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.
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.
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.
Table of Contents
What are Cucurbits?
Members of the Cucurbitaceae family are vining plants with yellow flowers.
- Squash (both winter & summer)
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 flowers grow off of long thin stems. They have a long anther in the centre of the flower that holds pollen.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- The pollen will stick to the Q Tip or brush.
- 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.
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.
Congratulations on your cucurbirth.
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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.
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!
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.
Lisa - If your plant is rotted at the bottom there's a very good chance you had the Squash Vine borer in there. ~ karen
Thanks, Karen! I still have a lot to learn and didn't have a clue.
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.
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.
This post would have really bothered that lady who got upset about the brownies.
That's a good bet, lol. ~ karen!
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?
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!
Ahhhhh! Thank you.
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!
... 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! 🤣
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.
LOL, lazy drones!
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?
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!
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??
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!!!
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?
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!
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?
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!
Amy’s question did not appear answered. “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?” I have experienced this too & just carefully opened the petals, pollinated them, & tried to close them up as much as possible. Is this acceptable? I have gotten fruit.
Breaking my heart, Karen. My (bush style) zucchini are growing happily and splendidly in a pot on my fourth floor balcony. It's very clear that I am going to have to hand pollinate. (Lost 2-3 already.)
But an additional problem: the female flowers get about 1.5 inches (ummmm, 4 cm?) long and then die... the flower on the end never opens and blooms.
The male flowers? Going like gangbusters! But the female blooms remain quite tight. The blooms also seem very, very immature and the female part inside seems very immature as well.
Weird! I have no idea, lol. I trust you know the difference between a mature and an immature flower otherwise I'd say it's just that the flower wasn't pollinated. But if they aren't getting full size I would say the only thing I can think of is it's still quite early in the season and the female flowers haven't revved up yet, but that's a stretch. Give it a week and see where you stand. ~ karen!
None of my zucchini, squash or cucumber plants seem to be putting on female flowers as yet. The plants were grown inside and transplanted to garden on May 8th. The plants have been putting out lots and lots of male flowers since early July. Each plant is trained on a string, all healthy and growing mightily. They are in sunlight at least 8 hours a day, watered every other day, and temps in the 90s and 100s. Other things in the garden are doing well, why are my squash, etc not putting on female flowers?
That seems to happen often. It's just a glitch, they'll start producing female flowers eventually. (this is gardening so nothing is ever guaranteed but Im willing to bet you'll vegetables. You're doing everything exactly right! ~ karen
Thank you Karen. You give me hope! These plants are making me feel quite unsuccessful at the moment.
So does counting maturity date from second set of leaves not apply for these types of plants?
Maturity date is just a guideline. A guess basically, lol. The actual maturity date depends on factors like amount of sun, rain, watering, general weather and pest factors, if the plants went into shock over anything that slows their progress by a week or two ... All of these things can speed up or slow down the date to maturity by days or even weeks. ~ karen!
Thank you. I had forgotten the shock element. Your responses are common sense with a bit of positive thrown in.
I’m wondering if you’ve ever tried this: hand pollinate the squash or pumpkin, then fold the flower up and tie it together like a tiny package. Supposedly it keeps the bees from taking the pollen, the wind won’t blow it out and if you water or it rains, it won’t wash away. I haven’t tried it yet, just saw a video on this yesterday.
Thank you for all the fantastic ideas and information over the years. I’ve tried a lot of them and they work like a charm- flies? What flies! Hoop house? Absolutely!💕
Hi Julie! No, I've never tried that, but I guess I haven't really felt the need. It's a great tip for people who are really struggling with pollination though! (well I think it is, it seems worthy, lol) ~ karen!
When buying Zucchini plants, how to tell male from female. I planted two last year and all I got were flowers. Nothing else. Do you need to buy more than one plant to succeed? Thank you.
Hi Simone. Zucchini plants produce both male and female flowers. You only need one of them. If you study the photos of the male and female flowers in this post you can see the difference. If you didn't get any zucchini and the plants were able to grow for the 1.5 - 2 months required to develop fruit, that would mean you have a problem with your female flowers not being pollinated. ~ karen!