DIY Pollination

Pollinating tomato plants in Better Farm's aquaponic garden.
Gardening applications such as indoor aquaponics and hydroponics are wonderful for a host of reasons: temperature and climate control, the absence of pests and weeds, and control over the grow cycle. But playing garden god has its consequences; not the least of which being the utter lack of pollinators and helpers-along, namely bees and the wind.

Put simply, there are two types of pollination: same-flower pollination, and multi-flower pollination.
  • Same-flower pollination Veggies and fruits in this category include peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants. In these plants, pollen just needs to be released from one part of a flower to another part in the same flower in order for pollination to occur. Wind is the most common pollinator here, literally “shaking loose” the pollen. Insects, like bees, also help with the vibration of their wings or the physical action of their climbing on flowers moving the pollen around.
  • Multi-flower pollination Plants in this category include cucumbers, melons and squash. These plants produce both male and female flowers. For pollination to occur, pollen must move from the male flower to the female flower. Generally, this is accomplished by insects flying or crawling from one flower to another.
With same-flower pollination, gently shaking or vibrating the plants or individual flowers a few times a week (daily is best) after flowers appear is the most straight-forward way to ensure pollinations.

For plants with male and female flowers, you're going to have to manually transport pollen from male flowers to females. Can't tell which is which?  Male flowers are smaller and you can often see the pollen as “dust” inside. Female flowers tend to be larger and often have a small, unfertilized fruit at their base. For example, with cucumbers, you can actually see a small ½ inch long cucumber at the base of the female flowers. If left unpollinated, this will drop off. If pollinated, it grows into a full-sized fruit.

To fertilize these plants, you can use a Q-tip or tiny paintbrush. Just dab the male flowers a few times and then dab the female flowers and buds. This morning I pollinated tomato plants and clovers using both methods just for due diligence. I'll be knee-deep in aquaponics for the next few weeks repeating the process and capturing pics of the progress. Here are some action shots:


Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.