Pumpkin Pollination Woes

Last summer, after devouring Lorraine Johnson’s book City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing, I felt inspired to try vegetable container gardening myself. Johnson’s book was filled with countless examples of creative gardeners maximizing their tiny window boxes, back stoops, and unused garden nooks with tomato plants, peppers, creeping snow peas, runner beans and herbs. For a two bedroom apartment in Vancouver, our balcony is actually quite large. We’d already had success with tomato, basil and herbs in previous summers. Why not bump up the food crops on our patio instead of spending a small fortune on pretty, but temporary, summer flowers?

Soon enough I was flipping through the pages of the West Coast Seed catalogue like a little kid in a candy store. As a beginner, I followed the advice of City Farmer and stuck to easy-to-grow varieties like snow peas, Swiss chard and lettuce, but some of the more ambitious seeds also caught my eye. Why not try Brussel sprouts, broccoli and pumpkins too! Since Halloween is my favourite holiday, the idea of growing my own pumpkin sounded too good to resist. I decided to order some Little October seeds since they matured in the shortest amount of days (85) and I liked the smooth skin and perfectly round shape. By the time I actually planted the seeds it was the last week of July. Technically I still had 85 days until October 31st, but technically clearly isn’t everything.

If you’ve visited my blog before then I’m sure you’ll remember my pumpkin fiasco from last year. I did grow some pumpkins last year… just itty bitty little tiny ones! After having such a hilarious failure last year, I knew I’d have to give it another try. This year Operation Pumpkin Patch started earlier… way earlier. It’s now the end of July and I’ve been growing the pumpkin plant for nearly three months now. I wish I could say that it’s been smooth sailing the second time around, but that’s definitely not the case.

Apparently, pumpkin pollination is tricky business. The pumpkin plant itself – coated with rough spikes on the leaves and stalks, and bursting with creeping curlicue tendrils from every leaf joint – has both male and female flowers. Not surprisingly, the female flowers need to be pollinated by the pollen from the male flowers. The surprising part is that the pumpkin blossoms remain open for just one day, and the best way to insure success is to hand pollinate the plants directly using a small, dry paintbrush. If pollination is left only to the bees, it might not happen if a bee doesn’t buzz around your plant on that one fleeting day.

For weeks and weeks I’d come home from work to check for new blossoms, then diligently rub the male pollen onto all the female flowers or unopened flower buds. After a few weeks of doing that, small green pumpkins started to appear beneath the female flowers. At one point we had seven growing, then nine, ten… it seemed we’d hit the pumpkin jackpot! I was impressed with myself, especially once they started to turn the slightest shade of orange. At this point, I thought my work was done.

But then… the largest pumpkin fell off the vine! I was mortified. Even more so since the pumpkin broke off right into my hand as I was brushing an aphid from it’s surface.

A few days later, a second pumpkin dropped effortlessly off the vine again. A third died a few days after that. Strangely, they appeared to be slowly rotting around the connecting vine, turning squishy and moist.

My pumpkin dreams were literally shriveling up.

After searching on the internet I realized the problem. Turns out I’d been pollinating the pumpkins incorrectly. It’s true that the male pollen must meet the female flowers. My timing was just off. I should have been pollinating the female pumpkin flowers once they already showed a pumpkin bulge growing beneath them. Apparently the blossom stays open even while the fruit is beginning to expand and that is when they should be pollinated. If proper pollination is not achieved then the fruit will wither and die. Damn!

It’s been about two weeks since I made this discovery. Since then I’ve been hand pollinating the flowers at every opportunity that presents itself and I’m hoping (fingers crossed) that a few of the presently growing pumpkins will stick around. But just in case I don’t get my homegrown jack-o-lantern this year I thought I’d make the best of it.

Feast your eyes on the world’s smallest, most premature token of Halloween ever…

At least it’s good for a laugh!


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