What are the odds that I would see a bumper sticker from my high school? If I grew up in the Lowcountry, the chances would be good, but I graduated from a small town in Illinois. Those odds seem long.
Nature frequently plays the odds. If a pine tree released a dozen pollen grains, the chances of one of them randomly landing on a pine cone are slim. In reality, a pine tree releases enough pollen to paint your house and one of those pollen grains, simply by chance, will blow onto and fertilize a pine cone.
Most of us grow flowers in the yard for color and beauty. We couldn't care less if fertilization takes place. It's different in the vegetable garden where fertilization is essential to develop fruit such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Most of these flowers are perfect, which means they contain male and female parts. Pollen doesn't have far to travel within the same flower.
Some plants, however, have imperfect flowers, meaning they only contain male or female parts. Squash is good example. For the female flower to be fertilized, pollen has to be delivered from the male flower. This is usually done by nature's "delivery bugs," the pollinators.
However, small gardens may not support enough insects to ensure pollination. If you have healthy squash vines but no squash, you can lend nature a hand.
The female flower can be identified by a bulbous base just below the petals. Pick a male flower with a narrow base and peel back the petals to expose the anther and rub the pollen-laden anther on the stigma located inside the female flower. Nature will take it from there.
In some cases, the problem isn't lack of pollination but dying squash plants. This is often due to squash vine borer. This is a moth that lays eggs at the base of the plant. The caterpillars hatch and immediately bore into the stem, consuming the inside as it travels. You likely won't notice anything until the squash vine suddenly wilts. At this point, it's done. Pull and destroy.
Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of solutions to control squash vine borer. Insecticides are minimally effective because the insect feeds inside the vine. Also, your insecticide options are limited since you're likely going to eat the squash. While I've read various home remedies, I've simply tried to keep the odds in my favor by planting lots of squash in hopes to get enough survivors to produce fruit.
Cucumbers are in the same family as squash. While the fruits look very different, the vines are similar. Squash and cucumbers have ornamental appeal when grown on a lattice or overhead pergola.
Cucumbers do not have a problem with pollination or borers, but they can be decimated by a disease called cucurbit downy mildew. The symptoms begin as light green angular spots on the leaves, developing into a yellow then tan. The plant will lose vigor and soon expire.
The Pest Information Platform website (www.ipmpipe.org) tracks airborne downy mildew spores as they travel up from Florida each season. Growers and homeowners can register to be notified via text or email when spores near their location.
This will signal when to begin fungicide applications. I have registered this year in order to keep the cucumber in my backyard producing. Always follow the fungicide label. Rotating different fungicides will ensure better protection and reduce disease resistance.
Lastly, our broccoli crop was a partial failure this year. I say partial because the blue-green foliage worked great as an ornamental. However, we found cabbageworm caterpillars hiding in the florets. No amount of picking and cleaning could get them out of the harvest so we ended up feeding them to the horses. They didn't seem to mind the extra protein.
Next year, we will preventively use Bacillus thuringiensis and spinosad. Both products are approved for organic production.
Next year, the odds will be in our favor.
Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.