Have you planted a veggie garden with healthy cucumber vines or tomato plants and noticed them flowering with no fruit to be found later? You’re not alone

If your plants are producing flowers, but then curling up and dropping them, you are amongst those who are lacking pollinators in your garden area.

Pollinators are insects or any animal that causes plants to make fruits or seeds by moving pollen from the male part of the flower (stamen) to the female part of the same or another flower (stigma). Although these pollinators—like bees, butterflies and birds—are going from flower to flower to feed and sustain themselves, this act also helps us in return as their movements are crucial to the fertilization of so many of our foods.

Now, a reason why your veggie garden might not be blossoming like it used to is because our pollinator species are declining due to harmful pesticide use on lawns, parks and wild areas, as well as habitat loss caused by urban sprawl, logging and other climate-affecting practices. Though in some cases, the pollinator species required to pollinate your plants just aren’t present at the right time to help your plants out (especially for those who live in more northern climates).

In these cases, we have to turn to hand pollination, which will help increase our garden yields and keep them blooming until the pollinators show up.butterflyPhoto by Boris Smokrovic on Unsplash

What is hand pollination?

Here, you’ll essentially be playing pollinator by transporting pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers yourself. Plants can be pollinated by wind, birds or insects and your hand pollination will mimic this process. In some cases, like with tomatoes, one flower can have both parts (a perfect flower) whereas other plants, like squash or cucumber, have two different flowers. We’ll clarify what to look for in the “how” section below.

This hand pollination method wouldn’t work on a large scale if the world lost the majority of its pollinators, but it can help give your garden veggies a jump start and prevent your plants from losing hope (and shrivelling and dropping all of their flowers before you’ve had a chance to enjoy the season).

How to hand pollinate

If you’re noticing that your plant is already shrivelling or isn’t producing flowers anymore, it might be too late to try hand pollinating this year. You’ll have to wait to test this next season. Once you plant your vegetables, keep a close eye on when the plant begins to flower so that you’re ready to spring into action.

No matter the plant, pollinating them is best done in the morning, ideally before 11 a.m. when the humidity is at its peak and the pollen is most active.

Perfect flowers: Plants with “perfect” flowers means they have both parts on the same flower and don’t require insects to pollinate, but rather vibration or movement of some sort. You may not notice at first but at a closer look, you can see the pollen on the outside stamens and the centre pistil in the flower. You can gently tap the flowers or give the plant a shake to move the pollen from the stamen to the pistil. Some gardeners who don’t want to cross-pollinate varieties will choose to move the pollen with a small paint brush or cotton swab for more accurate precision. Vegetables with perfect flowers are strawberries, tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, eggplants, okra, peas and beans.

Pollinating squash and cucumbers: These vegetables take a little more work to pollinate, but doing so will give you a much earlier harvest than if you were waiting for pollinators. As much as the flowers may look the same from a distance, at a closer glance, you’ll notice that some flowers have a plain stem (male flowers) while the female flowers will have a tiny cucumber or squash below the petals. You’ll gently uncover the male anther by picking back the flower petals and using a small paint brush or swap to pick up the pollen, you’ll apply it onto the stigma of the female flower. Repeat with all of the same varieties and then move onto another variety.

Bonus: Attract bees and other pollinators: Hand pollinating may be effective, but you’ll still want the help of those pollinators (especially if you’re a busy bee yourself). By planting native plants, staying away from pesticides on your plants, and planting flowers in a variety of colours and shapes, you’ll attract those beneficial pollinators to help do the job for you! It may still take a while for them to show up (even if you do have native plants around), so be patient, hand pollinate while you wait, and you’ll know when you can hand the job over to those bees and butterflies.bee on strawberry blossomPhoto by Justus Menke on UnsplashThat’s it! Once your plants are pollinated, you’ll be able to sit back and enjoy the abundant fruit ahead. There’s nothing more discouraging than planting your garden, doing everything right, and then having all of your fruit dry up. Hand pollinating should help get your plants producing more so that you can enjoy your garden harvest a little earlier while you wait for those pollinators.