Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Different Kind of Fertilizer

It's been three weeks since my last vegetable garden update.  We have a bunch of green tomatoes and cute little cucumbers with bubble-shaped pricklers all over them.  The basil and mint plants are doing fine too.

No seeds...
I was definitely most hopeful about my zucchini plants.  Once we got back from vacation they seemed to flourish and there were small zucchinis popping up everywhere.  However, the zucchinis remained small, the buds would fall off, and they'd start to wither.  One of them even turned brown and rotted.  I had no idea what could be going on, and my dad gave me the seemingly wild suggestion that the plants weren't being fertilized.  How could the plants not be fertilized?

Over the past few years, honey bees have been dying out in huge numbers.  Between infestations of mites and the pesticides that people have been spraying on their lawns, there just aren't that many honey bees around anymore, especially in suburban neighborhoods like my own.  And when I thought about it, I really hadn't seen any bees here the entire summer.  Sad, right?

Although people can't do anything about the mite infestation (except for the beekeepers who treat their hives), anyone who owns a house can do their part.  Interestingly enough, I found out that when bees wake from hibernation the first things they gather pollen from are dandelions and clover flowers.  In fact, the only time I've really seen bees this summer is on lawns with clover.  Now, drive through a suburban neighborhood and take a look at the lawns.  Lush, green, even cut grass free of dandelions and clover, leaving nothing for the bees to collect to make their nectar.  Leave the dandelions alone and if you have a spot in your yard that isn't manicured, grow clover.  Clover fields are so pretty, and those little white flowers are not intrusive and provide tons of pollen for honey bees.  Plus, clover grows better than grass anyway.  Also, the pesticides aren't just killing the plants, they're killing the bees too.  When the bees land on a flower or plant that has been sprayed with pesticides, it can carry the pesticides on their body or in the pollen back to the hive, therefore risking infecting the entire hive with toxins.  And bees have such a terrible reputation to begin with however it's the wasps and yellow jackets that will sting you relentlessly, not the honey bees.  They're just looking for flowers to collect pollen and will only sting you if they feel threatened, say if you step on them accidentally or swat at them as they fly past you.  I could go on and on about the perils of honey bees thanks to everything I learned while working at the National Zoo, but the bottom line is stop spraying pesticides and leave the clover and dandelions alone.

Alright, now that my rant is over, it's time to get to the main topic of this post: fertilizing your own flowers (ew).

Every plant has male and female flowers.  The female flowers are the ones that produce the fruit (or vegetable).  First, you need to identify the male flowers and the female flowers.  The male flowers have an appendage called the stamen, which contains the pollen.  When a bee lands on the stamen, it picks up pollen, then travels to a female flower and deposits the pollen on the pistil.  The plant takes the pollen, uses it to fertilize the egg, and you get your produce.

But back to our original problem: no bees!  What is one to do?  Well one site suggested picking the male flower, removing the petals, and rubbing the stamen on the female flower's pistil.  I felt so dirty just reading that so I decided to go the alternative method and collect pollen on a cotton swab (you could also use a small paintbrush) and rub it on the pistil.  This method of artificial fertilization made me feel less like a flower pervert.  Don't judge me, I really want to make zucchini bread.

The next problem was determining when my flowers would be open.  I checked on them in the morning and at night and didn't see any flowers beckoning me to pollinate them.  Some mornings my male flowers would be open, but not my female ones (another reason why they may not be getting pollinated).  This morning, I went to walk Shadow at 8:30 and I saw two huge yellow flowers - both open.  I brushed it off and assumed they were both male until I saw a zucchini growing behind one of them.  I almost postponed Shadow's walk for fear of the plants being closed when I got back, but Shadow can really be quite vicious so I didn't want to upset him.

The pollen seeds will brush off of the stamen.
Catch them on a cotton swab or paintbrush.
The flowers were still open when I got back, and as I was pollinating them I took a closer look at each flower and they really are beautiful.  I saw pollen on the pistil when I had finished transferring it so hopefully it worked!  Although I think next time I will use a small paintbrush instead of the cotton swab because about half of the pollen I collected just stuck to the cotton fibers.  Happy pollinating!

Brush the pollen onto the pistil.
Doesn't matter where, just make sure it transferred
Update: Picked my first cucumber today and threw it in a salad.  And it had seeds!!  At least one of my plants is seeing some action.

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