An article by Travis Key from Lazy Dog Farm
Do your garden plants need insect pollinators to produce bountiful harvests? That will depend on what types of vegetables you’re growing. Not all backyard garden vegetables require pollination. Bees and other pollinators are great to have, but they may be limited if you live in an urban area. Below we’ll discuss which vegetables need pollination and which ones don’t.
Vegetables that grow underground don’t form from a flower. This would include things like carrots, beets, parsnips, onions, and potatoes. These vegetables don’t need pollination, although some of them will produce flowers. Potato plants can sometimes form beautiful pink or purple flowers that bees love. This is an added benefit to growing potatoes, as the flowers will attract bees that can then pollinate the vegetables that need it.
Greens and Other Brassicas
There are some veggies that we don’t want to form a flower. This would include things like mustard greens, lettuce, collards, kale, and spinach. Flower formation in these vegetables signals the end of their growth cycle. It can happen as temperatures warm in the spring and summer months. It can also be triggered by plant stress due to drought.
Many of the vegetables we grow are self-pollinating. This means that the flowers have both male and female parts and pollinate themselves. While the flowers may attract bees and other pollinators, insect pollination is not necessary.
Examples of self-pollinating vegetables include beans, peas, okra, tomatoes, pepper, and eggplant. The “fruit” or vegetable does form from the flower, but the flower pollinates itself. If you live in area with minimal bee populations, you can still grow these vegetables without any issues.
Corn sits in its own unique category because it is pollinated by the wind. Corn plants produce male flowers (called tassels) on the top of the plant and female flowers (silks) along the plant. For the corn plant to produce a full ear of corn, the pollen from tassel must be transferred to the silks. This doesn’t require insects but does require a little wind. This is also why corn grows best when planted in larger, square blocks as opposed to just a few plants.
Vegetables Needing Insect Pollination
These vegetables have two types of flowers on their plants. They have a male flower which contains pollen and a female flower that contains ovaries. For successful fruit formation, the pollen on the male flower must be transferred to the female flower. When that happens, a fruit will form from the female flower.
You can easily distinguish between a male and female flower because the female flower will usually have a tiny immature fruit at the base of it. If you take a closer look at squash flowers, you’ll see a tiny squash at the base of the female flower. When that flower is pollinated, that tiny fruit will become a larger fruit. If that flower is not pollinated, that flower will eventually fall off the plant.
Backyard vegetables that require pollination include squash, cucumbers, pumpkins, watermelon, cantaloupe, and other melons. There are some varieties of cucumbers and squash that don’t require pollination, but that’s another subject for a future blog. We won’t get into the details of that process here.
All these vegetables will greatly benefit from the presence of bees and other insect pollinators. The more bees you have present, the greater your harvests will be. Bees usually do most of their pollinating in the morning hours. You can walk outside in the early morning and see bees buzzing around your squash and cucumber plants.
But what if you don’t have any bees near your garden? What can you do to ensure you still get production from these plants?
One easy solution is to plant flowers among your vegetable plants to encourage the presence of pollinators. We do this every year, and it works very well to bring the bees to our garden. Our favorite flowers for attracting pollinators include zinnias, marigolds, ageratum, and sunflowers.
Another solution for small-scale gardeners is hand-pollination. This is easier to do with squash and pumpkins than cucumbers or watermelons because the squash and pumpkin flowers are much larger. To hand-pollinate plants, take a Q tip and brush it inside of the male flower to collect pollen. Then find a female flower and tap the pollen into the female flower. This process in not always practical on a medium to large backyard garden. But if you have just a few plants, it may be a great way to ensure harvests.
Attract the Pollinators If You Need Them!
If you live in a rural area with plenty of bees, you should have no issues growing the above-mentioned vegetables that require insect pollination. But if pollinators are limited where you live, consider planting more flowers to attract bees to your garden. If that’s not an option, you may need to resort to hand-pollination or only growing vegetables that don’t need pollination. Either way, hopefully this blog has helped you determine when pollinators are necessary for backyard garden production.
Thousands of gardeners have been tuning in to The Lazy Dog Farm YouTube channel where Travis covers a variety topics ranging from how to successfully start seedlings to how to make a flavorful hotsauce that packs a punch. Accompanied by his wife Brooklyn and their two boys, the gardens on their 2 acre homestead in southwest Georgia are always filled with a wide variety of vegetables that are enjoyed fresh or preserved for later.