The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Plant fetish of the moment – hand pollinating cucurbits, part 1

July 31st, 2009

Actually I don’t crave this seed saving task, but it is an obsession right now. We finally got some warm and dryer weather and the melons, squashes and cukes are suddenly taking off after hanging around not blooming and vining in the cold wet weather. The window of opportunity for the fruits to mature is really narrow up here, and there’s no telling if the decent weather will hold, so I’m spending a lot of time crawling around out amongst the cucurbits.

They're off!

…and they’re off!

Hand pollinating is a bit tedious and requires perfect timing. I did it for several years, but then life became too busy outside the garden for such activities, so I simply confined myself each growing season to one variety each of cucurbita pepo, maxima, and moschata, one cuke, one watermelon and one melo melon. I got away with this because for years we had no near neighbors who gardened. This is no longer the case, and rather than knocking on doors and asking “Um, could you please not grow those Red Kuris or those big orange pumpkins? They’re messing up my Honeyboats and my rare Hungarian Winter Squash,” I decided to go back to hand pollinating.

Below is a photo of two supposedly Honeyboat squashes harvested in the fall of 2008, revealing that a neighbor had a big pumpkin patch in 2007, and there was some c. pepo hanky-panky.

mutt squash

Honeyboat Delicata, right,
Honeyboat X mutt, left

Fortunately I hoard seed, so I was able to go back to pre-2007 pure seed for 2009 planting. We really like Honeyboat. It’s the best delicata I’ve ever tasted. The mutts were actually quite good, too, culinary-wise, but not as good as Honeyboat. They were cute, and kept very well. I did save seed from them, but I’m not psyched enough to spend a few years and garden space to sort them out…

This year most of the melons started blooming well before the squashes and pumpkins. I’ve been able to do some melon hand pollination, but so far no pumpkins or squashes. They’re now just barely putting out female blossoms. To hand pollinate, late in the day, I have to find both male and female flowers that are just about to open. I tape them shut to prevent insects from getting in and contaminating the flowers with pollen from a different variety. Then, the following morning, with some luck it will not be raining and the male flower gets picked and rubbed into the female flower. The female is then bagged to keep the bugs out. After a few days the bag is removed and the forming fruit is tagged with a bit of red yarn.

garden wristwear

The latest trend
in garden wristwear.

So, I’m doing daily rounds with my trusty masking tape on my wrist, little pieces of red yarn dangling out of my dirty jeans pockets and a lot of butt-in-the-air groping around in the pumpkins and squash and melons. Melons to be continued….

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9 Responses to “Plant fetish of the moment – hand pollinating cucurbits, part 1”

  1. gayle says:

    We grew delicata for the first time last year, and fell in love with the sweet little devils. Haven’t heard of Honeyboat – can I beg a seed or two?
    We’ve got our squash planted way too close together this year – mutt-age is bound to happen. Since we’re growing readily available varieties, I’m not too concerned, but I’m definitely going to file this away in my brain for future crops.
    I hadn’t thought of masking tape…

  2. randi says:

    wow! errr, I mean WOW! I’m still at the stage where I’d be glad just to get A pumpkin or
    A squash. Hand pollinating for me is a couple years down the road, I defer to your greater gardening skills for sure..Of course right now it’s become obvious to me that I have to beef up the soil a heck of alot more. I can’t blame EVERYTHING on the weather. My foray into vegetable land is only a couple of years old and my head swims at all I do NOT know. Gotta say the internet has been an invaluable tool, particularly stumbling on great, informative blogs such as yours!
    Could you post on a favorite melon that does well for you? I really will keel over if I get a melon..we’re running out of time!

  3. the extreme gardener says:

    Gayle – yes, even without close planting, since the cucurbits are insect pollinated, you have to be concerned with anything else planted within a mile and a half radius, especially if there are any honeybees about. So, if you want to save seed to replant and keep the variety genetically intact, you pretty much have to hand pollinate…

    Thanks Randi – This year I will also be glad just to get any mature fruits on the cucurbits, and it’s worrisome because we rely on winter squash as a staple. There’s always so much to learn about gardening. My fundamental approach is to shotgun it, do lots of different stuff so that the odds are at least a few things will do well.. though it feels a little like waiting for 1,000 chimpanzees to type Shakepeare this year…

  4. the extreme gardener says:

    Gayle – yes, even without close planting, since the cucurbits are insect pollinated, you have to be concerned with anything else planted within a mile and a half radius, especially if there are any honeybees about. So, if you want to save seed to replant and keep the variety genetically intact, you pretty much have to hand pollinate…

    Thanks Randi – This year I will also be glad just to get any mature fruits on the cucurbits, and it’s worrisome because we rely on winter squash as a staple. There’s always so much to learn about gardening. My fundamental approach is to shotgun it, do lots of different stuff so that the odds are at least a few things will do well.. though it feels a little like waiting for 1,000 chimpanzees to type Shakepeare this year…

    And a melon post up next…

  5. Ottawa Gardener says:

    Same weather here with the same result. I have a couple small, ‘baby boo’ pumpkins that my daughters planted a some butternuts sizing up but that’s about all.

    I’ve haven’t tried hand pollinating yet as so far there’s no close neighbour doing the garden thing but soon enough. The trend is definitely growing.

  6. Providence Acres Farm - Sheryl says:

    I like you blog!
    I hand pollinated all my many squash this past year. I did it mainly to have more produce. Without the usual population of bees, we were getting lots of flowers and very few fruits. Hand pollinating insures that all female flowers get pollinated.

    I did not tie the flowers off. I am planting a lot more varieties this year, however, and plan to tape the flowers for pure seed. Thanks for the masking tape idea.

  7. Bob says:

    I love pollinating squash, along with a cup of good coffee it’s a morning ritual for me. This year I was out of the country for about a month as most of my squash were setting (with the exception of the acorns which are still putting them on!). The only other squash that is still setting fruit is Seminole pumpkin (a semi-wild C. moschata species) but it’s flowers are too high up in a tree for me to reach them. 🙂

    I don’t bag the female flowers, I just tape them up again after pollination.

    This year is my first growing Pennsylvania Dutch Crookneck squash; I’ve noticed that the shape of the ovary often causes the flower to fail to open because it’s pushed downward against something. So I do make a point of hand pollinating that one as well.

    I’ll add your blog to my links!

  8. lieven says:

    Ha, hand pollination colleagues! This summer about 3% of my pollinated flowers grew into proper fruits: the worst record so far – I’ve got the wet summer to blame for that.
    Of course, I self interesting varieties, but even more fun is crossing the best. You’ll find my Dollop Grex described on my website: huge fun – every year brings better (I mean sweeter) and more beautiful squashes.

  9. Ed says:

    I’m dabbling in squash crosses. This year, crossing Blue Hubbard with Buttercup, with Buttercup as the mother, I’m getting a wonderful looking large squash resembling Buttercup, but with lighter colored skin and no button.

    Years ago, I experimented with generally allowing crosses among variously colored and shaped maximas, using only varieties with high eating quality, similar to Buttercup and Blue Hubbard. I would replant a variety of the best results, and got many fascinating squashes, most fine eating. After 2 or 3 years, a distinctive, unfamiliar, sort began to appear as the majority. Unfortunately, I had to leave it all behind for a few years and I lost the seed stock, so it didn’t play out to what I suspect would have become a new stable squash.

    I would be interested in knowing what crosses others have made with good results. I’ve searched for info online, but so far my search results on squash crossing are almost all about avoiding crosses to prevent non-standard types. For me, the crosses are far more interesting than sticking with the usual ones. I can always plant the standards if I want.

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