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Gardening 101: Cucumber

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Gardening 101: Cucumber

April 20, 2021

Cucumber, Cucumis sativus

You can toss cucumbers in salads, enjoy them pickled, flavor water with them, and even slice and rest them on eyelids to reduce puffiness. Cucumbers are, indeed, a multitasking fruit. Wait, what…a fruit? That’s right, while in the culinary world they fall under the vegetable category, they’re botanically fruits as they grow from flowers and contain seeds.

Cucumbers were also once considered a diet food because of their low calorie content, but now this versatile fruit has been upgraded to a health food as scientists have discovered they contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. No wonder cucumbers rank as one of the top five garden fruits to grow.

Keep reading to learn more about cucumbers and how to have a gigantic harvest versus a gigantic failure:

Above: Cucumbers climbing functional trellises in a backyard garden. Photograph by Justine Hand, from Family Matters: Restoring a Historic Landscape in Concord, MA.

Native to India, cucumbers are related to watermelons, pumpkins, and squashes (all technically fruits). Turns out, cucumbers have been grown as a food source for over 3,000 years according to cave excavations. These humble fruits were cultivated and eaten by the Greeks and the Romans, and it’s said that Columbus brought the cucumber to the New World. There is even word that 17th-century physicians instructed their fever-inflicted patients to lay on a bed of cucumbers to cool them down. Cool (as a cucumber), right?

Ironically, though, cucumbers are heat seekers and love growing in a full-on sunny spot. They also like to be watered regularly which makes sense seeing as how they are 96 percent water. But there’s a trick to watering them and keeping them healthy: use a soaker line or drip irrigation because you want to keep your cucumber’s leaves dry to avoid leaf disease like unsightly powdery mildew. Also, space your seedlings apart (36 to 50 inches is smart) to allow for good air circulation between plants.

In addition to leaf diseases, cucumbers have a few annoying critters that like to wreak havoc on your plants and your patience, including squash bugs, cucumber beetles, slugs (they are fond of the ripening fruit), and aphids. Control of beetles is important to prevent damaging bacterial wilt. To ward these buggers off, use a floating row cover crop over young transplants to keep them from invading. Also, add a layer of straw mulch because bugs don’t especially like to crawl on it and the material keeps the fruit clean.

Above: A crunchy Kirby cucumber. Photograph by Laura Silverman for Gardenista, from Garden-to-Table Recipe: Pickles from a Cook’ Garden.

The most important thing to consider when buying any cucumber plant is how you want to use them: for eating fresh, for pickling, or, my favorite, for burping less (those thin-skinned with tiny seed types are known as burpless, seedless, hothouse, and European cucumbers). When you go to the nursery you will also find two forms to choose from—the bush and the vine type. Bush varieties are more compact and perfect for smaller gardens and planting in containers. The vine types are great for larger gardens as they scramble and clamber up anything nearby. This type really appreciates a sturdy support system to climb; plus when you trellis a vine type you save on space and keep the fruit off the soil.

Last, remember, cucumbers grow like the dickens, so check on your plant every day to look for fruit that’s even in color and shape. An overgrown cucumber will become packed with seeds and taste bitter. And that’s not so cool.

Cheat Sheet

Above: Sliced Kirbys ready to be pickled. Photograph by Laura Silverman for Gardenista, from Garden-to-Table Recipe: Pickles from a Cook’ Garden.
  • Harvest cucumbers when they are large enough to eat (usually 50 days after germination). Use a knife or clippers to remove the fruit because pulling them off can damage the vine. Note: a cucumber will not continue to ripen after harvest.
  • To embrace the world of companion planting, avoid planting cucumbers near potatoes as they release a substance that hinders cucumber growth. On the other hand, consider planting radishes as beneficial neighbors to help keep away pests.
  • Similar to tomatoes, cucumbers shouldn’t be planted in the same spot each year. Instead, play planting musical chairs and rotate your spots.
  • Extend your yield by planting the bush type 2 weeks apart.

Keep It Alive

Above: Not all cucumbers are green and long. Case in point: the Sikkim Cucumber, originally from the Himalayas. A packet of its seeds is $4 from Baker Creek. See Heirloom Seeds: Who Says a Cucumber Has to Be Green?
  • Cucumbers are frost-tender so it’s best to plant them two weeks after the last frost date, when the soil has warmed up and the average day temperature is in the 70s. They usually grow best in USDA zones 4 to 12.
  • These sun lovers rely on heat to make sturdy and productive vines, so plant them in a spot that receives at least 8 hours of strong sun. These plants also appreciate morning sun to help dry off dewy leaves that can lead to blight and mildew.
  • Before planting, add copious amounts of organic compost to create a light, well-draining and nutrient rich environment.
  • Plant your seedlings on slightly raised mounds with the main stem slightly above the soil line as they are susceptible to rot.
  • Feed your cucumbers every two weeks with an organic slow-release fertilizer like compost tea, then stop feeding them once your plant begins to fruit.

For more vegetables and fruits, see:

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