kitchen garden basics
Published August 15, 2023 by Nicole Burke

How to Hand Pollinate Cucumbers

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hand pollinate
pollinator garden
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vegetable garden
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cucumber plant on trellis

This Simple Trick Will Maximize Your Cucumber Fruit Production

Growing your own cucumbers can be a bit tricky. One of the biggest issues with cucumbers is pollination.

I receive a lot of DMs on Instagram from people saying, “I had a cucumber forming, but then it just wilted away. What happened?” If you find a fruit behind a female flower that’s started to wither or has had trouble forming (like in the picture below), that’s a sign that the flower was not pollinated at the critical moment. 

shriveled cucumber fruit, a sign of pollination issues

You see, typical cucumber plants, especially heirloom varieties, contain both male and female flowers, but it’s only the females that produce the actual fruit. 

That’s not to say that the males don’t have a purpose. They contain pollen that needs to be transferred over to the female flowers. This is starting to sound like that “birds and the bees” conversation that your parents gave you, isn’t it? 

Anyways, if you see a dying cucumber fruit, go ahead and prune it so the plant won’t waste any more energy on this failed attempt at reproduction. And now, it’s time to focus your energy on the pollination issue. 

Let's learn a little more about the birds and the bees of cucumber pollination and what you can do to maximize your fruit production.

cucumber plant

How Cucumber Pollination Works

For thousands of years, bees and butterflies were responsible for naturally carrying the pollen from the male flowers to the females. They would buzz into the male flower, have a little party, fly over to the female flower, have another little party in there, and then stumble home, leaving the pollen behind. 

So what’s the problem? Urban areas that spray for mosquitoes and other flying insects end up negatively impacting the beneficial bugs, like (you guessed it) bees, that we want to keep for the sake of biodiversity and the health of the environment. It’s pretty sad and unfortunate. Without as many buzzing friends around, we have to take on the bee’s job ourselves.

To carry out this very important work, you first have to be able to recognize the difference in the flowers. 

Male cucumber flowers

These guys have a very thin, straight stem right behind their flower. As I like to say, the girls are curvy, and the boys are not. Male flowers show up first, which can be very frustrating to a gardener who gets excited to see all these flowers forming, only to wait around for the fruit. 

male cucumber flower

Female flowers

These flowers will have a curved stem (which will actually become the fruit). It’s not uncommon for a female to already have a little fruit formed behind her by the time you notice her.

I sometimes have trouble finding female flowers on my plants. It's usually just a matter of being patient and waiting for the girls to arrive.

If you've noticed a pollination issue, then you'll want to pollinate each female flower by hand as soon as they open up.

female cucumber flower

How to Hand Pollinate Cucumbers

male cucumber flower

Step One to Pollinate Cucumbers by Hand

Start by finding a male flower. Take a little paintbrush (I use a watercolor brush from my daughter’s art set) or Q-tip, and dip it first into a male flower. The pollen is in the center of the flower, so wiggle your brush gently inside, just like a bee would. When you pull your brush out, you should be able to see itty bitty dots of pollen on the tip.

You can also pluck the entire male flower from the plant if you prefer and use the flower itself instead of a little brush.

hand pollinating cucumbers with a paint brush

Step Two to Pollinate Cucumbers by Hand

Dip your brush or Q-tip into the female flower to drop the pollen inside. Try to be gentle with your brush because the flowers can fall off pretty easily. If you're using the male flower itself, just make sure the pollen is nice and exposed and then rub the male flower onto the female.

Repeat for each female flower you find. The pollen from one male flower should be enough to pollinate a few female flowers.

If you have older children, this is a really fun garden task for them to participate in. 

hand pollinating cucumbers

Step Three to Pollinate Cucumbers by Hand

Repeat about once a week or so as new female flowers open up.

By hand pollinating on a regular basis, you should start to see greater fruit formation. In fact, I would say you’ll get two to three times the cucumbers on your plants.

baby cucumber and cucumber flower

Make Sure to Attract Pollinators to Your Garden to Help with Cucumber Pollination

Too many of us focus on growing fruits and vegetables, forgetting that flowers are an essential part of a healthy, thriving garden. The more flowers you have, the more likely your garden will be a little haven for pollinators. And obviously, the more pollinators you have, the more likely you are to have better pollination success with your fruiting plants.

Here are some flowers you can add to your garden to encourage the bees to buzz right on over:

  • anise hyssop
  • bee balm
  • coreopsis
  • cosmos
  • flowering herbs (oregano is great)
  • goldenrod
  • lemon balm
  • marigolds
  • milkweed
  • sunflowers
  • Veronica
  • zinnias

Your garden will look so beautiful with any of these flowers near your cucumber plants!

plant flowers near cucumbers

Troubleshooting Cucumber Pollination Issues

What If There Are Only Male Flowers on the Cucumber Plant?

This is a common problem. Too many male flowers might indicate an issue with water or the nutrient/pH level of your soil. You might want to do a soil test to see if you need to add more calcium and/or phosphorous to your soil. For calcium, I recommend something like gypsum, and for phosphorus, you could do bone meal, fish emulsion, or rock phosphate.

While you're amending your soil, prune the leaves a bit to encourage more flower production instead of leaf production.

If you’re still having issues, it might be time to throw in the trowel and buy a Diva plant. This is a cucumber variety that’s been bred to have only female flowers that self-pollinate. I like to think of them as a little matriarchal society. They run their own show and don’t need any help from males, thank you very much. 

Test Your Soil to Troubleshoot Issues with Your Cucumber Plants

MySoil is an accurate and easy-to-use soil test kit that reports on 13 essential plant nutrient levels, including nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and the pH level. Each kit provides everything required for use, including prepaid return postage and dedicated customer support.

cucumber growing

Work with Nature to Improve Your Cucumber Harvest

I hope this helps you double, triple even, your cucumber yield this season! Go outside and do what the bees do and spread a little sweet pollen love around.

One of my main gardening philosophies is to work with nature, not against it. With that in mind, make sure to plant lots of pollinator-friendly plants, stay away from herbicides and pesticides in your yard, and maintain the health of your garden soil with organic soil amendments. This is how you grow lots of delicious fruits and veggies in a way that's good for you, good for your plants, and good for the whole planet.

Thanks for making gardening ordinary again!


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How to Hand Pollinate Cucumbers