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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 March 26:

Sacramento can expect another inch of rain from this latest storm. Leave the sprinklers off at least another week. Temps will dip down into the low 30s early in the week, so avoid planting tender seedlings (such as tomatoes). Concentrate on these tasks before or after this week’s rain:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Knock off aphids with a strong blast of water or some bug soap as soon as they appear.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to help corral blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees, which are now in bloom and setting fruit.

To prevent sunburn and borer problems on young trees, paint the exposed portion of the trunk with diluted white latex (water-based) interior paint. Dilute the paint with an equal amount of cold water before application.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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