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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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Garden Checklist for week of April 14

It's still not warm enough to transplant tomatoes directly in the ground, but we’re getting there.

* April is the last chance to plant citrus trees such as dwarf orange, lemon and kumquat. These trees also look good in landscaping and provide fresh fruit in winter.

* Smell orange blossoms? Feed citrus trees with a low dose of balanced fertilizer (such as 10-10-10) during bloom to help set fruit. Keep an eye out for ants.

* Apply slow-release fertilizer to the lawn.

* Thoroughly clean debris from the bottom of outdoor ponds or fountains.

* Spring brings a flush of rapid growth, and that means your garden needs nutrients. Fertilize shrubs and trees with a slow-release fertilizer. Or mulch with a 1-inch layer of compost.

* Azaleas and camellias looking a little yellow? If leaves are turning yellow between the veins, give them a boost with chelated iron.

* Trim dead flowers but not leaves from spring-flowering bulbs such as daffodils and tulips. Those leaves gather energy to create next year's flowers. Also, give the bulbs a fertilizer boost after bloom.

* Pinch chrysanthemums back to 12 inches for fall flowers. Cut old stems to the ground.

* Mulch around plants to conserve moisture and control weeds.

* From seed, plant beans, beets, cantaloupes, carrots, corn, cucumbers, melons, radishes and squash.

* Plant onion sets.

* In the flower garden, plant seeds for asters, cosmos, celosia, marigolds, salvia, sunflowers and zinnias.

* Transplant petunias, zinnias, geraniums and other summer bloomers.

* Plant perennials and dahlia tubers for summer bloom.

* Mid to late April is about the last chance to plant summer bulbs, such as gladiolus and tuberous begonias.

* Transplant lettuce seedlings. Choose varieties that mature quickly such as loose leaf.

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