By Larry Hodgson
The cucumber (Cucumis sativa) is one of the most popular vegetables in home gardens and it is relatively easy to grow both in the ground and in containers. However, sometimes the results are disappointing, with poor production or misshapen or bitter fruits. What do you need to do to grow beautiful cucumbers? Here are a few tips!
1. Choose the right variety for your needs. The biggest mistake gardeners make is buying cucumber seeds or plants even looking to see what is being offered. There are, among others, pickling cucumbers, with small fruits perfect for gherkins, but which do not make good table cucumbers; big, thick table cucumbers that are great slicers, but don’t make good pickles; Lebanese cucumbers, medium-sized with a thin, digestible skin you don’t need to remove; and those long, thin, seedless English cucumbers, which normally need to be grown in a greenhouse or, at the very least, in isolation. You can even choose disease-resistant and insect-resistant varieties, like ‘Marketmore’, and thus avoid major problems later in the season.
2. Wait until things warm up before planting your cucumbers. The cucumber is a tropical plant. There is no point in planting it early in the season. Wait until both the soil and the air have warmed up, with a minimum temperature of 55˙° F (13 ° C) at night. That will normally be about 2 to 3 weeks after the last frost date. Even at 50˙° F (10 ° C) flowering is delayed and production reduced.
3. Start them indoors. This isn’t necessary if you garden in a mild climate, but colder climate gardeners will find sowing their cucumbers indoors about 3 weeks before the last frost date advantageous. This will give young but healthy seedlings to plant out and a bit of a head start on the season. Sow cucumber seeds in peat pots so as not to disturb the roots when transplanting. Don’t sow them too early (a very common beginner’s mistake!) or the plants will become etiolated (stretched) and will have a hard time recuperating. You want to be planting your cucumbers out while they’re still seedlings with their two cotyledons (seed leaves) and no more than 2-3 adult leaves.
4. Give them plenty of sun. Again, remember that the cucumber is a tropical plant. So, the more sunlight it gets, the more tropical the environment and the better it will grow and fruit. Ideally, choose a spot that is sunny in the morning, when the flowers open, because bees also love the sun and will frequent plants more diligently in a zone that is warmed by the morning sun.
5. Give them rich, well-drained soil. A cucumber is a quite voracious plant, so soil rich in compost or well-rotted manure and adequately – but not overly! – fertilized will give best results. If your soil tends to drain poorly (heavy clay, for example), it may be wise to sow them or plant them on a small mound.
6. Let your cucumbers climb. Cucumbers are climbing plants and have the tendrils to prove it! They do best when allowed to grow on a support of some sort: a trellis, a stake, a fence, garden twine, etc. True enough, you can let cucumbers sprawl and there are even bush varieties that were developed to be grown that way, but allowing them to climb, you can grow more plants in less space. Also, more leaves will be exposed to the sun and the fruits won’t touch the ground where they could be damaged by slugs, sow bugs or insects or be more likely to pick up diseases.
7. Water regularly, but not excessively. Cucumbers that are allowed to dry out to the point where the leaves wilt tend to produce bitter or indigestible fruit. If they are watered too often, on the other hand, rot can occur. Aim for deep watering as soon as the soil begins to feel dry to the touch. That can perhaps be every 4 or 5 days during a heat wave and even more often if the plants are grown in pots. To keep the soil more evenly moist, cover the root zone with about 3 inches (7.5 cm) of mulch such as shredded leaves, straw or compost. That will keep the soil cooler and moister, reducing evaporation.
8. Hand-pollinate the female flowers if bees are absent. Bees tend to shirk their pollinating duties when temperatures are extremely hot or cold or when it’s raining. Yet the female flower, the one that must be pollinated to bear fruit, only lives one day. If it receives no pollen during those few short hours of sunlight, it will drop off without producing a fruit or, if it receives only a partial dose of pollen, the fruit will be misshapen. So, harvest a male flower (one with no fruit at the base), remove its petals and use it as a brush, pushing its pollen-covered tip into the female flower (the one with a fruit at the base) and thus coating its pistil, the club-shaped growth in the center, with yellow pollen.
Helpful Hint: What? No female flowers yet? Just be patient! Cucumbers normally only produce male flowers at the very beginning of season. Over time, female flowers will start to appear, one every few days. Then, as the summer progresses, more and more female flowers will appear.
9. Harvest at the right time. Cucumbers are always eaten when immature. Fully ripe ones turn orange and bitter. It is up to you to decide at just what stage the fruit is the appropriate size, depending on the type of cucumber (pickling, Lebanese, table, English, etc.). Just don’t leave it too long on the vine!
10. Harvest often. When you leave a fruit on the plant for too long, the plant stops producing flowers and therefore new fruits. However, if you harvest regularly and remove the fruits before they mature, the plant will flower and fruit again and again. Make you sure check all around the plant: most cucumbers have green fruits much the same color as the foliage, so there could be a fruit hidden under foliage that you wouldn’t notice without looking carefully.
And there you go: all you really need to know to grow the best cucumbers ever!