The Garden

How to hand pollinate squash

A simple way to increase yields is to hand pollinate squash. It’s quick and easy so there is no downside to this as far as I can tell. All it takes is you getting up in the morning, putting on your wellies/boots and heading out into the garden. For me, seeing that I start just about every day out in the garden with my morning coffee it is my first task of the day during the gardening season.

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Before we jump right into the whole “How do I hand pollinate squash” question, there are a few things we need to talk about first. Such as a bit of squash info, a review of male and female flowers and the important of garden pollinators. So join me on this journey though the wonderful world of squash!

Spaghetti squash
Spaghetti squash

An important thing to know is that all squash are monoecious, which means each plant produces both male and female flowers. So in reality you only need one plant to get fruit. If you are planting a prolific variety such as zucchini, spaghetti squash or pattypan squash than one plant can suffice. But if the variety you are planting is less prolific than it can be a good idea to plant more than one.

You may want to leave a gap of about 2 weeks between planting. This is important as the flowers on a squash plant are produced sequentially rather than all at the same time. So having a gap between planting your squash plants will help to ensure that you have a greater chance of male flowers being available when your plant(s) finally produce a female flower. Both types of flowers produce nectar which is good as it helps to attract pollinators to both the male and female flowers. So let’s take a second to understand the difference between the two types of flowers.

Male squash flower
Male squash flower

Male Squash Flowers

First a little plant biology. The male squash flowers’ reproductive parts are made up of the pollen covered anther which can be found in the center of the blossom. Once all of the pollen is gone from a flower then it will shrivel up and fall off. This may or may not occur before there is a female flower available. That said, one thing you will quickly notice is that there tend to be way more male flowers than female ones.

In the case of zucchini, it is the male flowers that you stuff and eat. Specifically those of the Costata Romanesco, an Italian heirloom variety. It boasts larger, tastier and sturdier blossoms, I was lucky enough to get my hands on some from the seed exchange I am part of.

Male flowers have long stalks, which makes them easier for pollinators to access. You will also notice that the male flowers tend to be the ones that appear first on your plants.

Female squash flower
Female squash flower

Female Squash Flowers

Now for our female plant biology lesson. The female flower’s reproductive parts consist of the stigma, this is the swollen looking cluster in the centre of the blossom.

Female flowers are where your fruit comes from. Each female flower will have a small embryonic version of the fruit right below the bloom. Which makes the female flower the ovary of the plant. If the embryonic fruit is not fertilized then it will start to shrivel up and drop off. The female flowers tend to sit closer to the stem of the plant/vine which offers them more protection.

Once the fruit is shrivelled there is a chance it can cause disease once it starts to rot. Much like the pruning of stems, you can if you choose to, remove the unfertilized fruit. If you decide to this you will need a clean, sharp blade, I use my Hori Hori garden knife. You can then use this to carefully remove the unfertilized fruit.

Importance of Garden Pollinators

It can take up to 12 visits from pollinators to ensure a successful fertilization of a female flower! So I like to hand pollinate each morning to help ensure the chances of success. But more on that in a second. For squash varieties that grow around a central point such as zucchini and white scallop squash, it can be beneficial to prune some of the leaves. This helps to make the male flowers more accessible to your garden pollinators.

But this technique does come with a disclaimer. There are many people that will caution against this. Why? Well, the stems of these types of squash are hollow like a pipe. So if you cut them off then it is possible for water to accumulate in the “pipe” which can lead to disease. So you will have to decide for yourself what is best for your plants. If your female flowers are getting successfully pollinated then probably best to leave things alone. If however, you have seen multiple female flowers and fruit shrivel and die then maybe give it a shot on one plant to start.

Another thing to consider is the number of pollinators your yard attracts. I have always found that my squash flowers are almost always full of bees. For this reason alone I will always plant squash. That said, the BEST flower to attract bees to any yard (from my experience) are sunflowers! One reason for this is that their height and yellow petals make them visible from long distances.

This year I planted some Titan (can grow to 12 feet tall with heads that can measure 24″) and Mammoth grey striped (Can grow to 10 feet tall and heads that can measure 12″). These bad boys act like bee airports! It is amazing to watch how many bees are constantly landing on these. When the flowers first start to open the bees seem almost in a frenzy with the amount of pollen they are surrounded by. As an added bonus the seeds of both these varieties are edible, so it’s truly a win-win situation. But the best for any garden is variety, so while I would strongly suggest planting sunflowers, you should also have other flowers in your garden!

Here is a list of the flowers I have growing in my backyard to help attract pollinators.

Paintbrush for hand pollinating squash
Paintbrush for hand pollinating squash

Hand Pollination Techniques

The Paintbrush

My technique of choice is to arm myself each morning with a soft, small paintbrush and head out to the garden. I locate my female flowers first and then get any pollen that is available from the male flowers and gently “paint” it onto the female stigma. I dutifully do this every day!

Using the male flower

In this method, you pluck the male flower and remove all the petals so you just have the stem and the anther. You then use this as a sort of paintbrush and wipe it inside the female flowers onto the stigma. This isn’t a technique I use as the flower is useless as soon as you pluck it, from a pollinator standpoint at least.

Tie it up

Remember I said that the male flowers will shrivel up and die off once their pollen is gone? Well another technique that can increase your chances of pollination using the paintbrush method is to tie up the male flower. Wait what? Yup, as soon as you see a male flower open you can gently tie it closed so that it doesn’t shed its pollen to pollinators. This will ensure the male flower will be available when a female flowers appears. Once you see a female flower you can untie it and use the paintbrush to move the pollen from the male to the female flower.

Personally, I do use a paintbrush but I don’t tie the male flowers closed. I like to try and work with nature rather than against it. I really don’t want to take any pollen away from pollinators. So I just find whatever pollen I can each morning and add to what the pollinators have most likely already done on their own.

Planning to save seeds?

If you want to save the seeds from the fruit then identify a female flower before its bloom opens. Gently tie a coloured string around the stem of the flower. Get up bright and early (like early, early) every day until it opens. As soon as it is open then slather it in male pollen and gently tie it closed. This will ensure that you don’t get any cross-pollination. This is important when you are saving seeds as you will want to make sure that the seeds are true to the parent variety.

You will also want to make sure that you let that fruit become fully mature. So pretty much leave it to do its things and grow as big as it wants to be. Once it is fully ripe you will be good to go. Also, you should really only save seeds from heirloom varieties. If you want to know more then check out my post on 5 reasons you need to grow heirloom seeds.

So there you have it, an easy way to increase your squash harvest! The only downside might be knowing what to do with all the squash you will have! So if you are currently in this predicament, specifically with the ever-prolific zucchini here are 8 things you can do when you have 1000 zucchinis!

Happy gardening

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