Some of the food crops we grow need pollination and others do not. Use this simple tip to remember which fruits and vegetables need help from insects like bees or the wind to produce a harvest. This is helpful for anyone growing in polytunnels, cold frames, or indoors.
I share my favorite week-by-week vegetable garden seed sowing plan here.
Which Fruits & Vegetables Need Pollinators
If you are growing fruits or vegetables in some sort of enclosed space like a polytunnel, cold frame, greenhouse, or even indoors at home like I do, the question comes up, will I need pollinators to produce crops?
After all, in addition to extending the growing season and controlling climate, growing fruits and vegetables in an enclosed space helps reduce pest populations and we don’t want to give up that benefit if we don’t have to.
But can we produce food crops without pollinators?
The answer depends on what you’re growing. And, while there are always exceptions, there is a general rule you can follow to keep it simple.
Sort your crops into two groups: fruits and vegetables—but not the usual way.
Group one is “fruits”.
The word “fruit” here is used in the botanical sense meaning anything with a seed inside, whether the fruit is sweet or not.
Most of the vegetables we eat are the fruits of flowering plants.
Examples include tomatoes, squashes, and peppers.
It also includes all the things we commonly call fruits like apples and berries. These plants first flower, and, if fertilized, then produce fruit.
Fruits either need or benefit from pollination to produce a crop.
Bonus tip: always give fruiting food crops priority for sunny locations in the garden—they may not reach maturity without full sun. You can read more tips like this here: Beginner Garden Bloopers.
Group two are “vegetables”, meaning the parts of plants that don’t have seeds. This can be leaves, stems, immature flowers, or roots.
Examples include lettuces, asparagus, broccoli, beets, and onions.
Again, this is just concerning crops we grow for food. If you want this vegetable group to set seed instead (for seed saving), pollination will likely be required once the plants are flowering. But it’s not needed for the food production stage.
As I was researching this, I found some interesting exceptions, but unless you know the specific varieties you are growing and can look up their individual pollination needs, error on the side of caution and assume, if it’s in the fruit group that pollination is needed.
I’ve made lists that you can save to your computer or print out (see below).
Lots of the vegetables in this group are perfect for winter growing as well.
Fruit & Vegetable Pollinator Groups
1Fruits & Berries With Seeds
Yes – Pollination is Required or Beneficial
Pollinators vary by plant species having co-evolved with the various flower colors, sizes, and shapes.
They may include:
- Honey bees
- Solitary bees
- Stingless bees
- Carpenter bees
- Orchid bees
- Squash bees
- Hover flies
- Blow flies
- Wind, and more.
The fruits listed below are the food crops we grow that need some form of pollination, meaning some way for the pollen to be delivered from the anther to the stigma, either by insect or wind.
Even if the plant is self-fertile or self-pollinating, it’s usually best for pollen to be exchanged between varieties for better quality and abundance.
Tomatoes are a good example of this. While they have “perfect” flowers, meaning each flower has both male stamen and female stigma, and theoretically they have what’s needed to pollinate themselves, in order to move the pollen, some agitation by wind or your hand is often needed.
Related: Do Plants Have Sexes?
Blueberries also have perfect flowers, but planting instructions always recommend having at least one other variety nearby to ensure the benefits of genetic diversification in berry production. One plant alone may produce a small crop but a cross-pollinated plant will provide better quality and numbers.
What about seedless varieties like a seedless watermelon? Yes, they’re still fruits and still need pollinators.
If you’re growing a crop that needs pollination in a protected space, it should be opened up to the outdoors on sunny days when the plant is in flower and insects are flitting about.
Indoor growers may need to pollinate by hand.
2Vegetable Leaves, Stems, Roots, and Immature Flowers
No pollination required
Everything in this group does not require pollination because we’re eating other parts of the plant—not fruit.
You’ll also notice that many vegetables in this group can be harvested and eaten at any stage of growth.
- Leafy greens
- Sweet potatoes
1 Peas are “fruits” but do not need a pollinator. I discovered this years ago when mine flowered and fruited indoors with great abundance.
There are lots of opportunities to forage these foods throughout the growing season.
I hope this helps to simplify it. If it fruits, it needs a pollinator. If not, it doesn’t.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛