This favorite salad vegetable is, by scientific definition, actually a fruit. It grows from inside the yellow flower blossom and is filled with seeds. It is typically used, however, as a vegetable, adding savory spices and salt when preparing it. The cucumber is a derivative of the gourd family called Curcurbits. Other Curcurbits include melons, squash and pumpkins, which also grow from inside the blossom and carry their seeds inside. The Curcurbits flowers and seeds are also edible.
How To Choose a Cucumber Variety
There are 115 known varieties of cucumbers to choose from – Heirloom, Burpless, and Gherkin to name only a few. But the two basic types you will want to choose from are those that are meant to be pickled and those that are meant to be eaten fresh. While you can eat the pickling type raw, they have a thicker skin and are less flavorful (amazing what a hot bath in vinegar and garlic can do for a cucumber). Gherkin varieties are great for pickling.
The fresh eating cucumbers, on the other hand, will disintegrate in the canning process, leaving you with nothing but mush and disappointment. Thin-skinned, Burpless varieties are grown specifically for eating fresh from the garden.
Where To Plant Them
Once you have decided whether you want to pickle or eat them fresh, it is time to make another decision – whether to grow them in your garden or to grow them in containers. The reason for this is that besides having so many varieties of cucumbers, there are also two major different growing types; those that grow on a vine and those that grow on a bush.
Bush cucumber varieties are more compact and produce smaller fruits. These can also be grown in the garden but are most popular for container growing. Because the vine-growing cucumbers are climbers, they are kept from sitting on the soil, making them less susceptible to disease and rot. They take up more garden space and are very prolific producers.
The following guide will show you how to grow cucumbers and, other than the soil preparation directions and information regarding a trellis, the information provided applies to either container-grown bush cucumbers or the vine-grown garden cucumbers.
How To Prepare the Garden
You should wait to plant your seeds or seedlings (recommended) until two full weeks after the last frost of the spring. They can be grown successfully in agricultural zones 4 through 11. Cucumbers love warm soil, so prepare an area in full sun. Soil temperatures should not drop below 60 to 70 degrees, which is the reason that mulching is recommended.
Choose a well-drained location for your cucumbers, avoiding low spots in your garden where water from sprinklers or rain might pool. Although they love water, they rot easily when the soil becomes soggy.
Prepare rows three to four feet apart from each other, generously mounding the soil at the center of the row. Cucumbers will grow at the top of the mound and spread out down the sides. These plants require a neutral or just slightly alkaline pH of 6.5 to 7.0 and a fertile, nutrient-rich soil. Work two or three inches of compost or quality vegetable garden fertilizer into the soil to loosen it and add moisture-holding nutrients to encourage a bountiful harvest. If using a container, it should be about 18 inches across with a drainage hole and saucer. Make sure to place it in a sunny location. The soil is slightly different as well, being a mix of potting soil, vermiculite (to hold moisture) and compost to provide the necessary nutrients.
How To Sew Seeds and Seedlings
Seedlings can be purchased at your local nursery and will put you three weeks ahead of planting from seed. Seedlings are recommended if you live where the growing season is shorter, and nursery personnel can help guide you in selecting the appropriate variety for your needs. Whatever your choice, plant a few seeds or one seedling six inches apart. Seedlings should be planted just deep enough that their potted soil is level with the surface of the garden soil.
Seeds, on the other hand, should be covered with an inch of the prepared soil and lightly pressed down. For container-grown cucumbers, plant three to four seeds in the center of the container. Gently, but thoroughly water the soil and cover with a mulch to help preserve warmer soil temperatures at night and prevent dehydration of this water-loving plant. This is a great place to distribute the grass clippings you collect while mowing the yard.
Most cucumber vines can require up to 20 feet of garden space per plant for spreading out. One way to get around that is to build a trellis or climbing wall for your plants to grab hold of, allowing upward growth rather that covering precious garden real estate. Build your trellis at least six feet in height to accommodate their sprawl as they grow up one side and down the other.
Watering, Thinning and Fertilizing the Cucumber Plants
Soil should be kept moist but not allowed to become soggy, so a light watering everyday is needed unless it rains. Once the seeds have sprouted and have grown to around 4 inches in height, they can be thinned to prevent overcrowding and competing for sun and nutrients. (The same goes for the container-grown variety.) Thinning is a simple process as you just snip the seedlings off at the level of the soil. Be sure to keep the area weeded to prevent overcrowding.
There are some garden plants and herbs, which need to be constantly watched to remove any flower blossoms which may form to maintain nutrients and flavor in the plant. This is not the case with the cucumber. In fact, it is just the opposite because the cucumber fruits develop from the center of the blossom, so they should be protected, as they will eventually be your harvest.
Ask your nursery for a good vegetable garden fertilizer high in nitrogen and apply it according to directions a week after the blooms come on and again every few weeks afterward. A fertilizer plant stake can be used as an alternative by mixing it into water. Additionally, an Epsom salts foliage spray can be beneficial as it helps keep the magnesium sulfate levels where they need to be. It is sprayed onto and absorbed by the leaves of the plants and helps prevent yellowing of the fruits.
Because aphids, squash bugs and other pests are prevalent in a cucumber patch, it is recommended that you use a garden pesticide to keep the insects at bay. Do not apply pesticide within three days of harvesting to prevent danger to humans. Cucumbers are commonly affected by powdery mildew or black rot, so dusting with a garden fungicide is recommended, especially if you choose to plant the bush variety or allow your cucumber vines to crawl along the ground instead of on a trellis, as fruits that sit on the soil are highly susceptible to fungus and mildew.
You may need to encourage the vines to climb the trellises by winding the ends through the trellis every few days. Plants tend to grow upward toward the sun, but they may need a bit of help to get started.
One odd thing you might notice as your cucumbers begin to mature is that they may be covered with small prickles or even stiff little hair-like structures. Do not be alarmed. While you can buy a variety that has been genetically modified to grow without the prickles, they are actually quite normal, and it is thought that they help keep destructive insects away from a would-be meal or place to lay their eggs. The prickles and hairs come right off with a vegetable brush, or you can simply rub them off while wearing leather garden gloves. If you are still not satisfied, you can always peel the cucumber before eating it.
Harvesting Your Cucumbers
Cucumbers varieties may produce at different rates, and you may have mature fruits next to a new blossom that will yet form another fruit. You can pick them whenever they reach the size you want. You can also leave some fruit to grow larger and pick again in a few days. “Picking” involves using a pair of garden shears or a sharp knife to actually cut the stem where it connects to the cucumber. This will prevent damage to a healthy vine that may still be producing. Be sure to look under the leaves, as that is where the cucumbers grow. You should get around eight fruits from a bush-grown plant in a container and up to 10 fruits per vine-grown plant in a garden. Check your harvest often as they may continue to ripen every couple of days throughout the season.
If you are going to make pickles, wash them immediately and store them in a cold place. Process them within one day if you want crispy pickles. Over time as they sit, they begin to dehydrate, developing soft skin which makes for limp pickles. For fresh eating, you can snack on a bit of this summer sunshine straight from the garden or add them to your favorite salad. Now that you know how to grow cucumbers, you can enjoy this fresh, crunchy, low-calorie delight all summer long.