My first experience growing cucumbers was a fiasco. I failed to amend the soil properly, feed and water them enough early on, and then they developed a bad case of powdery mildew. My plants yielded only a few small fruits. That was about 20+ years ago. Since that unproductive season, I’ve mastered growing these fast-growing annual vines – and you can, too! The great thing about cukes is once they’re happy, they produce like gangbusters! Before you know it, it’ll be time to break out the tzatziki and pickle recipes and find friends willing to take a few off your hands.
Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) are frost-tender, warm-weather vegetables; which means they grow when days and nights are relatively warm and the sun is at its brightest. They tend to sprawl but can be trained to grow on a support to save space and make harvesting easier.
The vines are lined with large, prickly, green leaves and produce two types of yellow, funnel-shaped flowers, male and female. The pollen-producing male flowers bloom first, followed by the fruit-producing female flowers. Female blooms are easily identified by their elongated, bulbous ovaries at the base, which are destined to become cucumbers. The flowers are pollinated by bees, so smile when these productive insects visit your plants, and refrain from using broad-spectrum, non-organic pesticides that will kill them. (Look out for the small, native squash bees that like to visit cucumber vines!)
Cucumber size, shape and color depend on the type of plant you grow. No matter what variety you choose, proper site selection and good soil preparation can make or break your cuke-growing success.
Lots of cucumber types exist. Americans are most familiar with slicing cucumbers, which tend to be large, broad, and thick skinned when mature and have tougher, bigger seeds. In contrast, thin-skinned Asian cucumbers are long, straight and small-seeded as are English types. Pickling cucumbers, which include gherkins, have a pleasing shape when young, dense flesh and are picked immature, when they are most crisp.
Several varieties are better adapted to hotter, drier growing conditions. These include lemon, or dosakai, cucumbers, which are almost completely round, yellow-skinned, and originate from India. Israeli Beit Alpha cucumbers are smaller, seedless (parthenocarpic), sweet-tasting, and well-adapted to dry climates. ‘Socrates’ is a larger Beit Alpha cultivar worth growing. Another favorite, heat-tolerant “cucumber” is the curved, thin-skinned Armenian cucumber (Cucumis melo var. flexuosus), which is technically not a cucumber but a melon (Cucumis melo) variety.
Full sun is essential for good growth and fruit production, so choose a planting location that’s open and sunny. Deep, friable, well-drained soil high in organic matter yields the best crops. The best rule of thumb is to dig and work up the soil to a depth of a foot or more, then amend liberally with good compost. The more room your plants’ roots have to develop, the healthier the plants. If your garden is at a low topography, create raised berms to plant your cucumbers. (Generally, I start my seeds outdoors in 4-inch pots and plant them once they’ve reached 3 inches long and the threat of frost has past. Other home gardeners may opt to direct-sow the seeds following packet directions.)
Feeding and watering cucumber vines are simple tasks: Just apply good organic fertilizer (like Black Gold® Tomato & Vegetable Fertilizer) early in the season and make sure established vines get a deep application of water twice a week (by rain or hose). The next consideration is deciding whether or not to trellis your plants.
Trellising has lots of advantages: It saves space, makes harvesting easier and encourages airflow, which discourages foliar diseases. Some standard trellis types are vertical ladder trellises, bentwood or teepee trellises. Trellis-grown cukes will be straighter than ground-grown. If you don’t mind your vines on the ground, be sure to pad the ground with hay or straw. This will keep your cucumbers clean and discourage rot, as well as keep weeds down. If you don’t have a lot of gardening space, you can grow dwarf cucumber varieties in large containers.
There are a few cucumber pests and diseases to be mindful of. Striped and spotted cucumber beetles are the worst of them. Both pests are elongated, around ¼ an inch long and have beaded antennae. Striped cucumber beetles have bands of yellow and black stripes, and the spotted ones are tannish-yellow and are typically marked with 12 black spots. Both chew on the leaves and vector a nasty bacterial wilt disease that can kill vines. The best means of defense is to use botanical insecticidal sprays like pyrethrum-based sprays, always carefully following label directions. Begin to spray when the plants are young, and refrain from spraying when bees are actively pollinating the flowers. Squash bugs are another common pest that can be eradicated using this method. Aside from bacterial wilt, powdery mildew is the second most common disease of cucumber vines. (The organic fungicide, GreenCure®, clears up powdery mildew fast and is safe to use.)
So, whether growing cucumbers for pickling or slicing, feel confident you can cultivate happy cucumbers this year. By fulfilling just a few smart steps, neo gardeners can avoid a first-time cucumber catastrophe and enjoy a cornucopia crop instead!