Your gardening task today requires a little paint brush from your kid’s art supply. What are we doing? Hand pollinating cucumbers.
I love to toss fresh cucumbers into my garden-fresh salads, but growing your own cucumbers can actually be a bit tricky. One of the biggest issues with cucumbers is pollination. Typical plants, especially heirloom varieties, contain both male and female flowers, but it’s only the females that produce the actual fruit (just like with humans and babies).
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?
Actually, speaking of bees, for thousands of years, bees and butterflies were responsible for naturally carrying the pollen from the males 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 work ourselves.
To do this very important job, you first have to be able to recognize the difference in the flowers.
male vs. female 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.
I sometimes have trouble finding female flowers on my plants. 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.
how to know when your plant needs help with pollination
I receive a lot of DMs on Instagram from people saying, “I had a cucumber or a zucchini 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, that’s a sign that the female flower was not pollinated at the critical moment.
You can go ahead and prune the dying fruit and flower so the plant won’t waste any more energy on this failed attempt. And now, it’s time to focus your energy on the pollination issue.
how to hand pollinate
When you find a female flower that’s opening up, take your little paintbrush (I use a watercolor brush from my daughter’s art set) 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’ll then dip your brush 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 have older children, this is a really fun garden task for them to participate in.
By hand pollinating on a regular basis (once a week or so), 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.
what if there are only male flowers on the plant?
This is a common problem. Too many male flowers might indicate an issue with water or the nutrient/pH level of your soil. Add more calcium and phosphorous to your soil, and then 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.
I hope this helps you double, triple, your cucumber yield this season! Go outside and do what the bees do and spread a little sweet pollen love around.
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