If you ever thought to teach your children how babies are made, you could always start with fruits and flowers. All kinds of new plants come from backyards either by alert gardeners selecting something that looks different, or by plant enthusiasts puttering around with a paintbrush trying to cross a tall coleus with a short one, or a favorite striped tomato with a cherry type.
All you’re really doing is beating the bees to the pollination punch.
Annuals are the easiest to work with since their lifespan is a single season. And you’ll want to cross like plants with like plants. Trying to cross corn with eggplant won’t work because the personal parts are different.
But closely related plants such as cucumber and cantaloupe can cross, not that you’d want to go there, flavor-wise.
The lesson is in inheritance — how the offspring inherit something from the mother and the father. No telling what the outcome will be, but that is part of the fun.
Let’s say you wanted to breed your own crazy pumpkin this year. You will cross-pollinate your plants this season, the fruit will grow, and then you will harvest the seeds. From these seeds come the offspring. And when the seeds grow, bloom and produce fruit (you won’t pollinate the offspring but let them pollinate themselves), you get your crazy family pumpkin that makes you suddenly famous among your friends.
Pumpkins are really squash. So to make it interesting, you could start a garden this year with a variety of pumpkin and squash plants with plans to cross them. These plants look very much alike, so you will want to label each and every plant.
Note these in your notebook. Oh, yeah — you’ll need a notebook.
The tricky part about squash plants is that you get male and female flowers on the same plant. You can tell them apart because the male flowers grow on skinny stems. The female flowers are larger and have unpollinated squash-like growths below the flower.
You’ll have to keep a daily watch on your squash and pumpkin plants as they begin to flower. Most important, you will want to prevent the bees from getting to them before you do. Don’t sleep late. Squash flowers open in the early morning hours.
When you notice the flowers are about to open — the dark yellow insides begin to appear between the petals, meaning the flowers are mature — you clamp them closed with a rubber band or small piece of string.
With the male and female flowers closed on all your pumpkin and squash plants, you are now the breeder.
Make notes in your notebook as you go so you can remember what you crossed with what. You never know — you could have a famous plant in the end.
On the second day, take a clean, dry watercolor paint brush, open the male flower from one plant, pick up as much pollen as you can with the paintbrush, walk it over to the female flower of the other plant you are crossing it with and apply the pollen to the stigma of the female flower.
Make sure you get plenty of pollen on the female flower stigmas.
Now place a small paper bag over the female flowers to prevent the bees from further pollinating them. Tie off, label and keep the flower secure.
You can let your crossed squashes develop and allow the rest of the plant to pollinate at will, or continue to pollinate female flowers daily. When you feel you have enough crosses, pinch off any further flowers that develop on the plant.
As soon as the flower dries out and you notice the small fruit behind the flower developing, you can remove the bags and let the fruit fully develop to maturity.
This can be as fast as 60 days. In fact, you may be able to harvest seeds from mature squash/pumpkin crosses this summer and get your second crop of offspring by fall.
When the fruit is fully developed (don’t pick underripe fruit; the seeds won’t be mature), open it up and remove the seeds.
These are the babies waiting to be planted. Clean and wash the seeds by rubbing them between your hands under running water. Let them dry thoroughly for a few days before you plant them again the garden.
There is no predicting what kind of offspring you will have — maybe something super-scary for Halloween.
PLANTS THAT CROSS-POLLINATE
To start your pumpkin experiment, look for the same botanically named plants. The botanical name for squashes and pumpkins is Cucurbita.
So look for Cucurbita pepo or Cucurbita moschata. Any members of these squash families cross-pollinate easily with each other.
Cucurbita pepo: Cross any combination of summer squash such as yellow, crookneck, zucchini, patty pan and acorn squash with all kinds of gourds or pumpkins.
Cucurbita moschata: Winter or butternut squash cross-pollinates with Cheese, Dickinson field and Kentucky field pumpkins.
Cucurbita maxima: Hubbard squash cross-pollinates with Big Max, Mammoth Chile, Mammoth Prize and Atlantic Giant pumpkins.