"The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves." - Bill Mollison

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Hand Pollination of a Zucchini


Unless your garden is a large multi-acre field or you only grow a few types of cucurbits (squash, zucchini, cucumbers, melons, etc.) saving seed requires a few simple steps. Isolation of these crops that easily cross-pollinate is difficult at best in a small home garden. Growing only one type of each species is the easiest way to save seed from various cucurbits. As long as your close neighbor is not growing different crops of the same species your seeds will pollinate each other true to form and all the seeds you save can be expected to produce pretty much identical crops the following season.

I don't know about you but I would have a hard time growing only zucchini, but not spaghetti, acorn, or my favorite and always abundant papaya pear squash. All four will cross with each other and create interesting, sometimes great, more often not so great vegetables if the seed is saved. You will be hard put to get a close replica of the original plant unless your bug population is very low, and that is usually not the case in an organic garden setting. Cucurbits are pollinated by a wide variety of insects, honey bees and other small bees being the main pollinators.

We love variety, so I grow a nice selection of different squash, many of which are of the same species. In order to save my own seed I must hand pollinate individual non-hybrid cucurbits to assure a pure seed. Keeping in mind that I am at best an amateur when it comes to saving seeds, especially ones that may cross with each other, here is how I hand pollinate a simple zucchini for hopefully pure seed. Most cucurbits can be pollinated in the manner I will show, but certain smaller melons, cucumbers, and gherkins, due to flower size can be a little harder to pollinate this way. So without going into too much mind numbingly boring detail prepare to be, well...mind numbingly bored.

Each zucchini has male and female flowers. The male flower contains the anther which produces pollen. The male structure is usually easily identifiable as the flower sits atop a thin straight stem.

Male flower one day away from opening

Note the male flowers anther situated in the middle of the bloom.


The female flower contains the stigma. It can be identified by its ovary or immature fruit.

The thicker stem (ovary/fruit) of the zucchini is fairly obvious in this specimen that is also approximately a day away from blooming.


The stigma can be seen in the center of this female flower.

When a male and female zucchini bloom appear to be close to opening I hold the flowers shut with masking tape gently attached to the ends of the soon to be opened blooms of both sexes. The male and female flowers do not have to be from the same zucchini plant. Early the next morning, before the insects are active, the male flower is untaped and cut from the plant, then the flower is carefully removed exposing the anther.

This picture shows my lazy assistant and I removing the male flower to expose the anther.


Note the anther is full of pollen

The remaining male anther is then used to brush pollen onto the untaped female flowers stigma, thus pollinating the plant. This should be done as quickly as possible in order to prevent insect contamination. Using more than one anther to pollinate each stigma will further increase the odds of successful fertilization.

Preparing to transfer pollen from the anther to the stigma. In order to take this picture the flower was slit down one side. This eliminates it as a good candidate for pure pollination due to my inability to securely tape the flower afterwords.


Gently brushing pollen onto the stigma

That's it! The female flower is then securely taped shut and marked with a ribbon for later identification. The one drawback to this procedure is that a zucchini must be allowed to fully develop, meaning get really big, for the seeds to be fully mature. This will slow down the production of other fruits on the plant due to the energy needed to support the large seed vegetable. If growing only a couple zucchini plants it may be wise to wait until the end of the season to perform these acts. With a regular squash, like an acorn, this will make no difference since the gourds will not be consumed until they are mature anyways.

Securely taped and pollinated female flower that will dry up and fall off as soon as the fruit begins to mature.


A fruit marked with red ribbon for easy identification at a later date. Loosely marked so as not to inhibit the cucurbits growth.

Even if you are not interested in saving the seeds off various cucurbits it is still good to know how to pollinate them. With the bee population possibly declining, plants that rely on them for fertilization could be faced with greatly diminished yields. Small scale hand pollination is an effective way of guaranteeing a good return on one's crop, especially in the smaller home garden.

There seem to be a limited number of reference books regarding the subject of seed saving. I currently have only three along with the treasure trove of information that can be found online. The first book I would recommend for any one just beginning to undertake this endeavour is "Seed Sowing and Saving" by Carole B. Turner. This book is not only fairly easy to understand but briefly covers a wide array of flowers as well as vegetable seed saving techniques.

"Seed To Seed" by Suzanne Ashworth takes a much more in depth look at seed saving. It is another excellent choice, but in my opinion seems to make seed saving in the home garden appear a bit complicated...it doesn't have to be. Read my first recommendation before tackling this wonderful manual.

I am currently enjoying "Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties" by Carol Deppe. So far it is a real eye opener on how seeds selection and plant breeding is performed on a more intricate scale.

One other book I really like, and often turn to for guidance is "The New Seed Starters Handbook" by Nancy Bubel. A great reference tool for starting seeds that also briefly deals with seed collection. I'm always looking for more interesting books on seeds saving, what is everyone else reading?

While in no way an expert, I am committed to eventually becoming mostly seed self-sufficient not only for monetary purposes but for the knowledge and immense satisfaction that always seems to follow a subsistence pattern lifestyle.

Update:
I have started using plastic clothes pins instead of tape to hold the squash flowers closed. It seems to be much easier and just as effective. These clips are about worthless for hanging clothes anyway.

24 comments:

mostlypurple said...

The timing of this post is uncanny- just yesterday morning I was checking my Lebanese Bush Marrows and noticed that the last 4 baby fruits on the plant were withering ~ meaning that they probably weren't properly pollinated. As luck would have it, blooming at the same time that morning was one female and one male flower, so I did exactly the procedure you outlined--except no tape or yarn. maybe now I'll get one worth eating!

Stefaneener said...

It must be the season. I was out hand pollinating buttercups this morning, just to ensure a good harvest, but realized that I have one plant I'd like to save from. I have Seed to Seed and read the cucurbit section carefully, so I know what I need to do. Must get on it! They're all going to go to full size, so it's no sacrifice, unlike a summer squash.

What, specifically, do you find made too intricate in the book?

Mrs. Mac said...

Finally ... a good garden site for No. Idaho! We live in the same region .. maybe we're neighbors :)

You really have some good information here. I'll be back to check out your fruit tree info.

Thanks,

LynnS said...

What an excellent tutorial! Very good job!

My mom must hand-pollinate just to get the plants to bear squash. She live in the 'burbs and the area must not have many pollinators now. I find myself doing this sometimes, too, especially early in the season when I want to make darn-sure we'll get some squash.

Mr. H said...

mostlypurple,

I know that some of these plants are a bit particular about the weather and will drop their blooms if it is to hot, like 100°. Hopefully they are just having pollination issues that you probably solved by hand pollinating them.

I hope they turn out for you, I have never tried growing a marrow before. Sounds interesting.

Mr. H said...

Stefaneener,

Mostly I was a bit confused by who their audience was supposed to be. I don't know about you but I am not about to build and rotate cages in order to save various seeds. I also am no able to isolate crops by hundreds of feet. The information is great, just not always applicable on a small scale.

Don't get me wrong, I love the book but am looking into more reasonable alternatives to certain seed saving techniques.

Mr. H said...

Mrs. Mac,

Thanks for stopping by, we live in the Coeur d'Alene area. I am looking forward to taking a look at your blog as well.

Mike

Mr. H said...

Lynn,

It does not surprise me to hear that, all the chemicals being sprayed about have got to have an effect on the beneficial insects. This is definitely one of the reason we all need to grow our own food and be fully aware of how to do so.

I hope that the majority come to their senses before it is to late but unfortunately I hold out little hope for that.

So we adapt and overcome as much as is possible. You and I will be OK, for awhile anyway. Those who have no knowledge of such matters will be the ones that will suffer the most.

Sorry, I don't mean to be so negative but when I hear that a persons plants can no longer be pollinated as nature intended it really drives home reality.

Mrs. Mac said...

Mr. H. We live in the same area too!

I have so much catching up to do with gardening. This is my second year with a veggie garden ... I'm a little green so to speak .. maybe I'll have green thumbs with some of your gardening advice.

I went on the Osprey bird watch today that left down by the CDA Resort. The gardens along the lake were beautiful. With beautiful days such as today ... the winters are worth the fight :)

el said...

Another good book to use is The Compleat Squash by Amy Goodman, but be warned: there is so much good stuff in this book that you're sure to be breeding your own! It's like squash porn, I swear.

Good for you with the selection, though. It's not too hard if you don't freak yourself out too much. And I also agree about Seed to Seed but I think that book's audience is the true seed geek, so I just take what they say with a grain of salt. After all, we've been successfully saving seeds as a species for longer than that book's been out...

Mr. H said...

Mrs. Mac,

Hi neighbor. Idaho does have its share of hard winters but with the weather as nice as it has been this year they are easily forgottn...for awhile anyway.

We took our grandson on a Christmas cruise at the CDA resort a couple years ago. It was cold but he loved it.

I really enjoyed ready your posts on frugality and it looks as if your garden is off to a good start this year. I look forward to reading more of your blog posts.

Chiot's Run said...

Love the cat helper.

I should save more seeds, but I usually just buy them from an heirloom seed company. I like to try different kinds each year and I love supporing people who are saving heirloom seeds.

It is a great skill to know though, in case we need it in the future!

Chiot's Run said...

Love the cat helper.

I should save more seeds, but I usually just buy them from an heirloom seed company. I like to try different kinds each year and I love supporing people who are saving heirloom seeds.

It is a great skill to know though, in case we need it in the future!

Mr. H said...

Thanks El,

I just looked "The Compleat Squash" up on amazon and it looks like a really interesting book. It has been added to my wish list.

The Ashworth book is great, I have learned a lot from it, and it's quite possible that I may be turning into a seed geek. I guess, as with most informative books it is best to have more than one to use as a reference.

I may have to build an addition onto the house just to contain all these books. I still have a box sitting under by desk of "rainy day used book store books" that I have yet to read.

We have a few grungy old used book stores in our area, you know the ones with piles of books in the corners and often strange proprietoers.I have found some of the neatest books in those places.

Mr. H said...

susy,

We have been blessed with 3 stray cats over the years but only one is allowed in the garden area. She follows me around like a little dog and hangs out with the chickens.

I think supporting others who save and sell heirloom seeds is every bit as important as knowing how to save your own. I have no doubt that without some of these little seed companies we would be at the mercy of the conglomerates hybrid varieties.

A Farmstead Pilgrimage... said...

Hi Mr. H!

Thank you for commenting on my blog.

I've been a lurker for a while. I found you through 'Google' a while back.

I have enjoyed reading your informative posts, and your homesteading thoughts.

It is nice to have found a 'northern' homesteading blog.

Have a blessed day!
Kris

Mr. H said...

Kris,

I appreciate you stopping by and also enjoyed reading some of your posts. The internet is such a great way to connect with other like mined people.

You will have to give flax a try, it has a beautiful blue flower and the seed easily separates from the head unlike some grains.

Have a most excellent day,

Mike

LynnS said...

Mike, My mom loves to garden but lives where there is a sandy vein that she has to contend with. She has all raised beds and still adds soil, compost, and aged manure. The flowers and hostas are gorgeous, but every year her veges disappear. If it isn't the rabbits, it is the deer, or the mentally-ill woman living alone who wanders at night taking produce or garden ornaments for herself. For 20 years, I've begged them to move up here where there is real soil, but 'move' is their four-letter word. So they remain there, and remain frustrated. Sigh.

Your comments and attitude aren't negative - you are a realist and there's no sense in hiding the truth that we know. Unless faced with extreme adversity, most Americans are not going to willingly grow their own food. Look at our national statistics with respect to values: savings, diet, food choices.

I've been reading more and more about genetically altered/engineered foods and next year, we will be doubling our main garden. The genetic modified foods are really scaring me -- I'm swearing off corn unless I actually know the grower or we get our own corn field going.

Be well!

Hafiz said...

I recently bumped into this article and I found that it is rather interesting to pollinate your garden yourself especially when the garden is in the middle of city where there is not many pollination agent such as bees. Anyway I did give it a try on my zucchini and lets see what happen to it.

Mr. H. said...

Hafiz - I hope it works out for you. Out of the 8 or 9 plants I did this to 6 formed nice fruits that provided us with good seed.

Malay-Kadazan girl said...

I am having trouble pollinating our cucurbits. When the female flowers are blooming not a single male is blooming. I like the idea of using the junk plastic cloth pin but my boy likes to play with it very much. I have to use something else.

Anonymous said...

Hello... old post, I know. I hope you're still seeing the comments.

Last year was the first year I planted zucchini, and I was disappointed that I didn't get a single squash! The baby fruit would just shrivel and die. Now, mind you, despite being around gardens with squashes, I had never closely examined other people's plants, and I had no idea about male and female flowers. After some research, I understood the pollination process and that I was only losing immature fruit ("ovaries") which would never mature because they hadn't been pollinated.

I have an abundance of bees early in the season, but I guess I've got a garden of spring-flowering perennials, and so my bee-attracting plants are withered by August, when my squash plants flower here in New Hampshire. So this year, I am hand-pollinating.

After three weeks with only male flowers (!) two female flowers finally opened. To my question - is the taping/clipping shut of the flowers necessary? Am I right to assume you do this just to avoid cross-pollination, for seed-saving purposes? Obviously with enough bees around the natural process works fine, and flowers aren't clipped shut, although they will usually wilt closed. If I don't care about saving seeds, should I bother with the tape?

Thanks!

Mr. H. said...

Anonymous - Sounds like you got it down right.:) You only need to tape the flowers if you plan to save the seeds and want to make sure they do not cross with other squash plants you might be growing.

G Hall said...

Wow! Thank you for this post. I found it really helpful as it breaks everything down into simple steps without overloading you with too much information. I feel like I can do this now! Thanks again.

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