Pollination problems caused by drought

by Stephanie Suesan Smith on August 22, 2011

I am getting a lot of questions about plants that bloom profusely, but never fruit, or small fruit start then rot.  Sometimes, this is caused by the heat and sometimes it is caused by poor pollination.  The drought is not helping, either.

Some plants will continue blooming profusely for a long time but will never set fruit.  Tomatoes are a prime example of this.  They are set up so that they set fruit if the temperature is below about 90 degrees.  Once it climbs over that, and stays there for very long, tomatoes won’t set any more fruit.  Some years, such as this year, we go from frigid to burning with no in between.  That means the tomatoes don’t yield much because by the time they were big enough to bear well, it got too hot for them.

Now, before you write and tell me your tomatoes bore all summer, there are exceptions.  Shade cloth helps lower the temperature, being planted close to a building helps, and there are micro-climates all over that work to keep tomatoes bearing.  However, most of them quit when it gets hot.

The other problem that is rearing its ugly head is poor pollination.  Squash are notorious for this.  If your squash grows to about two or three inches then rots, it is having problems with not being pollinated.  Honey bees are having problems and the drought is making things hard on them.  Urban areas have fewer bees and lots more problems with this.

You have two ways to deal with this. You can take steps to attract more pollinators or you can hand pollinate.  Planting flowers that are favorites of  bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds next to your garden can help attract them.  You can get a bee hive and grow your own pollinators, complete with honey.  Many people are doing this.   Check zoning laws and get competent help if you go this route.

Putting water out in a bird bath or some other wide, shallow container will attract birds, bees, and some butterflies.  The drought has left many ponds and creeks dry, so water draws wildlife right now.  Just be sure you elevate it if you do not want small mammals to get in it — skunks get thirsty too, but we usually try to avoid attracting them.

If attracting pollinators doesn’t work, you can pollinate some plants, such as squash.   You basically find the female flowers, which have a tiny squash already forming on them.  Take a male, squashless flower.  Peel the petals off being careful not to knock the pollen off the middle part.  Brush the female flowers with the male flower.  Do this using one male flower for every five or so female flowers.  You should have solved the problem and can look forward to better squash.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Ben from Green Powder August 22, 2011 at 10:45 am

That’s really interesting that you can get a small personal hive. I bet the zoning laws are pretty strict though in most places, especially with the fact that so many people are allergic to bees. But that’s a cool idea nonetheless. Fresh honey and great pollination are both great things.
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Ej from DIY Greenhouse August 22, 2011 at 9:21 pm

I’ve never thought about this as a possible issue – we’ve had an absolute horrid growing summer – with it first being to wet then not wet enough. I know a number of honey vendors at our local farmers market – I’ll be having a conversation with them. Thank you for the idea.


Stephanie Suesan Smith August 23, 2011 at 7:06 am

If you use a greenhouse, you can have that problem, too, because the pollinators cannot get inside to pollinate the flowers.


kevin from boulder landscaping August 23, 2011 at 4:45 pm

I like the idea of planting flowers to attract bees next to the garden. I’ve come across a couple of situations where this would have been helpful and now I know what to do next time I’m faced with this issue.


Christina September 2, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Thanks, Stephanie! I was wondering what happened to my tomatoes this year! The plants looked good right up until early July, when my region of Ontario got zapped by some of the hottest days in the recorded history of that region (and I confess to also planting a bit late this year as I was in the middle of a big move, which didn’t help I’m sure).
At least I know now that it wasn’t due entirely to my own incompetence.


Ruth October 21, 2011 at 7:04 pm

This information is helpful. Everyone realizes that Texas had a drought. Other states like Vermont had unusual gardening weather as well.It rained and flooded in the spring.The summer brought almost no rain. Gardening was a challenge. I don’t have a problem with pollinators. I hang 8 hummingbird feeders.I also plant hummingbird flowers. I had heard of hummingbirds pollinating tomatoes but never witnessed it. Ruth@Hummingbird Guide
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