Assistant Pollinator

Jun 14, 2013


Watching bees and butterflies with pollen-coated legs buzz about my garden fascinates me. While I don’t plan to grow my leg hair until it can collect yellow nodules of plant magic, I have decided to join these insects’ efforts to pollinate my tomato blooms.

A few years ago, I optimistically planted 15 tomato and 12 pepper plants in our raised-bed garden. In the early, hopeful part of summer, I expected to make quarts and quarts of salsa to stack one atop the other on empty pantry shelves. Sadly, I harvested only 15 tomatoes over the entire summer. Scorching heat decimated my garden, leaving jars, pantry, and taste buds empty.

The next year, I risked frost to plant six carefully selected tomato as well as two pepper varieties in early April. To guarantee more than a 15 fruit harvest, I planted three rows of flowers—one each of zinnias, cosmos, and bachelor buttons. I wanted to encourage more bees and butterflies to visit my prairie oasis and dash from blossom to blossom, spreading golden pollen.

So far, my efforts have been fruitful (pun intended). We’ve harvested dozens of tomatoes with more ripening on the vine. The dilemma is what I’m seeing on the outdoor thermostat. That little red line inches a little higher each day as temperatures rise. That tends to prevent pollination and thus, an ongoing crop. I fear that as days and nights get hotter, fewer blossoms will produce goodies for my table.

I spent considerable time reading about heat’s effect on tomato development. However, I couldn’t determine whether lack of harvestable crop is a result of heat affecting fruit development or its effect on insects that fertilize blossoms.

To determine the solution, I decided to play pollinator. No, I didn’t let my leg hairs grow to collect yellow particles to transfer from one blossom to another. I robbed my watercolor box of its paintbrush. 

With red handled/black bristled tool in hand, I visited my garden in dawn’s cool temperatures. Moving from bloom to bloom, I tickled stamens and pistils of tomato blossoms to assist resident pollinators. I also gave the blossoms a vibrating shake to trick them into thinking I was a big  ol’ bee or butterfly doing its job.

After all that extra time and effort, the dilemma was that I couldn’t tell if the reason I had more tomatoes was that I planted rows of flowers to attract more insects to my garden or if it was because I used a paintbrush to transfer pollen from one plant to another.  I quickly recognized the flaw in my experiment’s design.

I do know that it was as hot day and night that summer as the previous one, so something I did made a difference in tomato production. We harvested enough ripe fruit to make fresh salsa, tomato soup, BLT’s, as well as serve desserts of salted and peppered tomato slices.

Despite poor technical planning in terms of knowing why I harvested more tomatoes that year than the last, the result was worth a dozen jars of salsa in the pantry. Regardless of whether an insect or paintbrush filament fertilized my six plants, tomatoes dangle from vines like green Christmas balls. That beats the heck out of 15 lovely plants producing nothing but green leaves and tomato worms.