Sunday, July 15, 2012

Assistant Pollinator

Watching bees and butterflies with their hairy legs clothed in gold pollen pantaloons as they buzz my garden fascinates me. While I do not want to let my leg hairs grow until they can collect yellow nodules of plant magic, I have joined the effort to pollinate my tomato blooms.

Last year, I optimistically planted 15 tomato and 12 pepper plants in our raised-bed garden. In the early, hopeful part of summer, I anticipated making quarts and quarts of salsa to fill empty pantry shelves to bulging. Sadly, I harvested 15 tomatoes the whole summer. The heat decimated my garden, leaving my jars and pantry empty.

This year, I risked early frost to plant six  carefully selected tomato plants as well as two pepper plants in early April  To further guarantee more than a 15 tomato harvest, I planted three rows of flowers—one each of zinnias, cosmos, and bachelor buttons—to encourage more bees and butterflies to visit my prairie oasis.

So far, my efforts have been fruitful. We have harvested dozens of tomatoes with more on the vine. The dilemma is the heat. It tends to prevent pollination and thus, a ongoing crop.

I have read about heat’s effect on tomato development. However, I have not determined whether it is a result of heat affecting developing tomatoes or the temperature’s effect on insects that fertilize blossoms.

To determine the solution, I decided to play pollinator. No, I didn’t let my leg hairs grow to collect pollen to transfer from one blossom to another. I robbed my watercolor box of its paintbrush. 
With watercolor brush in hand, I visit my garden in dawn’s cool temperatures. Moving from bloom to bloom, I tickle stamens and pistils of tomato blossoms to assist resident pollinators. I also give the blossoms a little vibrating shake to trick them into thinking I am a great big bee or butterfly doing its job.

My big dilemma is that I cannot tell if the reason I have more tomatoes is that I planted rows of flowers to attract more insects to my garden or if it is because I use a paintbrush to transfer pollen from one plant to another. 

I do know that it is as hot day and night this summer as last, so something I am doing has made a difference in tomato production. We have harvested enough ripe fruit to make fresh salsa, tomato soup, BLT’s, along with a dessert of salted and peppered sliced tomatoes.

My hope is that six tomato plants will produce enough fruit to can a dozen jars of salsa. More than that is an overflow of blessings.

Regardless of whether an insect or paintbrush filament is pollinating my six plants this, tomatoes dangle from vines like green Christmas balls. That beats the heck out of 15 lovely plants producing nothing but green leaves and tomato worms.

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