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Hand-Pollinating Squash & Cucumbers

Hand-Pollinating Squash & Cucumbers

It's summer! You know what that means - it's time for the bounty to start flowing in. Zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers...... But wait, why didn't that zucchini ever grow? Why weren't there any seeds in my little yellow squash? What are those tiny little brown dangly things hanging off my cucumber vine? Those mysterious and disappointing creatures are likely female fruit whose flowers didn't get pollinated. Yes, my friends, it's time we had "The Talk." The talk about..........plant sex. Don't worry, it won't be as uncomfortable as sex ed class taught by your high school gym teacher....There will not be any filmstrips to watch.

Cucumber that didn't pollinate

Cucumber that didn't pollinate

Cucumber that did pollinate

Cucumber that did pollinate

I'd like to talk specifically about those in the "Cucurbitaceae" family, also called "Cucurbits." These include plants like zucchini and other squash, melons, and cucumbers. Unlike other plants that self-pollinate in a single flower, like tomatoes, cucurbits require two different flowers to pollinate - a male and a female, and both flowers can grow on the same plant. These are sometimes referred to as "perfect" and "imperfect" flowers, respectively.

Male zucchini flower

Male zucchini flower

Female zucchini flower

Female zucchini flower

Let's take zucchini as an example for our little talk. When flowers start to appear, they tend to be male. (In fact, this is by nature's design to ensure there's plenty of pollen around when the ladies decide to show up.) Male flowers have skinny green stems and look nice, but they never turn into zucchini like females do. They're distinctly different than the stems of female flowers, which really look like what you're trying to produce. They just look like "mini" versions of a squash or cucumber. (These are technically called "ovaries" but now we're starting to tread on high school "health class" territory, so I'll just leave it at that.) They'll look this way even before pollination, which can be deceiving...You think you're well on your way and then nothing ever develops. The other difference is what's on the inside of the flower. The male anatomy includes what's called a "stamen" and the male produces the pollen. Females have a "pistil," which is what gets pollinated when the male pollen reaches it. The ovary is connected to the pistil, so when the pistil gets pollinated properly, Ta Da! Pollination of the zucchini.

Male Stamen & Pollen

Male Stamen & Pollen

Female Pistil

Female Pistil

Most of the time, nature takes care of this process, particularly if your garden encourages a lot of pollinators like bees and butterflies. Even a nice wind can take care of this process. But, a lot of times it doesn't and that's where you can help. You can "hand-pollinate" the flowers. I know we're talking about sex here, but if your mind is now in the gutter, pick it up and put it back on because this is important.

Pollinating the flowers by hand simply means that you make sure pollen gets to the pistil. You can do this by taking the male flower off the stem and peeling back the petals to be able to rub the stamen/pollen on the pistil. You can also do this with a small paintbrush (not the painting-the-living-room kind, but the smaller paint-by-numbers kind) or even a q-tip will do. 

Step 1: Get the pollen from the male flower.

Step 1: Get the pollen from the male flower.

Step 2: Gather the pollen onto the delivery vehicle.

Step 2: Gather the pollen onto the delivery vehicle.

Step 3:  Rub pollen on pistil of female flower

Step 3:  Rub pollen on pistil of female flower

And that's it. If you're having pollination problems or are concerned about your flowers not pollinating, you can do it yourself. Good luck!

Female Yellow Squash

Female Yellow Squash

female-zucchini
Garden Journal - July 19, 2016

Garden Journal - July 19, 2016

Lavender Lemonade

Lavender Lemonade