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Beginner Basics,  Flowers,  Grow Guides

Squash Sex: How to Hand Pollinate Squash to Prevent End Rot & Increase Yields

Have you ever tried to grow squash, but then much to your dismay, the promising little squash rots and falls off instead of getting larger? Well… that is most likely due to a lack of pollination! But don’t worry! There is a very easy solution. It has to do with “the birds and the bees” ~ or a lack thereof!

If you hope to have big healthy zucchini this summer, read along to learn all about hand pollination! Let’s explore the difference between male and female flowers, and exactly why, when and how to hand pollinate your squash plants. Check out the video at the end of this post to watch me pollinate ours!

A photo of large zucchini plant in a wood raised bed. There are large zucchini fruit hanging down over the edge of the planter box. In the background are a variety of large plants with flowers, out of focus. The raised bed is surrounded with blue-green gravel and stepping stones.
Many people wonder about the pattern on the leaves. No, that isn’t mildew or disease, though it does look similar! Many squash and melon varieties have a natural variegated leaf pattern. This Dunja zucchini is actually naturally resistant to powdery mildew! Mildew will usually look a little less uniform, more raised and fuzzy, and start on the underside of the leaves first.

Why Hand Pollinate Squash?

When a female squash blossom goes unpollinated, the small attached fruit will fail to thrive and develop. It will stay stunted, start to rot from the flower end, and eventually die and fall off. Therefore, if you want to ensure your plants produce edible fruit for you to enjoy, hand pollination can vastly increase their success – and your yields!

This idea applies to summer squash, like zucchini or crookneck squash, as well as winter squash like butternut, pumpkins, or acorn squash.

If you live in a place that has a robust, healthy bee population, you may not find the need to do this. Unfortunately, that is not the case in most places. Even here in our garden, which is bursting with pollinator-friendly plants and buzzing with bees, we find that some squash still fall off due to lack of pollination on occasion! So I still routinely hand-pollinate. I mean, why not guarantee success?

For a list of plants that will help attract pollinators to your garden check out our “Top 23 Plants for Pollinators” article!

Male vs Female Squash Blossoms

The first thing you need to know if you want to hand pollinate squash is how to tell the difference between the male and female flowers. And, each of their roles in pollination and fruit development! As with many things in this world, both a male and female are needed to create new life.

A female squash blossom is most easily identified by the little immature squash fruit that is attached at the base of the flower. Additionally, if you peek inside the flower, the inner bits are more round and curvaceous. That is called her stigma.

On the contrary, a male squash blossom lacks any sort of fruit. Instead, it has a straight plain stem at the end of the flower. Inside is his anther – an appendage with a pollen-covered tip. See the images below.

Three photos showing the difference between male and female squash blossoms. One shows a male, with a straight pollen covered anther inside the blossom. The female shows a more bulbous stigma part inside. At the base of the male is a straight stem. The female flower has a small immature zucchini.

How to Hand Pollinate Squash

In order to hand-pollinate squash, all you need to do is transfer some pollen from the male flower’s anther onto the female flower’s stigma. It is really as easy as that! Let’s go over a few pointers though.

You can use a few different methods to transfer the pollen from the male to female flower. Some folks rip off the male flower entirely, peel back its petals, and rub the anther directly on the female stigma. I personally don’t love this method… I prefer to leave the blossom in place for the bees, or for later use! Others use a Q-tip. In my experience, a lot of the pollen sticks to the Q-tip itself, leading to less pollen transferring from flower to flower.

This leads us to my favorite method: using a dainty paint brush! I simply collect some pollen from the male, spread some onto the female stigma (or many ladies), and it’s done! Using a paintbrush is really effective, but also feels fun and fancy! Note that I typically use a smaller paintbrush to hand pollinate than what is shown in the video and photos. I can’t currently find my go-to brush…

An image of a small paint brush, covered in yellow pollen. There is a large squash plant in the background that is out of focus. Also smaller images showing the paintbrush inside the male squash blossom, collecting pollen, and another showing the paint brush wiping on the inside of the female flower.
Collect pollen from the male, and deposit it on the female. Boom! Done.

Once the pollen has been transferred to the lady bloom, she will be happy. The immature squash will now grow big and strong! Remember, bigger isn’t always better – especially in the zucchini world! We prefer to harvest our squash at a nice medium size. When squash are allowed to grow too large, they become more tough, pithy, and seedy.

When to Hand Pollinate Squash

Give them some love as soon as they open! And by love, I mean pollen of course.

I have found that most of our squash blossoms open in the morning, and close up by the evening, so checking daily is important if you want to get to them all. However, sometimes they can open at various times of day, so morning isn’t necessarily a steadfast guarantee. If you miss the initial bloom – don’t fret! You can usually carefully peel open blooms that have already opened and closed to access their insides for a couple days after. This goes for both males and female flowers, which is just one more reason to not pick off the males!

Speaking of males and females… I often hear of people experiencing frustration because they have only male flowers, or only female flowers, and not both at the same time. Early in the season, some squash plants do produce one or the other more heavily. They will even out and catch up as the plant matures, usually within a few weeks! Hang tight.

Two side by side images of the same young squash from the same angle. It is small with a large open flower on the left, and larger with the flower now closed on the right - four days after pollination and noticeably larger.
Four days after being hand pollinated. The squash is growing quickly!

To help ensure there will be a good mix of male and female flowers open around the same time, we always grow several squash plants! Did you know you can use the pollen from one squash plant to pollinate the female on another plant, even if they’re a different variety? Yep. You sure can!

Cross-Pollinating Squash

Are your squash plant is coming up short, with either male or female flowers lacking? The good news is: any summer squash male can be used to pollinate a female bloom of a different variety within the summer squash family! For example, you can use a crookneck or yellow squash male to pollinate a green zucchini female. Furthermore, this rings true for the winter or hard squash family too! Pumpkins, butternut, acorn, spaghetti squash, or similar can be used to hand pollinate one another.

Truth be told, in a pinch – any squash can technically cross-pollinate any other squash, regardless if it is a summer or winter variety. They’re all the same species! However, I have heard you get the best fruit development by using summer types for summer types, and winter for winter.

After cross-pollination, the resulting squash fruit will still develop into the designated variety of the mother plant. However, you will likely have issues if you attempt to seed-save from that fruit to grow more in the future. The next generation will not breed true due to the cross pollination that occurred. The fruit that grows from those saved seeds will result in something is different from either of the parent plants.

However, keep in mind that bees will naturally cross-pollinate the squash plants in your garden too! The only way to prevent that is to grow only one variety of squash in a controlled environment. Most home gardeners I know like to plant more than one variety of squash!

We are perfectly okay with this scenario. Instead of attempting to seed-save squash, we simply buy more new seeds every few years. Yes, you can successfully grow plants from seeds that are past their “best by” date! Just sow a few extra as they age. Plus, getting fresh seed enables us to try new varieties. Therein lies the beauty of gardening – trying new things!

So, are you ready to try your hand at pollinating squash?

Here is a video of the very quick-and-easy process. Don’t mind my sense of humor.

Check out our YouTube channel for more videos by clicking here!

It is really THAT simple.

And now you’re off! Go hunt down some squash flowers and help them have sex. May you be blessed with plenty of healthy zucchini this summer. If you find yourself with some large overgrown squash, you should try our Fiesta-Style Stuffed Squash recipe! Loaded with wild rice, black beans, veggies, flavor, and protein… you can’t go wrong.

I hope you found this helpful! Please feel free to ask questions, and spread the squash sex lovin’ by sharing this post!

DeannaCat's signature - Keep on Growing


  • Lathilde Froad

    I echo what others have said – this video and explanations were the best I’ve seen – detailed and simple enough to help the novice – I was afraid of damaging the blossoms before – I tried this this morning and I’m hoping for some good results — who knew I could be a bee ?

    thank you for the very informative education … we don’t know what we don’t know –

  • HappyCyclist

    I forgot to ask. I found a few ants crawling around my squash plant. Is this something you’ve encountered in your raised box? Because the squash plant came from the compost, and I had lots of ants in the compost derived from vegetable cuttings, pasta water and/or rice water. I used this batch of compost as fertilizer and to plant the squash. Is it common to find ants in your garden box? And is it something to beware about? Thank you, Deanna.

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      Ants are everywhere and are very difficult to get rid of, especially outdoors. We have ants that come out of most of our raised garden beds every time we water. As long as the ants aren’t actively farming aphids on your plants they don’t do much damage otherwise. Thanks.

  • happycyclist

    Thank you for this timely video, because I finally have squash growing in my backyard. I got six of these growing accidentally from making compost! I call this “accidental gardening.” This morning my husband said that a flower has bloomed. I quickly ran outside to start the pollination process, but alas, I found only one female flower and 2 males closed tight. The timing of squash romance is not ready. My squash plant looks like yours, and I have a large one growing and it looks like an acorn shaped squash – not your typical oblong zucchini shaped squash. Hmm…

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      If it’s the morning and the flowers are closed, they are either young or old. If the flowers are slightly wilty and closed, they are most likely older and the male flowers can be manually opened to collect pollen from. They won’t have as much as fresh flowers but it usually works.

  • Mellie0514

    This video was by far the very best on hand pollinating that I have seen. Thank you so very much for posting it with such clear pictures of the lady flower and the male flower. VERY helpful!!
    I did go ahead and pull 2 male blooms off one of my plants and put them in a ziploc bag in the fridge, only because I don’t have any lady flowers ready to pollinate at this time. I’ve pollinated 2 ladies by hand, and so far the zucchini have not dropped off and are growing (I’d lost 7 by not knowing how to do this!!!). I’m so excited! I may get some zucchini from my garden yet this summer!
    Again, thank you so much for your excellent video!

  • Killoran

    Excellent video. Very informative and well filmed. The flower parts and even the pollen were super clear.

    I do have one small issue, however. re: “… any squash can technically cross-pollinate any other squash, regardless if it is a summer or winter variety. They’re all the same species!”

    I agree that most garden varieties of squash are all Cucurbita pepo and all pepos will cross breed like little bunnies, but before attempting to pollinate one squash with another it’s best to be sure. There are four common Cucurbits grown by gardeners. I am currently growing a C maxima, Red Kuri. I’ve grown other Hubbards and Peanut pumpkins (Galeux d’Eysine) in previous years, but I’m seed saving the maximas this year so I only planted one variety.. I have a C moschata going as well this year, the huge butternut Southern Crookneck. Other butternuts and a variety called cheese pumpkins are also C moschata. I did not find any C. mixta this year, but examples are Cushaws, Jack be Littles and a variety of ornamental squash. And, since I’m not seed saving any pepos this year I have several of them growing.

    So much is possible, but it’s unlikely my butternuts will cross pollinate with my zucchinis or the Hubbard. Just be careful. Keep up the great work!

  • Amy Beckel

    Hello, and thanks for such good (and fun!) information. Have you ever tried using zucchini to pollinate cucumbers? I’m going to try, since I have lots of male zucchini blossoms but very few male cucumber blossoms. I do have lots of tiny, shriveled, un-pollinated cukes though.

    Thanks for your help!

    • DeannaCat

      Hey there! No, I don’t think you can use squash to pollinate cukes, but you can follow the same process described in this article to pollinate the cucumbers with other cucumber flowers! Best of luck!

    • SH

      Nope… that will not work, they are different species (zuccini: Cucurbita pepo, cucumbers: Cucumis sativus). If you look at the scientific name, that will show you if it is a match and can cross pollinate (it is usually on your seed packet, or you can search it online). If the first scientific name is different, you are good to go. If the first name is the same, look at the second name. If the second part of the scientific name is different, then they usually do not cross. Some cross easier than others. Search for a seed saving guide for more info. as there are free ones available online. If you find a good one, print it to a pdf and save it to your computer as things go missing online all the time. The one I wanted to send you a link to is no longer working… glad I saved it! Hope this helps.

  • Terry Sheeran

    This was the best YouTube video I’ve seen about hand pollination. Thank you so much for the up close and personal demonstration!

  • Cheryl

    Hello! Thanks for this info on hand pollinating. Do you also recommend pruning the lower leaves and overlapping leaves (from two plants) to increase production?

    • DeannaCat

      Hi Cheryl, I don’t think that would necessarily impact production – but it could help increase airflow between the plants and reduce the issues with disease and pests if they’re overly crowded. If you didn’t see it, you may be interested in reading our “How to Grow Summer Squash/Zucchini” article for more tips. Thanks for being here!

  • Jacelyn Tyson

    Do I need to wait until my male and female zucchini blossoms are about that size before pollinating them? Mine are currently about a third of the size of the ones in your video.

    • DeannaCat

      Hi Jacelyn – No, as soon as they’re open, either are ready for pollination! Different squash varieties may have different size flowers too. Good luck!

      • Nikki

        Thank you so much for this information. I have begun hand pollinating my blossoms on my summer squash varieties, however, I am still struggling to keep my baby squash from shriveling and falling to the ground. Any other tips or short falls I should be watching for?

  • Sally

    Hello! My first two blossoms on my squash plants were lady blossoms, so they weren’t able to get pollinated. Now that the flower is shriveling up, where/how do I prune them? Just the flower? Or all the way at the base of the fruit?

    Thanks for your help!

    • DeannaCat

      Hi Sally, we usually just leave the flower and fruit and don’t bother with removing the flower. They will usually just wilt away and fall off eventually anyway. You can still allow the squash to grow a little bit but be sure to harvest it before it has signs of end rot which usually occurs on unpollinated fruit. Good luck and have fun!

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