Sex in the Garden

Summertime brings out questions from gardeners, and one that is the most difficult to answer with a straight face is about sex in the garden. When you couple most folks’ penchant for neat, orderly surroundings with a dearth of bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds in many urban gardens, you have a recipe for plant sterility. Which leads to fewer vegetables and fruits, which leads to questions about sex. This isn’t as important for windpollinated plants like corn and selfpollinating veggies like beans and peas, though during one summer in the stillness of my little English greenhouse I had to go around daily thumping stems and support poles on tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants to loosen the pollen and cause it to shed. But many plants need more help than that. Some have separate male and female plants, and without both genders growing nearby and in bloom at the same time, and without wind or insects spreading the pollen from plant to plant, they are unable to produce fruits. This is why a lot of hollies fail to have winter berries; only the female plants can even make berries, and then only if pollen from a nearby male makes it to the female flowers in the spring. Some plants have both male and female flowers on the same plant. Corn has the male “tassels” at the top, which shed pollen onto the female “silks” protruding from young corn ears. And squashes and cucumbers have separate male and female flowers on the same plants; male flowers are on simple stems, with female flowers on the end of what looks like small squash, cuke, or melon fruitlets. If insects don’t do the work of carrying pollen from male to female, the little fruits-to-be simply shrivel up and fall off. When bees are missing for one reason or another, you can pluck off an open male squash flower, peel off its petals, and use it like a yellow brush to dab pollen inside the open female flowers. Within days you will be eating fully formed fresh squash. By the way, pollen from one type of squash will not affect the flesh or eating quality of another type, but if you save the seeds you will get some sort of weird hybrid. Which explains a lot of gardeners’ finding oddball gourdlike things growing out of their compost bins every summer. To avoid all this, simply plant lots of different flowers in your garden, which can help attract insect pollinators, which in turn can help your veggies out with much-needed pollination.

Slow Gardening Final Pages.indd 194

5/16/11 1:43 PM

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