Seed Saving: How to Save Squash Seeds
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Find male and female flower buds in late afternoon or early evening the day before they are due to open. You can tell these “ripe and almost ready” buds by size and the fact that they are starting to color up. Tape them shut. (You don’t tape earlier, because the buds would grow enough to rip holes in the bud as it expanded against the confining tape.) I use strapping tape. Masking tape doesn’t work as well since it’s wet here in the morning. Ideally, you would like two male buds for every female bud we plan to pollinate. It takes all the pollen from two males to fertilize all the ova and give us the most seed. Using two males also makes it more likely that the pollination will “take,” that is, set a fruit instead of aborting. It’s useful to put a stake with a marker near taped buds so you can find them again easily.
Then you come back the next morning. The big buds we taped would have opened into flowers by then if left unmolested, but the tape prevents that. At some point in the morning, depending upon temperature and moisture, the pollen in the male buds starts “dehiscing,” that is, shedding. (The pollen turns bright yellow, fluffy, and loose, and comes off easily.) Dehiscence occurs slightly later in sealed buds than in open, untaped flowers. So just notice when bees start working the patch, and check out a taped male bud or two to see if they are ready. (It can be as early as 6:00 a.m. here on warmer, drier days, as late as 10:00 a.m. on cool days when I watered recently.) If you wait too long, the pollen drops from the anthers and can’t be easily recovered and used.
Pluck a couple of taped male flowers, take them over near the taped female flower you want to pollinate, and rip the tape (and the end of the petals) off the male flowers and strip off the petals so that each becomes a paintbrush topped with pollen. Then rip the tape (with the end of the petals) off a female flower, and holding a male flower by its stem, gently daub pollen onto all three parts of the female flower’s stigma. Repeat with the second male flower. Retape the female flower (with fresh tape, now somewhat lower down on the petals). Keep an eye out for bees and work fast once you open the taped flowers. Bees are not above diving right into a flower just as soon as you take the tape off. Record both the female and male parent on a piece of surveyor’s tape you loop gently around the vine near the stem of the pollinated female flower. (I number all the plants in the patch with a number based upon row number and position in the row.) When the fruit is ready for harvest, tie the surveyor’s tape around the fruit stem. Hand-pollinations take best when they are on the first few flowers of the season, and on the first flower or two of any particular vine. In addition, these flowers produce the biggest, most mature fruits, which give the biggest, most vigorous seed. In addition, fruits, including hand-pollinated fruits, often abort in very hot or overly dry weather. Later-season hand-pollinations are likely to take only if I strip off all the fruits on the vine that are already developing. On any vine upon which I want a hand-pollination, I strip off all open-pollinated flowers or fruits until I have made the hand-pollination. On those first few flowers on each vine early in the season, in good weather, nearly all my hand-pollinations take. A month later, when each vine has set multiple fruits, close to none of my hand-pollinations take, unless I strip off all preexisting fruit. (Then about two-thirds take.)
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