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

I'm Catherine, a small-space urban gardener in New Jersey (Zone 7a) who started gardening out of upcycled wooden wine boxes. For years, I wanted to try gardening, but didn't know where to start. I got up the nerve to give it a try - starting small with a single wooden wine box that turned an idea into reality. That reality quickly turned into my filling every sunny inch of space of my postage-stamp size lawn and turning it into a garden oasis. I grow mostly vegetables and herbs with some exception for fruits (when the squirrels and rabbits don't get to them first). I love learning from gardening communities (and lots of trial and error).

I hope one day to take all that I'm learning and apply it to a larger plot of land. To help me get there, I'm extending my learning through the University of Massachusetts, Stockbridge School of Agriculture's, Sustainable Food & Farming program. (I'm addicted to learning as much as I am to gardening.)

This blog isn't just for gardeners (although I hope it inspires some of you to try growing a plant or two). The recipes (food & cocktails) in theRecipes section of this blog contain ingredients that don't have to come from your own backyard. If you like visiting your local farmer's market(or even your grocery store) and would like to get some new recipes you can use with the fresh produce and herbs you get from your local growers, this blog will have plenty for you too.

In addition to gardening and cooking, I also love to visit and photograph my surroundings. I feel fortunate to have so many amazing places here in New York/New Jersey, where I live and work. Visits to local farms, farmer's markets, and cycling through rural farming areas help me feel connected and refreshed. share these experiences in theExploring section of the blog so that you might visit through proxy or be inspired enough to visit yourself. 

With very few exceptions, all of the photographs on this site are ones I have taken myself. (For the photographers out there, I shoot with a Canon 7D and sometimes with my Lumix  DMC-ZS15 compact camera.) 

I hope this blog inspires you to grow, create, explore, and try something new. The best way to stay up-to-date is to follow me using the social buttons above, or click Subscribe and sign up for my email newsletters.    

Happy Gardening and Healthful Living!

- Catherine