Pollination By Hand for a Bigger Harvest

Using a Paintbrush to Hand Pollinate & Improve Pear Tree Production

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: Pears on tree in fruit garden. Adobe Stock by Africa Studio

Pollination by hand is not uncommon. It is often used for better crops like squash and melons. This year, I’m going to be using a paintbrush to hand-pollinate my pear trees. The goal isn’t to create paintings of my farm (though that would be delightful). The goal is to improve the pollination of my pear trees and generate a better pear harvest. My humble paintbrush is going to become a creative addition to my arsenal of farm tools.

Pollinate Plants

A few years back, I planted two types of pear trees in my young orchard: Early Gold and Ure. I’ve read varying reports on the fertility of the Early Gold; some say it’s self-fertile, others say it does better with a pollinator and some say it definitely needs a pollinator. I was told at the nursery that Early Gold would benefit from having Ure as a pollinator, hence their pairing in my orchard.

I enjoyed a few pears off the Early Gold in the year of planting, for the trees were already of decent size and the Early Gold had been pollinated at the nursery. The Early Gold has blossomed beautifully every year since, but the Ure pear has been slower to mature, contributing anywhere from zero to a handful of blossoms per year.

The lackluster flower show from my Ure pear has left my Early Gold pear without pollination for its numerous blossoms, and it hasn’t produced any pears since that first year. I’m hopeful my Ure pear will burst into glorious full bloom this spring and solve the problem on its own, but whether it does or not, I’m going to take matters into my own hands and pollinate plants with a paintbrush.

Pollinating squash flowers with a paintbrush.
Pollinating squash flowers with a paintbrush.

Pollination Power

Last year, my mother was having trouble in her garden with the pollination of squash plants. There were honey bees around, but they were focusing on other plants and neglecting the squash flowers. So my mother took an ordinary paintbrush and used it to transfer pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers. The resulting squash harvest was abundant.

I plan to replicate my mother’s success by using a small watercolor paintbrush to pollinate my pear trees. Pear trees have bisexual flowers with both male and female parts, so the key will be transferring pollen from one tree to the other, rather than from male flowers to female flowers. Assuming I get at least a few blossoms on the Ure pear, I’ll gather pollen from those blossoms and deposit them in the blossoms on my Early Gold pear. And I’ll repeat the process in reverse, transferring pollen from my Early Gold blossoms to the Ure blossoms.

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It may take a little bit of time and effort, as the two trees are planted 90 feet apart, and it’s my understanding that pollen must be transferred multiple times to each flower to ensure pollination. When you pollinate plants with a paintbrush, you might not get a masterpiece the first try. But if I can get even a dozen Early Gold and Ure pears to grow, I’ll be happy.

And if my Ure pear doesn’t blossom this year? Well, I won’t be deterred. There’s a very old, very large pear tree growing on a different part of my farm, and it blossoms abundantly every year. If I have to take a handful of paintbrushes, gather a bunch of pollen from the old pear tree, and transfer it to my Early Gold blossoms… so be it! Inspired by my mother and her miracle-working squash blossom paintbrush, I’m definitely going to enjoy a pear harvest this year.

This story about hand pollination was written for Hobby Farms magazine online. Click here to subscribe.

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