Vegetable gardens are a great way to produce food during the growing season. For a minimal cost at the beginning of the season, you can grow most of your own veggies all summer long, especially here in Southeast Texas. However, while some plants grow produce without any help, others like cucumbers and other squash plants require pollination. If you’re short on bees in your yard, like me, then you may need to help out a few of your plants so that all of that effort and money doesn’t go to waste. This month I’ve learned quite a bit about pollinating cucumber plants by hand. This also works for many squash and cucumber plants in the same way.
Why do Cucumbers Need Pollinating?
As we’ve all learned in elementary school, bees are around to pollinate flowers. They fly around from flower to flower and carry the pollen. Some plants produce fruits without pollinating but many-like cucumbers-have both male and female flowers and so they need to be fertilized in order to produce a fruit. This is done by taking the pollen from a male flower and transferring it to a female flower. This is how the fruit sets and begins to grow. Unfortunately, bee populations in many areas are declining, and my area seems to be one of them. We’ve planted flowers, we’ve stopped spraying even natural pesticides, we’re just waiting on nature to do its thing. Well, nature isn’t doing its thing and my cucumbers need pollinating, so I decided to do it myself!
How to Tell a Female and Male Flower Apart
When I was told I may need to pollinate my own flowers, I was intimidated. How am I supposed to know which flowers to pollinate? For all I knew I’d screw it up royally and pollinate the male flowers. I just knew it was going to be very complicated and something that would take years to figure out. Wrong. This is seriously the most simple and easy thing I’ve done so far.
See, as it turns out, Mother Nature has done the work for us!
When you look at your cucumber flowers, you’ll see right away that some of them have a tiny cucumber at the base of the flower. These are not actually baby cucumbers, this is just the base of a female flower. You can see an example from my garden here:
The male flowers don’t have anything at the base, they just come right off the stem of the vine, like this:
You can also tell the difference by the inside of the flowers, but really, this is easier to spot. Inside the male flowers there is a bit of a bump in the center, with pollen on it. The female flower has more of an opening in the center to “catch” the pollen.
Pollinating Cucumbers by Hand
So, now that you can see the difference between male and female cucumber plants, you’re ready to fertilize your flowers! You’ll need either a small paint brush, tooth pick, or Q-tip (I’ve preferred the tooth pick but that’s just me). Then you just gently gather some pollen from the center of a male flower and brush it inside the female flower.
Another way to do this is to pick a male flower off of your branch and pull all the petals off. Be careful not to touch the center of the flower, you don’t want to brush off the pollen. Once you’ve pulled off all the petals, you can gently brush it into the center of a female flower. You’ll be able to tell when your flowers are pollinated because the baby cucumber will start filling out, they grow very rapidly after that! Here is one of mine only a week after I noticed it plumping up.
Now, this only takes a few minutes! I go out every couple of days and take care of this whenever I see new female flowers opening up. I try to get to them pretty quickly, because the female flowers don’t seem to last long before they start to whither. Before you know it, you should be up to your ears in cucumbers!