, but in this case you can blame me. Indeterminate type tomato plants can be trained to a single stem by removing the suckers in the axil of the stem and leaf, but it is not necessary and it may reduce overall production. Indeterminate tomato plants will produce flowers every three leaves, which will form tomatoes right until the plants get frosted, whereas determinate types set all their fruit at once and ripen it at the same time. Determinate types should not be pruned at all.

Leaves should never be removed, since they produce the sugars that flavor the tomatoes. Tomatoes don’t need sunlight to ripen. Too much sunlight will even cause the fruit to get sunburned and rot prematurely.

Please keep those emails coming! They give me something to write about in the dead of winter! You can also suggest topics you would like to learn more about.

Reach Bob Beyfuss at rlb14@cornell.edu.

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