Be a Bee: Hand-pollination for Hydroponic Vegetables
When we grow fruits and vegetables outdoors, the bees, butterflies and wind naturally pollinate our crops. However, when we grow food indoors, our helpful friends are no longer around to do their job. So, we must be the pollinators.
We eat all sorts of plant parts so not every vegetable needs pollinating. Leaf and root crops (lettuce, kale, beets, etc) do not need to be pollinated because we eat them before they get to the flower stage of their life cycle. However, there are plants that we eat (like tomatoes, lemons and almonds) that need to be pollinated in order to produce the fruit or seed that we want to eat.
Quick botany lesson:
Bees (and other pollinators) travel from flower to flower, drinking nectar and spreading pollen. Pollen is the male component of a flower (flower sperm, if you will). When it’s transferred to another flower, it goes into the pistil (female flower part) and fertilizes to make fruit. This process can’t be done without the aid of a pollinator. There are some plants, however, that have both male and female parts and can self-pollinate but you can still give them a little help.
Since there (presumably) aren’t swarms of bees flying around your hydroponic system, you might want to lend a hand to a few of your edible crops. It’s pretty simple. Here’s how to do it:
- Leaf and root crops (like spinach, carrots, onions and garlic): don’t worry about it! They don’t need to be pollinated. Just crunch them and enjoy.
- Self-pollinators (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beans and peas): They can generally take care of things themselves but you can help: jog the pollen loose by gently (very gently) shaking the plants, tapping the flowers or try this method:
- Cross-pollinators (squash, cucumbers, melons and most fruit): These plants need to trade pollen in order to produce fruit. The squash, cukes and melons have separate male and female flowers. The male flower will have pollen-laden stamens and the female flower will usually have what looks like a tiny fruit bulging at the base. These guys need the most help and must be pollinated to produce fruit. The how-to:
1. Wait until both male and female flowers are in full bloom, petals open.
2. Get a watercolor paintbrush or a Q-tip. Brush it against the male flower (you should see yellow or orange pollen on the brush or Q-tip).
3. Brush it against the pistil on the female flower (the pistil is tall and gooey and right in the middle. You can’t miss it.)
That’s it! You’ve done it! You should see fruit begin to form in the next few days. Keep repeating the process with subsequent flowers and you should have lots of fruit in no time.