Monday, July 15, 2013

Hand-Pollinating, Part 1: Zucchini, Cucumbers, Watermelons

It seems that my garden is taking forever to get going this year.  Maybe it has taken this long in the past, but this year it just feels longer.  Or perhaps there is something else going on.  I used the best soil, compost, and manure in the mixes recommended by the organic nursery.  I have given my plants compost tea, which really seemed to help some of my plants.  My Zucchini and watermelon just took off after I gave them the tea.  I also gave them an Epsom salt water solution.  That seemed to kick my tomato, okra, and cucumbers into gear.  But I was still not getting veggies yet, well not enough to brag about (although I did brag about the few tiny ones I got.)

Funny how the most obvious things seem to pass right by you sometimes.  I was doing my morning routine of checking my garden for any signs of pest, checking the soil for moisture, and looking for some sign of a veggie.  While digging around in my massive zucchini leaves, looking at the beautiful orange flowers, I realized that I had no bees.  None.  I have had a few wasps, but they don't do the work of bee's.  That explains why I have not had any veggies yet (other than a handful of okra and one zucchini weeks ago).  My plants are not getting pollinated!

Click the picture to learn about honey bee pollination.

Since I have never had a garden without bees I wasn't exactly sure what the bees do to pollinate my veggies, so I had to do some research on each of my plants to see how it's done.  I learned that some plants need the bees 100% because they produce a male and a female flower, and the pollen cannot get from one to the other without the bee. Basically it goes like this: The bee crawls around in a male flower and gets pollen from the male flower stuck on his legs and body.  Then he flies to the next flower, which might be a female flower, and the pollen brushes onto the stigma in the female flower.  The female flower is now pollinated and begins to grow fruit (or a veggie) where the flower was.  I also learned that some other plants are what is called 'self-pollinating' meaning that they don't have separate male and female flowers, they have both male and female parts within one flower.  But even these plants need a bee to help pollinate.  Some of the 'self-pollinating' plants that I have in my garden are the tomato and the okra.  I will explain how to hand-pollinate 'self-pollinating' plants in my next post, for this post I am going to focus on 'hand-pollinating' plants with a separate male and female flower.

To 'hand-pollinate' you first have to identify the male flowers from the female flowers.  You wont grow anything if you are just moving pollen from one male flower to another male flower.  To help you identify which flower is which, lets use the zucchini as our example.  Below you see a Male Zucchini Flower.  Notice that the male flower has a long thin stem behind it.

Below is a Female Zucchini Flower.  See that tiny zucchini behind it?  If this flower does not get pollinated within a certain window of time (usually a few days with zucchinis) then it will shrivel up and will not continue to grow in to a full zucchini.  If you have noticed tiny zucchinis starting to grow then they suddenly start turning yellow near the flower end and shrivel up and die...its because they were not pollinated.

Female Zucchini blossom, see the tiny zucchini behind the flower?

A baby zucchini that shriveled up and died because the blossom did not get fertilized. Actual size is about 1-1/2" long, I zoomed in to get a good picture.

Below is a female zucchini flower that will probably be opening up tomorrow or the next day.  Do not manually open the blossom, when it is ready to receive pollen it will be open like the flower above.  I noticed that in my garden they tend to begin opening up in the morning about 7:30-8:00am when the sun is fully up, but it is not hot yet.

Now that you know which flower is which, lets begin hand-pollinating.  With a tiny paint brush (I got mine out of my grandkids art supplies) you brush deep inside the flower.  [See the picture below] Towards the back you see the anther that is covered in a golden yellow sticky dust -that is the pollen.  If you brush the anther, the pollen sticks to your brush. 

Next you go to the female flower. [See the picture below] Just as you did with the male flower, you brush around deep inside the flower on the part called the stigma.  The sticky pollen will come off your brush and stick to the stigma.  You have now pollinated your plant! I usually repeat this every day that the flower remains open.  Now watch this little zucchini behind the flower.  In a few days the flower will begin to dry up and the zucchini behind it will start to really grow.  Soon you will be harvesting that zucchini.

If you have more than one male flower open, it's a good idea to gather pollen from more than one male, and deposit the pollen into more than one female.  Spread that pollen around like the bees do!  Below you can see two female flowers that have been pollinated and the blossoms are beginning to shrivel up.  See all of the other baby zucchinis developing in there?  It seems that once I started hand-pollinating the plant, it just went wild producing more babies.

Look at all the baby zucchini's all of a sudden!

My watermelons and cucumbers are hand-pollinated just like the zucchinis, they will have a male and female flower, with the tiny fruit being behind the female flower.   My watermelons and cucumbers got off to such a slow start this year because the cats ate the tops off the plants.  I had to sow new seeds directly in the garden since I used up all of my starter plants.  Right now my watermelons are still in the vine growing stage and not blossoming yet, while my cucumbers are very small little plants, they are already blooming.  So far all of the flowers are only male flowers.  I am watching them closely and will begin hand-pollinating them as soon as I see a female flower.

I'm so sad that the bees are not here this year.  Now I see how we have sort of take them for granted.  I didn't help matters when I didn't plant any bee attracting flowers around my garden this year.  Next year I am filling my yard with wildflowers before the first plant goes in the garden itself, so hopefully this wont be a problem again next year.  Click on this link to learn more about how bees help to pollinate 1/3 of our food produced, and to learn what You can do to "Help Save the Bees Before its Too Late."

Keeper of 1 husband, 2 grandkids, 3 dogs,
3 cats, and 17 Chickens!
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