Some plants need a helping hand to ensure good pollination, especially when they are grown indoors or in a greenhouse. Without pollination, vegetable plants won’t fertilize to produce fruit.
When it comes to vegetable blossoms, there are two types of flowers: self-pollinating flowers and separate male and female flowers.
Flowers from vegetables including peas, peppers and tomatoes can pollinate on their own because each flower contains male and female parts. These are known as “perfect flowers,” and you can identify them because they have anthers (the male part that contains pollen) and carpals (the structure that holds the female part, the ovary.)
In a tomato flower, for example (pictured below), the anthers are fused together to create the pointed part inside the petals, and the carpals are located inside this structure. All that’s needed to move the pollen from the guy parts to the girl parts is a gentle breeze or some bees. If you’re really concerned that the flowers aren’t pollinating on their own, you can give the plant a little shake or tap each flower to ensure the deed is done.
Separate flowers require the help of bees or other insect pollinators to move pollen from the male flower to the female flower. You can do this manually, but first, it’s helpful to identify which flowers are which sex. The squash family is a good example of male and female flowers that can use a helping hand in pollination. Recognize male cucumber, zucchini and squash flowers (pictured below) by petals that surround fused anthers, a protruding piece in the center of the flower. They are on a long stalk that grows out of the base of the plant and are usually the first to appear.
An easy way to pollinate squash flowers is by snipping off a male flower and removing the petals to expose the anthers. Rub the anthers inside the female flower to transfer pollen to the stigma, which will let it travel down to the ovary and fertilize it to create the squash. If this is too down and dirty for your tastes, you can also use a paintbrush to dust pollen from the male flower and brush it on the inside of the female flower. The results will be the same with either method; creating a romantic mood is up to you. The best time to hand-pollinate is early in the morning when the flowers first open.