“My cucurbits aren’t producing fruit “, I hear you cry. I feel your pain, it’s happened to me. Cucumber, melon, courgette (marrow), squash, gourd and pumpkin, are all members of this delicious, watery, succulent family.
Back in the Spring, you took those curiously flat, oval seeds and started them off in pots. You even planted them on their side so that excess water could run off them, improving their chances of germination. You lovingly transplanted them into their growing position when weather and season permitted; a well- drained, fertile sunny spot. You tenderly cared for them, making sure they didn’t get thirsty. You removed caterpillars from them by hand, protected them from every mollusc in the neighbourhood – because word is out – they know there’s a party going on in your garden! In return for your kindness, they put out plenty of fleshy, verdant growth. And then, you could hardly contain your excitement, as you saw the first blousy yellow flower appear. Like a good veggie grower, you’ve planted plenty of insect attractant plants around them to give the flowers the best chance of being pollinated because you know the window of opportunity is small. You waited….and waited…waited some more ….and …nothing! More lush flowers; still nothing. Ah, the curse of the cucurbits!
Cucurbits produce both male and female flowers. Boys come first. The more mature the plant is, the more likely it is to grow some girls. It’s the girls that need to be pollinated to grow your lovely fruit. For that you need the pollen to be transferred from the boy. So, yep! You guessed it. It takes two to cucurbit! So, how do you know which one is male and which one is female? Easy! Mrs C has a miniature fruitlet sitting just behind the flower. Mr C doesn’t.
A young plant will initially put out mostly male flowers. One way to encourage it to produce more girls is to -sorry about this, guys- remove some of the boys. The plant somehow gets the message and starts producing more girls. However, don’t go crazy, this is not a cull! Leave some boys because you need them to pollinate the girls when they grow and she will only be open for a couple of days. This is why you grew all those lovely insect attractant plants nearby! You can pollinate the flowers by hand by taking a male flower off the plant, removing the petals (from smaller flowers such as those produced by the melon), and rubbing the pollen bud around the inside of the female. It’s a bit fiddly but it can help increase your chances of fruit being formed. One male flower can be used to pollinate 3-4 females. I’ve only ever needed to use this hand pollination method for my melon plants growing in the greenhouse.
As the fruit swells and gets heavier it may need some kind of support. Large squashes, melons and pumpkins growing on the ground can be supported by purchasing cradles that allow the air to circulate around the plant and for it to grow evenly. For larger fruits growing vertically you may need to provide a ‘sling’ to prevent their weight breaking the stem of the plant. Old tights or netting is ideal for this. Be as creative as you like!
Once the fruit has started to swell, feed the plant every 10-14 days with a liquid feed high in potassium/potash; such as tomato feed, and continue to make sure the plant doesn’t experience drought. You can remove some of the larger leaves around the fruit to let the sun do its job of ripening. Harvest fruits by cutting them off the plant with stem attached and enjoy – throw your head back and laugh – delighting in the knowledge that you have overcome the curse of the cucurbits!