Learn about the Birds and the Bees to Boost Garden Yields

PUBLISHED IN THE RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL

Each spring, plants appear in my office. They are from co-workers, Master Gardeners or clients whose seed-starting ambitions exceeded their garden size. The first time this happened, I was not ready.

I placed the tomato plant in my living room, under the window with the best light. It grew big and strong but did not produce a single tomato! Learn from my mistake, and study up on the birds and the bees if you are caring for a vegetable garden, big or small, this year.

Start by learning about flowers. There are three types: male, female and perfect. Male flowers produce pollen. Female flowers, once fertilized by pollen, become fruits or vegetables. Perfect flowers contain both male and female parts.

Plants from the squash family, such as squash, cucumbers and melons, produce separate male and female flowers. Other vegetable garden crops, like beans, peppers and tomatoes, have perfect flowers. No matter the flower, male pollen must reach female eggs in order for fruit to develop. How that happens is called pollination.

Different plants pollinate differently. Some, like corn, let wind do the job. Others rely on help from pollinators. Plants with perfect flowers can self-pollinate, but even they can benefit from a little assistance from wind or the birds and the bees. If a crop does not produce fruit, there may have been a pollination problem.

Take my tomato, for example. Tomatoes produce perfect flowers, but still require a bit of movement for pollination to happen. In my wind- and pollinator-free home, that movement did not occur. Male pollen did not reach female eggs, so fruit could not be produced.

Some gardeners experience pollination problems with plants in the squash family. Insects are needed to move the pollen from the male squash flowers to the separate female flowers. Plant several squash plants to ensure you have both male and female flowers in bloom when pollinators are present.

For great garden yields, protect pollinators so they can do their job. To do that, you will need to know what they look like.

Most people picture honeybees when they imagine a pollinator. But, native bees as well as wasps, ants, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, hummingbirds, birds and bats can be pollinators too. So, if you think you have a pest in the garden or landscape, have it identified by an expert first before taking action.

Not all bugs are bad. Even if your newly identified insect is not a pollinator, it could be beneficial to the garden by eating pest insects.

If you do end up with a pest problem, protect your pollinators by practicing integrated pest management. Visit www.managenvpests.info for more information.

Do not use pesticides while pollinators and other beneficial insects are present, and avoid using systemic pesticides on flowering plants. To help pollinators, consider planting more flowering plants! Flowers attract and give nectar and shelter to beneficial insects.

To learn more about pollinators and other beneficial insects for vegetable gardens, attend the Grow Your Own, Nevada! class held 6-8 p.m. April 18. To learn about vegetable garden pests, attend 6-8 p.m. April 25. For information, visit www.growyourownnevada.com.

Ashley Andrews is the horticulture communications assistant with University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Horticulture questions? Contact a Master Gardener at mastergardeners@unce.unr.edu or visit www.growyourownnevada.com.

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