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Give squash flowers a hand

squash with flowers
See the largest open squash flower on the right? That's a female flower. All the flowers on the long stems are male. Fully open male blossoms work best for hand-pollinating. Best time to do this is in the early morning. (Photos: Kathy Morrison)

Use a paintbrush to hand-pollinate

Tomato vines aren’t the only plants in the vegetable garden that could use a hand in pollination. Squash, pumpkins, cucumbers and melons are having problems, too.

Again, this is mostly weather-related. Bees and other pollinators don’t like to work in hot weather.

Or the bees may be having a hard time finding your squash and melon vines, especially if they’re surrounded by non-flowering plants.

Tomato vines may need only a gentle nudge to shake loose pollen and fertilize flowers. (See
Monday's post on tomatoes .) Squash take a little more effort.

That’s because members of the cucurbit family (squash and all its cousins) have distinctly male and female flowers on the same plant. The pollen needs to get from the male blooms to the female flowers, usually with the help of bees.

When bees don’t do the job, pick up a paint brush and give pollination a hand.

A soft-bristled artist’s paintbrush, such as a watercolor brush, is perfect for this job.

Melon blossoms
Melon blossoms are smaller than squash ones but work
on the same principle.
First, determine which flowers are which. The female flowers have an obvious swelling at their base. That’s the baby fruit, waiting to be pollinated. In the center of that flower, the female stigma will be prominent and clearly visible.

The male flowers have no swelling at their base and they're filled with pollen-topped stamens.

Take the paintbrush and lightly swish it around those bright yellow stamens. The brush will quickly be covered with yellow dust; that’s the pollen.

Then, open up the female flower and gently stroke the stigma with the pollen-covered brush. That’s it; you’ve pollinated the flower.

Do this over and over until all the female flowers have been “dusted” with your pollen paintbrush.

If you don’t have a brush, try this alternative: Remove a male flower and pull back the petals to expose the stamens. Then, use the stamens to “paint” their pollen onto the female flower’s stigma.

Either way, baby squash (or melons or cucumbers or pumpkins) will soon be on the way.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of Nov. 26:

Concentrate on helping your garden stay comfortable during these frosty nights – and clean up all those leaves!

* Irrigate frost-tender plants such as citrus in the late afternoon. That extra soil moisture increases temperatures around the plant a few degrees, just enough to prevent frost damage. The exception are succulents; too much water before frost can cause them to freeze.

* Cover sensitive plants before the sun goes down. Use cloth sheets or frost cloths, not plastic sheeting, to hold in warmth. Make sure to remove covers in the morning.

* Use fall leaves as mulch around shrubs and vegetables. Mulch acts as a blanket and keeps roots warmer.

* Stop dead-heading; let rose hips form on bushes to prompt dormancy.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs.

* Clean and sharpen garden tools before storing for the winter.

* Brighten the holidays with winter bloomers such as poinsettias, amaryllis, calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies and primroses.

* Keep poinsettias in a sunny, warm location – and definitely indoors overnight. Water thoroughly. After the holidays, feed your plants monthly so they’ll bloom again next December.

* Rake and remove dead leaves and stems from dormant perennials.

* Plant spring bulbs. Don’t forget the tulips chilling in the refrigerator. Daffodils can be planted without pre-chilling.

* This is also a good time to seed wildflowers and plant such spring bloomers as sweet peas, sweet alyssum and bachelor buttons.

* Plant trees and shrubs. They’ll benefit from fall and winter rains while establishing their roots.

* Set out cool-weather annuals such as pansies and snapdragons.

* Lettuce, cabbage and broccoli also can be planted now.

* Plant garlic and onions.

* Bare-root season begins now. Plant bare-root berries, kiwifruit, grapes, artichokes, horseradish and rhubarb.

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