Have you ever noticed baby squash on your plant at the beginning of the season? It’s an exciting moment, knowing within a short period of time you’re going to have a healthy squash to eat. So it can be disappointing when that same baby squash shrivels up within a couple of days. What happened? The plant looked healthy. This issue you just stumbled upon was no fault of your own, but you can help prevent it! Your squash simply wasn’t pollinated. You can learn how to hand pollinate squash for a larger yield.
By handing pollinating your squash you can increase the yield that your plant produces. And it’s easy. Squash flowers are big and bright, making them hard to miss, and easy to pollinate.
Understanding Your Squash Plants
Squash is part of the Cucurbitaceae family (also referred to as the cucurbits family and gourd family). There are actually over 700 species. This family includes summer and winter squash, pumpkins, melons, cucumbers, and zucchini. This family is “monoecious” which means it has two different types of flowers it produces – male and female. This plays an important role when growing and harvesting your squash.
There are many squash varieties, both summer and winter squash. A few of my favorites summer squash include early prolific straight neck yellow squash, summer crookneck yellow squash, early white scallop pattypan Squash, cocozelle zucchini, black beauty zucchini, yellow zucchini, and round zucchini.
A few of my favorite winter squash include spaghetti squash, table king acorn squash, table queen acorn squash, Waltham butternut squash, and early butternut squash.
There are two ways to identify a female flower on a squash plant. The first way is to look for fruit. The female flowers are the ones that will actually produce your squash. The female flowers of squash will have a small fruit at the base of the flower by the time the flower opens.
The other way to identify female flowers is by looking at the center of the flower. Female flowers will have a stigma in the center of the blossom. This is smooth and almost crown-shaped.
There are also two ways to identify male flowers on a squash plant. Unlike female flowers, male flowers do not produce fruit. This means that the stems are just straight and skinny without any fruit showing. The center of the flower blossom is also unique for male flowers. Male flowers have anthers in the center of the blossom. These look like tiny Popsicles dipped in pollen.
Why You Should Hand Pollinate Squash
There are a few reasons why you may want to hand pollinate squash. It will ultimately come down to not having insects pollinating your squash for one reason or another. It can also be because you simply want to try to increase the yield you’re already getting.
Male and female flowers are opening at different times
Have you ever only had male flowers, or only female flowers, but not both? I have. The sex of the flower is actually influenced by the temperature, day length, and plant maturity. If you find you only have male flowers you can cut them and store them in the refrigerator for a few days.
The bees haven’t been stopping by
After Hurricane Irma, I noticed a drop in bees that lasted many months in my garden. Whether it’s nature, pesticides, or not having a pollinator-friendly garden, sometimes you may run into the issue of just not having enough pollinators in your garden.
I do recommend if you have a vegetable garden to also have some flowers as well. Milkweed is well known to be attractive to monarch butterflies. I also notice zinnias and Mexican heather attract bees and butterflies to my garden. I recommend going to a nursery or other garden center and taking a walk around. Which flowers have the bees been flying around and pollinating? Those are the ones you may be interested in getting. That’s how I first discovered Mexican heather, and we’ve been friends ever since.
You’ve built a squash enclosure to keep out the vine borers
This is actually the main reason why I started to hand pollinate squash. If you live where there are squash vine borers you may know what I’m talking about. Your squash plants are bushy and healthy, things are going great. And then one day you go out to check on your plant, and overnight, your plant has died. The stems and leaves are limp and hanging. And if you look closer you’ll notice there’s a hole, or two, or three, by the base of the plant. Enter the squash vine borer.
I don’t even bother trying to spray my plants with anything organic. These vine borers literally bore into the stem, and they’re protected inside the stems of the plants. The best way I have found to prevent vine borers as an organic gardener is to keep my plants physically protected at all times (check out what I use). This can be accomplished by growing under a row cover. Any sort of enclosure using a shade cloth will work. But by doing so, you will also keep beneficial pollinators like bees away from your squash. The solution, of course, is hand pollinating squash.
How to Hand Pollinate Squash
Hand pollinating is super easy and there are a few different ways you can go about it. Keep in mind, whichever of the following methods you use, you’ll want to hand pollinate squash in the morning. Squash blossoms open in the mornings, so that’s when you’ll want to pollinate them. You can also note that one male flower can be used to pollinate several female flowers, so it doesn’t need to be a 1-to-1 ratio. And by all means, feel free to wear your bee hat 😉
Method 1 to Hand Pollinate Squash
This first method only requires a scissor. First, you’ll want to identify which are your male follows and snip them, leaving some of the stems to hold onto. If you cut off a female flower there’s nothing you can do. It happens. I was once trimming my beautiful butternut squash vine and accidentally clipped the vine that the butternut squash was attached to. Moving on…
Once you have your male flower you’ll now want to use it sort of as a paintbrush and rub it against the center of the female flowers. Make sure the pollen from the male flower is getting on the stigma. You may find you need to remove the petals of the male flower to do this.
And that’s it! You’ve hand pollinated your squash 🙂
Method 2 to Hand Pollinate Squash
This method is really just an extension of the first method. If you find you only have male flowers, and no female flowers, you can clip your male flowers and hold onto them for a few days. You’ll want to remove the petals and store your flowers on a slightly wet paper towel in your refrigerator. Be sure the pollen isn’t touching the paper towel – we want to keep this dry. You can store them in the refrigerator for a few days. I recommend going outside each morning and checking to see if any female flowers have opened.
Method 3 to Hand Pollinate Squash
This is my personal favorite method and one that I use. I prefer this method over the others for a couple of reasons. One, I prefer it aesthetically because it doesn’t require cutting off the male flowers. Two, if I want I can still use the male blossoms to eat. That’s right – bake them, fry them, stuff them, or add them to soup or pasta.
For this method you’re not cutting off the male flowers, you’re just moving the pollen from Point A to Point B. To do this you can use a paintbrush, a makeup brush, or even a Q-tip. Whatever you use, you’ll want it to be dry. Then you’ll brush it against the center of your male flowers to collect the pollen. Once you’ve collected your pollen, carefully move your bush to the female flower and “paint on” the pollen to the stigma.
You are now a certified honey bee. I hope you enjoy the fruits of your labor and now know how easy it is to hand pollinate your squash. Do you hand pollinate your squash? What’s your favorite variety? Comment Below!