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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


  • Gene @The California Table

    wondering about promoting more flowers (and thus, more fruit) at the same time as we hand pollinate? Usually plants will produce new blooms if gardeners remove spent flowers right away (deadheading); a response to the plants’ drive to reproduce.
    so, I wonder whether breaking off male blooms to hand pollinate the female flowers would provoke the plant into producing more flowers?
    Plus, I like to EAT squash flowers and usually focus on picking male blossoms for eating. I bet you all at Homestead and Chill also cook with squash flowers 🙂
    Have you experimented with this or do you know of any evidence that breaking off male flowers encourages productivity?
    Thank you!

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      That’s an interesting point about deadheading flowers but I am not sure that it necessarily promotes more flowers although plucking male flowers likely allows the plant to focus on fruit development. If you do hand pollinate the female flowers, you may as well pick the male flowers after they are of use to you, you may miss out on a few extra fruit this way but our plants usually supply us with more than enough squash. Let us know how the season goes for you and enjoy those squash blossoms!

  • Hidesertgirl

    I pollinate tomato flowers using an electric tooth brush. I vibrate the stem just below the
    flower and the pollen bursts out. The vibration simulates a bee. It works!

    • Kim

      I just learned about this while shopping for plants…another customer who had been gardening for 0ver 20 years was given this bit of knowledge only last year. We’re ready with a paintbrush and may go for the vibrating child’s toothbrush, too!

    • Michelle Colston

      Does hand pollinating work on female flowers that haven’t opened yet? I’ve had a couple fruits that started wilting (unpollinated) bc the flower never opened…

      • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

        Hi Michelle, the flower should open at some point but we have peeled open older flowers and pollinated them, especially if it has only been a day or two since they were open.

  • Beth

    We have lots of fun using saved seed! We always plant about 3 varieties of summer squash and at least 3 varieties of winter squash with new seeds. We also however also plant saved seeds and thoroughly enjoy the different fruits. Zumpkins (zucchini/pumpkin crosses) and squmpkins (spaghetti squash/pumpkin crosses) being the favourites. If you love squash- this is worth it! Our squmpkins provided 6-12 cups of very tasty food each!

  • John Wallace

    Thanks and very well done ,loved the sense of humor, from New Zealand. Just starting our spring and like last year very wet. Lost heaps last year which I put down to it being wetter than normal but now I know.. Like every tomatoe flower has to be a tomatoe , I ensure they are all pollinated morning and night , the same now with my courgettes / zucchinis . Many thanks.

  • Jane

    Interesting and helpful! I wondered what had happened to my teeny squash. Off to check out the flowers now.
    (P. S. Turn off the radio in the background next time 😉 )

  • Chris

    Not all squash are the same species. there are 4 species, and some can cross pollinate each other, while other combinations don’t work, so it’s complicated.

    Cucurbita pepo is acorn, delicata, and summer squash, zucchini, and pumpkins

    Cucurbita moschata is any of the beige squash, including butternut, long-island-cheese, canada-crookneck etc…

    cucurbita maxima is hubbard, buttercup, and many of the larger squash.

    Cucurbita argyrosperma is Cushaw squash.

    Squash within the same species can always cross pollinate. Squash in different species can sometimes cross pollinate. certain combinations work better than others. Pepo can cross with argyrosperma. moschata can cross with any other species. maxima only crosses with moschata.

  • Mary Weatherby-Berg

    Found you today…gonna give you a try. Your life story is very interesting. So glad you found your true calling and your passion!

  • Luli

    Wow this is so helpful to know! Last summer EVERY SINGLE ZUCCHINI on my plant rotted and died off. I was so frustrated I gave up and pulled out the whole plant out to make room for something else. I will try this method. Thank you 🙂

  • Samantha

    Hi! I’ve tried hand pollinating them but they still don’t make it. Do I need to pollinate them a few times in a few days? Or…?

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      Hi Samantha, I’m not sure what the problem could be? Usually hand pollinating the squash once is sufficient provided your using viable pollen from a male squash flower. If your squash plant is young, sometimes they need some time to adjust before producing fruit regularly. Blossom end rot due to a lack of calcium in the soil or dry conditions can also lead to fruit falling off prematurely. Hope that helps and good luck!

      • Esther

        Thank you for this! I either get male or female flowers on alternating weeks, so try to hand pollinate like you described I’m wondering how long a male flower will keep in the fridge, or what would be your preferred way to keep the pollen fresh?

        • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

          Hi Esther, the flower would probably last for some time in the fridge. The one thing that will be a problem for the pollen is moisture, with that, just be sure to keep the flower dry and the pollen should stay viable for some time. Usually as squash grows you get a better mix of male and female flowers so it will usually even out with time. Hope that helps and good luck!

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