By the time we are grown-up gardeners it’s likely that most of us have figured out the intricacies of reproduction. While this my be true inside the home, I find an abundance of confusion, half-truths and myths surrounding reproduction outside in the garden, specifically concerning fruit trees, berry crops and fruit-producing shrubs.
Pollination is the process which allows us to enjoy fresh fruits from our own backyard; in fact it’s absolutely essential. A fruiting plant is no different from any other member of the animal world, including Homo sapiens “Gardener,” you and I. Its duty in life is to reproduce, and it does this by producing fruit which contains seeds. If this is to occur, however, both male and female parts of the flowers must join together.
To illustrate the idea of pollination further, come back with me to high school biology class, where sex was more a theory than an actual happening, and concepts weren’t as easily understood as the real thing.
Most plants have flowers which contain both the male (the stamen) and female (the pistil) parts. What do stamens and pistils have to do with the apples, peaches or strawberries in your back yard? Plenty. In order for fruit to develop, the pollen from the stamens on one flower has to be moved to the pistil of another flower of the same family. Pears won’t pollinate apples, cherries won’t pollinate blueberries and so on.
Also, the two plants in the same family have to be different cultivars. You can’t plant two “Anjou” pears and expect them to pollinate each other because, essentially, they came from the same original tree. You need two different varieties to cross-pollinate, and they must bloom at the same time so that both trees have pollen available to transfer to each other.
The pollen doesn’t just walk over to the other tree and plant itself on the pistil, of course. Insects, mainly bees, do that thankless task for us. As bees spend their day visiting 5000 blooms they pick up pollen, a lot of pollen. This pollen gets rubbed into the pistils of other blooms, and several months later you’re picking fresh fruit.
The most important step that gardeners can take to help bees is to not kill them. Using pesticides in the garden when blossoms are present on fruit trees or berry crops is not a good idea. Sevin, for example, is highly toxic to bees and the unsuspecting gardener can easily wipe out a number of bees with one careless application.
Sometimes cool weather in the spring will keep the bee population at such a low level that they are unable to do a proper job. If you suspect that your tree is not being adequately pollinated it could be because the tree is isolated and there is no physical way that the pollen can make it to your location.
In the Okanagan this is not as big a problem as it is in other areas; we have lots of fruit trees around. But it does happen, and here’s what you can do. When your fruit tree is in bloom, go out and cut some blooming branches from a suitable and compatible pollen provider. Put the branches into a bucket of water beneath your tree and wait for the bees to do their work.
If you’re concerned that bees, wonderful as they are, just won’t do, you can take on the task yourself. Take a small artist’s brush and transfer pollen from blossom to bowl, then paint the pollen onto the blossoms of other trees. Time consuming no doubt, but very effective.