Most gardening is about helping plants thrive, and many plants require regular pollination to do their best. This is especially true for vegetable plants, although some ornamentals benefit from hand pollination. While there are natural process that enable pollination—wind and pollinator insects and birds being the most common—sometimes those mechanisms are either absent or insufficient. When that happens, gardeners have another option in the form of hand pollination. Hand pollinating a garden takes a bit of work and some know-how, but it’s an effective away to help your plants produce fruit for you. How hand pollination works and why you should hand pollinate deserve some discussion, so let’s dig in.
What is Hand Pollination?
Hand pollination is the artificial pollination of plants via intentional human action. Let’s break that clunky sentence down! Pollination is the transfer of pollen from one flower to another in order to ensure healthy reproduction of the plant. As we’ve touched on already, pollination can occur naturally, but sometimes it doesn’t due to a lack of pollinators, isolation of the plants in question, or other factors. Hand pollination comes in when a human being moves the pollen from one flower to another intentionally, using any one of a number of methods.
Why Should I Hand Pollinate my Plants?
There are a number of benefits to hand pollination. It allows you to ensure that vegetable plants are fertilized so their flowers turn into fruit. We’ve all had the experience of a lush, healthy zucchini plant with a number of blooms but no fruits—and that’s due to a lack of pollination. Hand pollination can ensure maximum productivity in fruiting plants, but there are some other advantages. Hand pollination allows us to select with plants we’d like to pollinate, enabling us to experiment with selective breeding in order to produce better strains of a given plant. This can be a fun experiment, or it can help preserve individual varietals by avoiding cross pollination depending on your needs and goals.
How to Hand Pollinate Plants
Let’s get down to business and talk about how hand pollination works. Hand pollination is not difficult, but it does require a basic understanding of how the plant in question works and a delicate touch while hand pollinating. The basic idea, as we’ve said, is to move pollen from one flower to the next—but which flower?
For tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers of all kinds, it’s fairly easy—these plants have what botanists call “perfect flowers” meaning that each flower can pollinate itself in a process called (wait for it!) self-pollination. With self pollinating plants, hand pollination can still help ensure that every flower gets pollinated. You can accomplish this by gently shaking flowers or clusters of flowers—be careful not to break off flowers or stems—or by using a cotton swab or small paintbrush to gently move the pollen around inside the plant. This ensures that as many flowers as possible get pollinated and turn into fruit. We do recommend washing your hands and cleaning or replacing your tools between plants to avoid cross pollination. Unplanned cross pollination between different varietals of the same plant can produce uneven and unpredictable results. Other plants with perfect flowers include okra, strawberries, sunflowers, many kinds of beans and peas, and tomatillos.
Some plants have both male and female flowers, and this is where hand pollination gets a little tricky. In this case, you’ll need to identify the male and female flowers, and then transfer the pollen—generally a yellow or orange powder—from the male to the female flower. Plants that benefit from this kind of hand pollination include all squashes and melons, including cucumbers. Here’s a basic guide to hand pollination that should work in most cases.
- Identify male and female flowers. This may involve a bit of research on the kind of plant in question—asking your county extension office or local garden club can help—but for most of these plants the male flower will be on a long or at least longer stem, while the female flowers will have a little baby fruit at the base. This is pretty obvious for most squashes and pumpkins, but can require a little more attention for melons and cucumbers.
- Once you know which flowers are which, it’s time to move some pollen. Using a cotton swab or small, clean paintbrush reach inside a male flower (again, the male flowers have a stem at the base) and remove some pollen from the stamens in the middle fo the bloom. Go gently, you don’t need force and you want to avoid damaging the flower.
- Once the paintbrush or cotton swab has some pollen on it, gentle withdraw it from the male flower and move it to a female flower from the same plant. Insert the pollen-covered paintbrush or cotton swab into the female flower and rub the pollen all over the stigma of the female flower.
That’s it, you’re done! Make sure to clean your hands and tools when moving from one plant to the next, and you can successfully hand pollinate your garden. Go slowly; it doesn’t have to all get done at once. Effective hand pollination takes time and care.
Hand Pollinating Your Garden
Hand pollination does more than just give you more fruits from your garden. It lets you interact with and understand your plants in a different way, showing you some of the mechanisms of how they live and grow. With a little experience you can preserve individual varietals in a large garden, and maybe even develop your own. We hope you’ll give hand pollinating a try, and that you’ll reach out and let us know how it goes for you!