Every year, National Garden Bureau names one edible, one annual and one perennial as featured crops for a year. 2014 is the Year of the Cucumber. NGB, along with our members, provide these tips about a popular vegetable grown in many home gardens.
The cucumber is one of the top five most popular garden vegetables. Cucumbers are very adaptable; they have been grown in outer space as well as a mile underground in a nickel mine. Very easy to grow from seed, cucumbers deserve praise and a place in the modern garden.
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 the knowledge of these major categories, gardeners can choose the best type of cuke for their garden.
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.
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.
Other types of cucumbers include Lemon and Armenian (yard long). The Lemon is a round cuke about the size of a lemon with a cream color skin. Immature fruit are suitable for pickling; mature fruit can be sliced and eaten fresh. The Armenian cucumber is actually an elongated cantaloupe (Cucumis melo), best if cooked like a summer squash or eaten fresh when immature. It produces ribbed, pale green, white or striped fruit that, if left on the vine can grow to 3 feet. It is certainly a novelty; harvest at 1 foot for best eating quality.
Burpless, or are they bitter free?
Most cucumbers contain cucurbitacins which can be present in the fruit. If present in the fruit, some people consider the taste bitter. Associated with the bitter taste is a social, if not a digestive problem, known as a burp.
In the middle of this century, Oriental cucumbers were introduced to North America as burpless. The Sakata Seed Company introduced burpless cucumbers. The fruit was longer and narrower with thinner green skin when compared to North American slicing types. Since the bitterness was associated with the burp, the new types were described as burpless and bitter free. Both terms are used to describe the same quality in cucumber varieties.
However, taste is subjective. The taste of one cucumber can easily be bitter to one person and bitter free to another. To complicate matters more, a cucumber’s taste can change. When grown under environmental stress such as high temperatures and inadequate water, a fruit can become increasingly bitter. To remove most of the bitterness, cut off the 1 inch of fruit closest to the stem and peel off the skin, if necessary. Some of the newer varieties contain a gene that eliminates all bitterness from the plant and fruit so that the fruit remains bitter free even under stress.
Sex and a Choice of Bloomers
Some plants produce two different kinds of flowers on the same plant—male and female. This is true of squash, gourds, cukes and watermelons. The sex of the flower is important since only female flowers produce the fruit. Male flowers produce pollen. You can easily recognize a female flower, because it has an ovary – looking like a tiny cucumber – at its base when it blooms. Male flowers have no ovary: the flower is attached directly to a short stalk. 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. The disadvantage is usually a later, slower production of fruit.
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 which 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.
In cooler or rainy weather, bees may not be present to carry out pollination in monoecious and gynoecious cucumbers. If so, and your plant produces a female flower, simply insert a cotton swab into one of the male flowers and twirl it arround, which will coat it with pollen, then dab the pollen onto the stigma (extruding central part) of the female bloom. This will ensure its pollination.
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, the fruit can be misshapen with a lump or curve. To minimize cross pollination, gardeners could grow only parthenocarpic plants in their garden.
Each type of cucumber has advantages and disadvantages. The choice is left for the gardener, based on his or her desired yield and use.
How to Grow
Cucumbers like to bask in the sun, so choosing a site in full sun is of prime consideration. Soil should be light, fertile and well-drained. Amending the soil with plenty of compost or well-rotted manure will ensure good yields. Check soil drainage before planting, as a soggy garden will promote disease and cut down production.
How much space is allotted to the cucumber patch depends on the variety chosen. Standard types may spread 4 to 6 feet; grow them 4 to 5 feet apart. The restricted vines of dwarf and bush varieties require much less space; some as little as 2 square feet.
Seeds should be sown when the soil has warmed up to 70°F. Sow a seed every 6 inches, pushing it into the soil to 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 out in the garden.
Cucumbers are among the thirstiest of vegetables. The National Garden Bureau recommends long, deep waterings rather than frequent sprinklings. Mulching will repay the gardener’s efforts threefold. Moisture is conserved, soil temperature remains uniform and weed growth is deterred. 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 needn’t dominate the entire vegetable plot. They adapt well to vertical growing. Many types of support materials can be used for training cukes. 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.
City dwellers can easily raise cucumbers 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. Why not tuck a few cascading nasturtiums in the basket with the cucumber to provide food for the eye and palate both?
Cucumbers adapt well to growing in greenhouses and cold frames. Since they are short seasoned you can extend yours by sowing in the fall in a protected structure and enjoy fresh fruit in winter. Keep in mind you can also sow early to have cucumbers before the last frost date.
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. Slicers are mature when 6-8 inches long; the larger slicing varieties should be picked before they are 10 inches long. Pickling varieties are harvested in between 1-4 inches.
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.
Source: the National Garden Bureau.