How to Hand Pollinate Pumpkins and Squash

The pumpkin patches are romping away thanks to a jumbled up bag of weather, one day it’s dry and sunny then cooler with rain the next, great for the garden but not so great for pollinators relying on drier conditions to fly, such as bees. The vines are producing plenty of big buttery-yellow flowers now which are so pretty, I noticed the timing of the female flowers opening clashed with wet mornings, hardly any pollinators were flying. Female flowers only last for a day or so before wilting and shrivelling up so I decided to hand pollinate my pumpkins and squashes to be sure of some success. Hand pollination is really simple but first you need to know the differences between male and female flowers.

A male flower has a very long stem and doesn’t have a small fruit directly behind it.

Male pumpkin/winter squash flower, notice the long stem and no swelling or small fruit directly behind.

The inside looks like this, a single stamen:

Male pumpkin/squash flower

A female flower has a very short stem with a small swelling behind it, this is a baby pumpkin or squash waiting to be pollinated.

Female pumpkin/squash flower, short stem and visible small fruit directly behind the flower.

The inside of the flower looks like this, a group of stamens called a stigma.

Female pumpkin/squash flower

The first flowers to appear in the pumpkin patch will be males, don’t be alarmed if you see them wilting and dropping off the vines, this is perfectly normal. A couple of weeks later the first female flowers begin to open, if males are open at the time then pollination is possible. However, more often than not the first wave of female flowers fail to pollinate and you will see the small rotting fruit drop off the plants. Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal too. Hand pollinating may help in this situation but only if male flowers are ready, which is probably not the case. As the male to female flower ratios even out a little more you’ll find the next lot of baby pumpkins/squash more successful. This is the same for summer squash and courgettes.

How to hand pollinate pumpkins and squash:

Find a male flower and pick it, then carefully remove the petals to the base of the stem to reveal the stamen. Doing this makes it much easier for the pollination process and prevents too much damage being done to the female flower petals.

Take this section of the male flower to a newly opened female flower (usually in the morning) and rub the male stamen all over the female stigma to distribute the pollen.

You can cover the stigma to protect it by closing the flower and securing with a piece of string or band, to be honest I never bother to do this if I’m pollinating just for food production, further below in the post I explain why you should for seed saving purposes. The small fruit behind the female flower should continue growing and swelling after the flower has wilted and dropped off, which takes just a few days. If the fruit doesn’t get any bigger and turns yellow/brown it means pollination wasn’t successful, it will eventually rot and drop off. Give it another go if this should happen, or simply leave it to the bees to do the job.

Here are some pumpkins and winter squash that were hand pollinated in the last couple of weeks:

Baby Rouge Vif D’ Etampes pumpkin
Young Crown Prince winter squash

I hope this post was useful, it’s not usually necessary to hand pollinate as bees and other insects do a fantastic job, but with soggy summers it can help. Hand pollinating is also very useful for seed saving heirloom/open pollinated varieties that you wish to keep pure to save buying seed again, be aware that F1 hybrids (first generation) produce seeds which do not breed true but will produce food perfectly fine to eat, just perhaps not what you expected visually! Should you wish to save your own seed and be absolutely sure to keep a variety pure, go out to the garden in the evening and look for a female and male flower that will be ready to open the following morning, the flowers should feel firm and starting to go yellow. Seal the flowers with masking tape or rubber bands to prevent them from opening, this way bees cannot get inside and mix the pollen around before you get to them. Simply remove the tape or bands the following morning then seal the female flower shut again after hand pollinating to prevent insects getting inside which could cause cross pollination, otherwise the seeds collected from that pumpkin may not be pure or true to type. Make a note or mark the hand pollinated pumpkin/squash and collect the seed from the mature fruit towards the end of the year.

Happy pumpkin growing!

Time to Harvest

The vegetable garden is doing well despite the whole month of May being a bit of a wintry wash out, but looking around everything is catching up and we’re harvesting things for dinner.

One of my favourite vegetables to eat in summer is kohl rabi because they’re simple to prepare and great in a slaw. They’re odd-looking but rather beautiful at the same time, especially the purple variety. A member of the brassica family they need some protection from pecky pigeons and cabbage white butterflies which lay eggs on the leaves, but the bit you actually eat is the stem which swells as it grows. They taste just like cabbage but take up little room, pick them small, somewhere between a golf ball/tennis ball size is ideal otherwise they go woody. There are many ways to eat them but we love them raw, simply grated with carrot and other root veg (try it with celeriac, yum!) with a squeeze of lemon juice and blob of homemade mayo. The leaves are edible but I usually give them to the chickens as a treat.

I mentioned in a blog post in May the pea plants were being targeted by pigeons. I surrounded them in fleece which worked well for a short while, but as they grew taller the pigeons found other ways to get at them which involved fly diving from the fence with belly flop landings which caused much squashing, then the pecking action commenced. I witnessed all of this and wasn’t impressed, even though it was quite a clever strategy. I resorted to throwing netting over them (the peas, not the pigeons) and that worked too and now we have a lovely pea harvest to enjoy.

The first sowing of beets that I was concerned about are swelling nicely now, I’m pulling them small and sweet, just how I like them. I like to keep sowing beets throughout the year, we get through a lot during summer and autumn and I like to have some in the ground to see us through winter and early spring. I find Boltardy overwinter well.

One of the carrot varieties we’re growing this year is Rainbow Mix, which is a mix of purple, orange and yellow carrot varieties. It’s great fun not knowing which colour will appear when pulling them up, although I worked out quickly which ones will be purple. Can you see a clue in the photo below?

Strawberries are very good this year, I suspect the wet weather of May and scorching start to June played a key role.

Some of them are huge!

Apart from snacking on them as I work in the garden (head gardener perks), we’re picking plenty for our needs and giving some away. They’re so prolific this year as well as the slugs who are also enjoying them for late supper and early breakfast, any damaged ones we find get tossed to the chickens. Some are rotting already due to plenty of damp weather again.

Immature onions multi sown from seed are being used as salad onions, I planted them out in clumps to maximise yield. As we pull the smaller ones it creates more space for the stronger onions to bulb up. This worked really well last year but this year is very different in terms of weather, also, I planted them out much later so I don’t think they will be as big as last years onions.

Spring sown broad beans are ready to be picked, we had a good crop of autumn sown broad beans from the allotment so I will blanch some for the freezer. Second early potatoes have finished flowering and the foliage is just starting to go over, I might have a little poke around in the soil this week to see if they’re ready. Exciting!