I recently finished reading Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever, by Susan Warren [seemingly out of print; amazon kindle | library]. It was a co-worker’s recommendation which I thoroughly enjoyed. In spite of being a gardening book, the real appeal of it I think are the people it describes, who are quirky, obsessive and interesting – of course, since I literally can’t imagine any other kind of person committing so much time, energy and money to the quest to grow 1500 lb pumpkins. These people could be engaged in any offbeat activity and it would probably be just as compelling.
One thing I learned from the book, which I have never been totally clear on, is how fruits in the squash family (pumpkins, cucumbers, squash, zucchini) get fertilized. Plants have male and female flowers, and it you’re paying attention to your plants you’ll probably notice the difference.
You can really tell how people came up with the male and female designation for flowers. Ahem. So the male flowers grow on thin, spindly stalks that look like normal leaf stems only slightly slimmer. They have a protuberance (perfect application for that word) in the centre of the flower where the pollen is.
Female flowers form on the end of a little fruit (or as I like to think of it a proto-fruit). (In botanical terms it’s actually called an ovary, which seems like it’s taking things a little too far, in my opinion.) Female flowers have stigma in the middle where the pollen gets deposited (by pollinators, or by a gardener). In my picture, there are ants crawling all over the inside of the flower; that is not a necessary feature for pollination, although apparently it is a necessary feature of my bleeping garden, which is crawling with ants. The pollen fertilizes the ovary, and it starts to develop. If a female flower doesn’t get fertilized, the ovary withers away, like this:
When I saw these tiny pumpkins a few weeks ago, I assumed the plant had already been pollinated and I was going to have delicious pumpkins to eat. Not so. These flowers got their hair did and went out to the flower-bar, but they came home alone, and now their little pumpkins will die. Harsh.
(This also means that male squash flowers, if they’re not needed for pollination, can be safely stuffed, battered up and fried, if you’re into that kind of thing, and if the sexual politics of it doesn’t bother you.)
So for the female flowers that are open on my plants right now, I have a couple of options: I can hope that some pollinators get busy in my garden, or I can hand-pollinate them, which is something I have never tried because it kind of weirds me out. I don’t want to intervene in this process. Call me old-fashioned, but I kind of want to leave the birds and the bees stuff to the… birds and the bees. And I’ve never had a problem with low yields in my garden in the past, so I’m going to try to let nature run its course, and also maybe drape the plants with sheets to give them some privacy.