Pollination is a fundamental act our plants depend upon for their success. Without it, our food supply would be in trouble. But, not every pollination is beneficial for your garden. There is a type of pollination (cross-pollination) you want to avoid, and for some plants, you don't want them to pollinate at all.
As a gardener, it's important to know what pollination is because it is vital to a thriving garden and to be able to save seeds. So today we'll discuss both the terms pollination and cross-pollination.
What is Pollination?
Any plant you grow in your garden which produces a fruit requires pollination.
Along those same lines, each plant which requires pollination has either a female or a male part. Some plants have both or produce both, but we’ll discuss this topic a little later. The male sex organ of a plant is called a stamen, and the female sex organ of a plant is called a stigma.
When pollination occurs, pollen from the male sex organ transfers to the female sex organ. It can happen via insects, wind, or a plant can be self-pollinating.
How Does Pollination Work?
There are different ways pollination can occur. Depending on what type of plant is pollinated, the process will vary. Here is how they each work:
Typical pollination happens when one plant gives pollen to another plant. One of the plants must have the male plant sex organ known as the stamen. The other plant must have the female sex organ known as the stigma.
When the wind blows, or an insect collects pollen from the male plant, it allows the pollen to transfer to the female plant.
Realize when the wind blows, pollen is scattered in the air. This allows the pollen to land inside the female flower.
But when a bee lands inside a flower, it will get pollen on it. When the bee lands on the next flower, the pollen collected from the previous flower will fall off into the new flower. If the flower is female, pollination has occurred.
Some plants pollinate differently. There are some plants such as tomatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers, and squash which produce both male and female flowers on the same plant.
For these plants to be pollinated, the wind has to blow, or a bee has to land in a male flower, and the pollen has to either be blown into the female flower or be transferred to the female flower by an insect.
If the pollen has been transferred from a male flower to a female flower of the same kind, fruit will develop on the plant.
What About the Plants That Don’t Pollinate?
Every plant could be pollinated, but there are some plants you don’t want to pollinate. For instance, lettuce is a plant you don’t want to pollinate. The reason is you want to eat lettuce before it ‘bolts.’
Bolting is when the plant is getting ready to make seeds. We prefer to eat lettuce before bolt happens. It is most common for bolt to take place when the weather begins to warm up towards the end of lettuce’s growing season.
However, if the lettuce bolts, all the plant’s energy will go into making seeds to carry on with the next generation.
When this happens, the leaves will become tough and bitter. It is not a desirable flavor, which is why most gardeners try to prevent bolting and pollination in crops where you eat the plant itself.
How to Encourage Pollination
Pollination depends heavily on wind and insects, such as honey bees. You can’t control the wind, but you can do your part to draw the bees to your garden. Here are a few ways to encourage pollination in your garden:
1. Plant the Right Colors
Bees can only see specific colors. If you plant items in your yard filled with colors such as white, blue, violet, and yellow, it will draw bees to them.
2. Avoid Chemicals
You should try to avoid chemicals in your garden. If you don’t, you could kill the very creatures who are there to pollinate it for you.
However, if you must use chemicals, try to use it at night when the bees have gone to bed. This way, the chemicals can subside a little before the bees are back out making their flight in the morning.
3. Give Pollinators a Drink
Bees need water like all other living creatures. If you want to draw them to your garden, consider adding a bird bath to the edge of your garden.
Don’t forget to put rounded stones in the bottom of your bird bath. This will give the bees a place to sit while drinking to keep them from drowning.
4. Plant the Right Food
There are certain times of the year when bees run low on plants which are rich in nectar and pollen. It is a problem when they are looking for a food source.
If you want to draw them to your garden, consider planting pollen-rich foods to feed them and attract them to your garden for pollination.
Cross-pollination is an interesting topic which causes concern amongst many gardeners. I want to share with you what cross-pollination is, how it happens, and how to prevent it:
What is Cross-Pollination?
Cross-pollination occurs when you have the same plant of different varieties in a garden space. When the wind blows, or a bee travels into the flower of one plant variety, and the pollen of this plant makes its way into the flower of another type.
When cross-pollination occurs, it can create unusual varieties of fruit which aren’t what many gardeners want when saving seeds.
The fruit produced becomes a new variety of the plant because it will share characteristics from both parent plants.
Many gardeners fear cross-pollination because of horror stories they’ve heard. When I first began gardening, I was afraid to plant my peppers and tomatoes in the same vicinity because I was told they would cross-pollinate and make my tomatoes taste bad.
Another common fear is cross-pollination will impact your harvest for your current grow year. Neither of these is true.
For starters, cross-pollination can only occur between plant varieties. It can’t happen between plant species. As an example, if I plant an Early Girl variety of tomato and a Better Boy variety of a tomato in the same garden, they could potentially cross-pollinate.
However, my peppers and tomatoes will not cross-pollinate because they are different plants altogether, not only different plant varieties.
Also, when you hear people say, “My crop was ruined this year because of cross-pollination. My harvest looked funny.”
Well, chances are the crop had a disease or another issue because cross-pollination won’t impact the fruits the current plant produces.
Instead, it will impact the seeds the plant produces. Meaning, if you save the seeds of a cross-pollinated plant, your harvest could look different than expected because the two parent plants weren’t of the same variety.
How Can You Prevent Cross-Pollination?
If you want to stick with the varieties of plants you currently have growing in your garden (and you plan on saving the seeds,) try to control cross-pollination. You have a few different options:
1. Pollinate by Hand
If you have a self-pollinating plant, you can shake the plant to encourage the pollen to become loose and fall out, or you can use a soft paintbrush to brush the inside of a male flower and swipe the pollen on the brush into a female flower.
If you are unsure how to tell your flowers apart, the female flower has a small, undeveloped fruit behind the flower. The male has only a long, skinny stem.
But if you are dealing with plants which aren’t self-pollinating, you’ll need to know how to pollinate them by hand as well. You should pluck a male flower and peel the petals back to reach the stamen. You’ll rub the stamen against the stigma found in a female flower.
2. Planting Distance Should Increase
It is a good idea to try to plant only one variety of each vegetable in your garden, which would deter cross-pollination from happening.
However, if you like different varieties, it is a good idea to put 100 or more feet between any plant varieties which are pollinated by insects or the wind.
If you are planning on planting different varieties of self-pollinating plants, (such as beans, peas, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and eggplant) you’ll need to put at least ten feet of distance between them.
3. The Exception to the Rule: Corn
I’ve told you how cross-pollination couldn’t impact your garden harvest and you only need 100 feet of distance between different varieties of veggies in your garden.
Well, all of this is true except corn. The wind pollinates corn. Therefore, it’s a good thing to plant corn in blocks because it makes it easier for it to be pollinated.
However, if corn cross-pollinates, it will impact the corn kernels in the current growing season.
Also, if you’re going to plant different corn varieties, you need to place at least 150 feet between each type of corn. This will discourage the chance of cross-pollination.
In most cases, the wind can carry pollen very long distances. However, the further the distance, the more pollen the wind loses during travel.
With all of this in mind, you are now informed about pollination and cross-pollination. You also know how to deter cross-pollination from occurring and how to encourage pollination in your garden.
Now, I want to hear from you. What do you do to encourage pollination? What do you do to discourage cross-pollination?
We’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave us your comments in the space provided below.