Hand-pollinating can increase your vegetable yield

Sunday, July 22, 2018 1:55 PM

Editor’s note: Get Growing, written by the La Plata County Extension Office’s Master Gardener Program, appears during the growing season. It features timely tips and suggestions for your garden and landscape.By Ted Creighton

Pollination is the process of transferring pollen grains from the male flower (stamen) to the female flower (stigma). Simply stated, if the plant’s flower is not pollinated, no fruit will develop.

How does the pollen usually get from one flower to another? Answer: wind, water, birds, insects, butterflies and a wide variety of bees that visit flowers. We call these insects that transfer pollen from plant to plant “pollinators,” and they are a vital component of our ecosystem.

What is hand-pollination and how do you do it? Not only is this easy, but it can be quite effective. Oftentimes, you can simply shake the plant(s) gently to distribute the pollen (tomatoes, beans and other vegetables that have both male and female reproductive parts in same blossom). Doing so with a battery toothbrush works well. Simply place the toothbrush against the plant stem and turn it on for a couple of minutes – this shakes the pollen around and results in pollination. Tapping the plant and blossom with your finger is also effective.

Squash and melons have separate male and female blossoms, requiring a physical transfer of pollen from one flower to the other. But, it’s equally as easy. Let’s focus on squash or zucchini (my favorite). Most important is that you need to be able to identify the male flower vs. the female flower. The male flower sits on a single stem and has a single, pollen-covered antler inside. The female flower contains a stigma, which forms a swollen cluster in the flower. In addition, the female flower sits on what looks like a baby squash (this is actually the unfertilized fruit).

To hand-pollinate:

Using a cotton swab, open up the male flower and rub around on that single antler, collecting pollen.Carefully, open up the female flower and rub the swab (with pollen) around on the cluster, depositing some of the pollen.Repeat a few times, collecting from several male flowers.Lastly, why hand-pollinate? You may have plants on a porch or balcony, or even in a greenhouse of some type, where bees rarely visit. My reason is simply to increase my yield. Have fun, and let’s help those bees out.

Ted Creighton has been a Colorado master gardener since 2016. He lives in La Plata County.