How to Hand Pollinate Your Squash & Zucchini!

Get your Q Tips out of the bathroom and meet me back here. You’re going to learn how to hand pollinate plants. Because our friend the bee can only do so much and certain plants are notoriously bad pollinators. I’m looking at you cucurbits.

 

Childish hand drawing of a happy flying bee.

 

This is our friend the bee.  You may know him by the name Busy. If it weren’t for our friend Busy Bee life would come to a screeching halt.  Busy Bee pollinates all of the plants on earth.

That’s his job. That and sticking a little bee sticker on his suitcase so no one confuses him with a wasp during vacations.

And this time of year … he’s overtaxed trying to make it around to every flower on the planet.  Because he’s working overtime and because of anatomy cucurbit plants sometimes those plants in particular need a bit of help in the pollination department.  

You need to perform artificial insemination. 

A large bed of overflowing squash vines in a summer garden.

First a dire warning:

STOP PICKING YOUR ZUCCHINI AND SQUASH BLOSSOMS YOU LUNATICS! These are the plant’s only means for growing fruit. If you take them all (or even most of them) away then you aren’t going to get any zucchini or squash.

 

What are Cucurbits?

Members of the Cucurbitaceae family are vining plants with yellow flowers.

  • Squash (both winter & summer)
  • Gourds
  • Pumpkins
  • Cucumbers
  • Melons
  • Loofah

These plants have male and female parts on them in the form of flowers. In order for fruit to grow the plant needs to be cross pollinated from the male flower to the female flower. 

Male Flower

Male flowers grow off of long thin stems. They have a long anther in the centre of the flower that holds pollen.

A male zucchini flower seen on a long, thin stem. 

Female Flower

Female flowers have a thicker stem with a tiny unfertilized fruit below the flower.  This is an immature fruit, which if pollinated will become a beautiful, edible squash, zucchini or cucumber.  They have a short stigma at the centre of the flower.

Only female flowers produce fruit.

Female squash flower with a small acorn squash at its base.

  

I first encountered the misery of poor pollination a few years ago while growing Acorn Squash in my front yard.  I had planted 4 of them.

One by one I lost them to Vine Borers.  This was before I was fully educated on all things vine borer and the disgusting but VERY effective way to eradicate them. I managed to keep my squash plants alive through the drought, cucumber beetle and squash bug infestations, but with the Vine Borer I’d met my match.


If you’ve planted squash go read my post on how to identify squash vine borer and eliminate it. 


After a couple of surgeries that involved slicing the stems of my Acorn squash plants and probing around inside to find the grubby, gross venereal disease like bugs, I managed to save one plant.  But I figured the bugs would get it in the end.

Several tiny acorn squash on the base of squash blossoms.

So when I saw the plant was not only still alive but growing all kinds of new, little acorn squash I decided I’d do everything in my power to keep these things alive by hand pollinating.

How to Hand Pollinate Squash (and other cucurbits)

An end of season bed of Honeynut squash with profuse vines and squash.

 In order to produce fruit on cross pollinated plants like zucchini and squash the male flower has to impregnate the female flower with its magical impregnating dust – pollen. 

In nature, pollen from the male anther is picked up on the legs of a bee when a bee enters the flower to gather pollen.  That bee then (hopefully) flies over to the female flower and roots around in there for a bit, depositing the male pollen from its legs onto the female flower’s stigma.

BINGO! POLLINATION!

As with all fertilized females, within a short period of time … she starts to swell, the fruit develops and grows into a lovely baby which you then eat.

If your female flower isn’t pollinated, the little fruit behind it will go yellow, shrivel up and die.

A yellowed, small zucchini that wasn't pollinated about to fall off the vine.


If you’re getting tons of baby fruit but they just die instead of maturing, it’s because they aren’t being pollinated.


You’re going to have to hand pollinate. 

 This method can be used with any plants that have separate male and female flowers.  Anything in the cucurbit family.


There are 3 ways you can hand pollinate your plants, but they’re all based on the same premise.  Getting the pollen from the male flower into the female flower.  


You can either use a Q Tip, a small artists brush, or the actual male anthers.

  1. Just rub the Q Tip, or artists brush around the centre of the male flower and the anthers. There’s lots of pollen on the inside of the flowers petals so don’t forget to swipe there if you’re running out of pollen.

A Q Tip brushing inside a male zucchini flower to gather pollen for hand pollination.

 

  1. The pollen will stick to the Q Tip or brush.

 

A Q Tip held up in a summer garden showing bright yellow pollen on the tip.

 

  1. Then brush the female flower’s stigma with the pollen.

If you have one to spare, you can also just pull off a male flower and use it to rub against the female instead of using a Q Tip or brush.

A Q Tip being brushed around a female zucchini blossom for pollination.

 


 

Provided all goes well and there are no complications, you’ll be rewarded with the birth of squash, zucchini, or cucumber. If after a couple of days the fruit looks bigger and green you’ll know you successfully impregnated a vegetable.

How to Hand Pollinate Plants

How to Hand Pollinate Plants

Active Time: 2 minutes
Total Time: 2 minutes
Difficulty: Easy
Estimated Cost: $0

How to hand pollinate notoriously difficult cucurbit plants like squash, zucchini and pumpkins.

Tools

  • Q Tip
  • Small artists brush

Instructions

  1. Rub a Q Tip or artists brush around the centre of the male flower and the anthers. There’s lots of pollen on the inside of the flowers petals so don’t forget to swipe there if you’re running out of pollen. The pollen will stick to the Q Tip or brush. 
  2. Brush the female flower’s stigma with the pollen dusted Q Tip. You may need to open up the female flower with your fingers.
  3. Don't pull all of your flowers off for making stuffed squash blossoms! Without any male and female blossoms on the plant you'll never get any squash!

Notes

Male flowers have a long skinny stem with no immature fruit bulge.

Female flowers have a shorter stem and the tiny fruit is clearly visible right below the flower.

You don't need to use a Q Tip or artists brush, you can just pull the male flower off, and pollinate directly with it.

A healthy, small, newly pollinated zucchini with the blossom still attached showing signs of growth.

 

Congratulations on your cucurbirth.  

→Follow me on Instagram where I often make a fool of myself←

 
 

How to Hand Pollinate Your Squash & Zucchini!

46 Comments

  1. Raven Butters says:

    Hi i just have a question, every time i try to grow any squash or melon plant i run into the same problem. Poor pollination. So i always try to hand pollinate and it never works. My fruit will still fall off and die. What am i doing wrong?

    • Karen says:

      Hi Raven! If you’re definitely taking pollen from the male to the female flower, it could be that you’re trying to pollinate too late. If you can see the stamen of the female flower already looks brownish, it’s too late to hand pollinate. ~ karen!

  2. Susan says:

    Doesn’t seem like any of my plants are ladies, since there are no nobbies behind the flowers. The flowers bloom and then die off. I’ve looked and can’t find any rot or borer.
    Any ideas, Karen?
    Thanks
    Susan

    • Karen says:

      Hi Susan. All zucchini plants produce both male and female flowers. :) It could just be too early in the season for your plant. Zucchini always put out more male flowers to begin with. Give it time. I’ve never come across a zucchini that didn’t end up producing zucchini. ~ karen!

  3. Victoria says:

    Amazing!!!! After doing that, you might be ready to pollinate a philodendron! This video was sent to me from another gardener, and it’s fantastic!!!
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=9CyviFJ8zDs
    Enjoy!

  4. Denise says:

    I can’t get any of my squash plants to even produce a female flower! So, no sexy time for my squash. What can I do produce some females??

  5. Denise says:

    I can’t get any of my squash plants to even produce a female flower! So, no sexy time for my squash. What can I do produce some females?

    • Karen says:

      HI Denise. It’s probable that it’s just early in the season for your zucchini and it’s producing it’s first flowers which are always male. Give it some time and you should have some females coming along. ~ karen!

  6. Monica says:

    … but … but … the bees in your garden are all GIRLS! The males are drones and do all the work back at the hive. 🐝 🐝 🐝 Respect for all the sister bees! 🤣

    • Kat says:

      Nope! The drones don’t even do any work back at the hive. Boy bees don’t even feed themselves. They do one thing, and one thing only, and that’s fly out of the hive once a day and maybe mate with a queen. If they mate, they die. If they don’t mate, they go back to the hive where they are fed and cleaned by the female worker bees.

  7. Amy says:

    Cucurbirth! LMAO :) Quick question – I’ve been waiting for the female zucchini flowers to open before hand pollinating, but lots of them seem to have their legs/buds firmly closed while the males go unrequited and then fall off in dismay. Can the females be opened to pollinate, or better to wait until they bloom on their own? BTW, am loving the vertical growing method – no powdery mildew so far, so thanks for that tip!

  8. Sarah says:

    So, if you grow several different curcubits in your allotment, don’t you get some odd looking cross pollination creations when the bee goes directly from say one pumpkin to one gourd, or one squash to one cucumber?

    • Karen says:

      Hi Sarah. Cross pollination like that will only affect the seeds and therefore the fruits of next year. So if you grow two different types of squash they’ll produce the proper squash that year, but if you save the seeds from either one of them, they’ll be contaminated by cross pollination and you won’t know what you’ll get. UNLESS the squash are in different subspecies (maxima, moschata, or pepo) in which case they’ll breed true. ~ karen!

  9. Geoffrey B from Floradee says:

    This post would have really bothered that lady who got upset about the brownies.

  10. Bridgette says:

    Thank you so much! I just made my pumpkins have sex too and was guessing at how to do it, but I got it right!

    Your pix and instructions were great and very funny too.

  11. Melissa L says:

    I keep a small paintbrush stationed in my garden – sent a picture to a friend and called it “my new sex toy”… she was baffled – haha.

  12. Lisa says:

    I had to do this with my zucchini. Just popped the male flower off and rubbed it all over the ladies. Remember (prob not) how I had grand plans to grow them vertically – yeah – that didn’t work. Lost 2 of my plants to I have no idea what. It’s like the bottom of the plant (stem) just rotted away. Due to some critter I’m sure. I have 1 still going for now so I just layed it down and praying it will still produce. Have to come up w/ a new game plan next year. Got a few huge fruits but not near what I wanted.

  13. Shauna says:

    Oh maybe that VB bug is what got my squash. All was going quite well, then we went away for a couple of days and my Mom forgot to water and everything just went caput. I thought we would easily be able to come back from it, but the squash just got all soft and weird and died. Is that what that bug does to them? What does this bug look like. I’ll google it.

    • Karen says:

      Shauna – The Squash Vine Borer looks like a really large grub or maggot. You’ll know if you had them on your plant because where the vine meets the soil there will be a hole. (that’s where it bores into) When you feel the base of the vine with your fingers it will squish together because the vine borer has eaten everything inside it. You’ll feel all the way up the vine, a foot or even two or three, and it will be hollow. ~ karen!

  14. Kathe says:

    Love the pictures! I tell Mr. B I am going out to tickle my cucumbers…leave ’em guessing :-)

  15. Hilarious. I think you might need a mature rating for this post. And for the iphone hoo hammock.

  16. Trish says:

    P.S. when I’m ready to explain ‘the birds and the bees’ to my daughter, I’m pulling up this post as a tutorial.

  17. Trish says:

    Well, now, I just feel dirty…vegetable porn, who knew?!

  18. Spokangela says:

    A lady I used to work with and I were just reminiscing yesterday about our long gardening discussions about wind gardens, corn salad (have you ever grown that? a delicious leafy green) and how she had helped her corn fertilize itself.

    I am going to head outside now to play fertility doc with my zuchinni!

  19. Sarah A. says:

    Ha! We did the same with our pumpkin. In fact, The Boyfriend was probably a little TOO in to it. So, now every time he goes out to the garden I tell him to take protection ;). It worked though, we’ve got two beautiful pumpkins!

  20. Brenda j says:

    Well done Karen!
    My gardens have been over-run with the stupid little red beetley-doo-dad-things from hell. Not sure what their purpose is, but they multiply to beat the band…so today in frustration, I sprayed them with sun-tan oil. They didn’t like it at all.
    I only got one lovely yellow tomato and a small purple tomato from my seeds. I can support a family of NONE. whaaaa.

  21. Carole McGinnis says:

    I have always wondered how to do this. I will really use this nfo. Great post. I want more “babies” too.

  22. Lori says:

    I like your style, lady. I never know what I’m going to get when I visit your blog. :)

  23. Terry Sears says:

    I have never looked at growing squash that way. I always found it easier and more convenient to get them at the grocery store. But that is just as much fun now is it.

  24. Jennifer says:

    It’s like you read my mind, I was thinking about this the other day with my pumpkin plants I’ve kept them alive, but no pumpkins, seriously you have no idea how much effort I have invested in this pumpkin plant. Alright off to balcony to knock up a pumpkin! (I’ve even planted it in a container so that I can bring it inside to get a darn pumpkin out of the plant!)

  25. I had no idea!! This is the best post ever. Even though like yourself my Acorn Squash got owned by Squash Borers. It was replaced with lettuce which is much happier.

  26. Linda says:

    Awesome job Karen…as always!

  27. cred says:

    Lovely acorn squash! How satisfying after all that worked against you.
    And your female to male flower ratio is typical of cucurbits, just as in many parts of the world, woman outnumber the men. And as you may expect, those fewer men are happy to stick their stamens about, you know, in the service of womankind.

  28. Ann says:

    Ah, squash vine borers, cucumber beetles and squash bugs. All the same pests we enjoy much further south. I have started to grow everything under covers. I found some greenhouse screening that you can buy by the foot and I built PVC covers for my raised beds. So of course, I have to hand pollinate. But I find that uncovered, bees flock to my curcurbits. They even buzz at the covered crops, like they are angry they can’t get to them.

    BTW-I planted loufa gourds this year for the first time. I have many large ones on the vines now, just waiting to mature enough to become great bath scrubbers. But what I love is that they seem to be ignored by most of the pests and they flower like nothing else in the curcurbit family. Every morning they are covered with bright sunny yellow flowers by the tons. But they do need a long warm growing season to mature those prickly scratchy insides.

    • Karen says:

      Ann – They do. I’ve never been able to grow them complete to that point. Close .. but not complete. I start them indoors and they don’t seem to like transplanting very well. They seem to go into a little bit of shock and don’t establish for almost a month! Direct seeding outdoors under a cloche or something might be the way to go. ~ karen!

  29. Mary Werner says:

    Whew, I need a cigarette! Then when I thought it was ok to let my granddaughter in – you posted the VaJJ cam shot. Who needs XXX films when we have you!

  30. Meg says:

    This is the best explanation ever on how to get this done! I had to do this with all my squash and zucs this year… I think the bees were busy with other things.

  31. Tigersmom says:

    I remember you mentioning your zucchini plant being obscenely profilic and the photos of these blossoms reminded me of something.

    I once had squash blossoms that had been dipped in a tempura batter and deep fried. They were amazing with a flavor like popcorn, but with a much more wonderful texture.

    I wonder if the same thing couldn’t be done with some of the zucchini blossoms, thus averting the need for dumping, I mean sneaking, bushels of excess zucchini onto the porches of neighbors and friends.

    I, unfortunately, do not have a recipe, but that’s the sort of thing we turn to you for now, isn’t it? ; ) Just a thought.

  32. Johonna says:

    I think I need a cigarette…. ~ Johonna

  33. Tanya W says:

    Karen, I am never disappointed with you!

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