Did you know that cucumbers are one of the top five most popular garden vegetables?
They are also very adaptable; they have been grown in space as well as a mile underground in a nickel mine.
Cucumbers are native to India, where it has been grown for almost 3000 years. Although the first wild cucumbers have never been fully identified, the evidence seems to point to C. hardwickii, an unappetizingly small and very bitter native of the Himalayas. Bitterness, a plague to cucumber lovers throughout the ages, seems to be a natural protective device derived from its wild ancestors. That bitterness comes from cucurbitacins, a terpene derivative, that repels certain insects as well as some humans. Burpless cucumbers are cucumbers bred with no or reduced levels of cucurbitacin.
Cucumbers arrived in America with Columbus where he grew them in an experimental garden the year after his arrival. In 1539, De Soto found the cucumbers grown in Florida better than those grown in Spain.
Interesting tidbit: Physicians of the 17th Century prescribed placing fever patients on a bed of cucumbers so they would become “cool as a cucumber.”
The most famous pickled cucumber of the 19th Century was the one first preserved by H.J. Heinz of Pittsburgh. Heinz began bottling pickles in 1870 as a tasty addition to the monotonous diet of meat and potatoes eaten by most Americans. His idea was not only an instant success, it also spurred interest in cucumber hybridization.
Home gardeners refer to “cukes,” but botanists term this crunchy vegetable Cucumis sativus, a branch of the family Cucurbitaceae. There are over 500 cousins in this extended family, all characterized by trailing vines with rough, hairy leaves. Cucumbers have yellow flowers that bear fruit that may be globular, oblong, or cylindrical. Most cucumbers are a dark green color and have prickly skin when immature but white, yellow, and brown varieties exist also.
Cucumbers are placed in two major categories, either slicing or pickling, based on use. They can be further classified by plant habit, either bush or vining. Using this knowledge, gardeners can choose the best type of cuke for their gardens.
The majority of cucumbers fit into this category. They are eaten fresh from the garden, are elongated and slightly tapered on the ends. Depending upon variety, the mature length can be from 4 to 12 inches.
Mideastern– This type originated in Israel. It differs from other cucumbers because it is burpless and has a smoother, thinner skin. This type is also called beit alpha.
Oriental– This cucumber from Asia has a crispy, sweet taste, and thin skin with some spines. It is harvested at 10 to 12 inches and often grown on trellises so that it forms straight, high-quality fruit.
Greenhouse– This group was primarily bred in Europe, specifically for forcing in greenhouses. Used by commercial greenhouse growers, they are not normally recommended for the home garden.
Pickling Cucumbers– This class is used for preserving as pickles. Most pickling varieties are versatile, usable at all stages of growth. Pick cukes at 1 inch or up to 5 inches for a large dill pickle. Some varieties can be used fresh as a slicing type. Gherkin pickles are immature pickling cucumbers. They are small, usually only an inch or two in length. They are also known for their numerous spines and warty skin.
Sex and a Choice of Bloomers
Some plants produce two different kinds of flowers on the same plant—male and female. The sex of the flower is important since only female flowers produce the fruit. Male flowers produce pollen. A cucumber plant might be flowering prolifically, yet not set fruit since the flowers may be all male. Gardeners are offered a choice of the male/female flowers on cucumbers they wish to grow. The choices are monoecious and gynoecious.
Monoecious [muh–nee-shuhs] cucumbers produce male and female flowers on the same plant. All open-pollinated cultivars are monoecious. Some hybrids are monoecious. The advantage to the gardener is that the pollen and the fruit-producing flowers are on the same vine. The gardener can sit back and let the bees pollinate. One disadvantage might be later maturing fruit but breeders are working on that.
Gynoecious cucumbers produce predominantly all female flowers. All flowers have the potential to bear fruit. The advantage is a higher and more concentrated yield. The disadvantage is that there MUST be a plant nearby that produces male flowers to pollinate the female flowers. When you choose a gynoecious cucumber, there will be pollinator seeds in the seed packet. The pollinator plants produce the pollen for the “all-female” plants. Remember that stress during the growing period can create gynoecious varieties to produce male flowers.
Another solution is for a gardener to plant gynoecious cucumbers that are parthenocarpic. A parthenocarpic cucumber produces only female flowers that DO NOT NEED pollen to set fruit. This results in higher yields. The plants can be grown under row covers to protect them from insects and still produce fruit. The disadvantage is that if the female flowers are pollinated by another plant’s pollen, the fruit can be misshapen with a lump or curve. To minimize cross-pollination, gardeners could grow ONLYparthenocarpic plants in their garden.
Each type of cucumber has advantages and disadvantages. The choice is left for the gardener, based on desired yield and use.
How to Grow
Cucumbers like to bask in the sun, so choose a site in full sun. Soil should be light, fertile, and well-drained. Amending the soil with plenty of compost or well-rotted manure will ensure good yields.
How much space is allotted to the cucumber patch depends on the variety chosen so check seed packets or plant labels.
Seeds should be sown when the soil has warmed up to 70°F. Sow a seed every 6 inches at a depth of 1 inch. Cover with light soil or sand, firm well, and keep moist. Seedlings should emerge in about a week. When the plants are 2 inches high, thin them to 1 foot apart. An alternative method is to plant in a series of hills 4 to 5 feet apart. A hill is simply a mound of soil 1 foot in diameter. Start by sowing four or five seeds, then thin to three per hill.
In short summer areas, gardeners may wish to get a jump on the season by starting cucumbers indoors. Plant seeds in individual peat pots or a similar container about two or three weeks before the last frost. Harden the seedlings off for several days before planting them out in the garden.
Cucumbers are among the thirstiest of vegetables and prefer long, deep watering rather than frequent sprinklings. Mulching will repay the gardener’s efforts threefold. Once the seedlings have grown a few inches, put down a 3 to 4-inch layer of organic mulch or cover.
Cucumbers are heavy feeders. A side dressing of 5-10-10 fertilizer at the time of planting and once a month thereafter is sufficient.
It’s true that cucumbers are greedy for space, but they adapt well to vertical growing. A lattice, trellis, or “A” frame with netting is simple to construct and easy to incorporate into a garden design. Use a structure at least 6 feet high and place it a few inches off the ground to allow for air movement. Help the young cucumber plants find the structure by placing their tendrils around the support and tying them. Continue training vines up the support as needed. Growing cucumbers vertically produces straight, blue-ribbon quality cucumbers.
Cucumbers can easily be grown in containers on a patio, deck, or in hanging baskets. The bush slicing varieties produce full-size fruits and are ideal for container gardening. Wooden tubs, half wine barrels, or any large container with drainage holes can be used. The standard cultural advice still applies lightweight soil mix, fertilizer, and plenty of water.
There are three rules for harvesting cucumbers-pick, pick and pick! If mature fruit is left on the vine, the plant figures it has finished production and will stop setting new fruit.
Most cucumbers reach maturity in 50 to 65 days. The fruit will be firm to the touch and the skin will have a uniform dark green color. To avoid damage to the vine, cut or clip the cuke from the plant rather than twisting or pulling it. Refrigerate as soon as possible for the freshest flavor.
Cucumbers are not only easy to grow but delicious because of the fresh, crisp, and cool flesh. Enjoy the fruits of your harvest in salads and salsas, on sandwiches, or made into pickles.
No matter how you slice them, cucumbers are good-tasting as well as good for you.
“This post is provided as an education/inspirational service of All-America Selections. Please credit and link to All-America Selections when using all or parts of this article.”