Cultivating Cucumbers

Grow cucumbers in your garden this summer and you'll become part of a long gardening heritage. These crisp, refreshing vegetables originated in India, where they have been grown for the past 3000 years! Of course, many changes have come to this crop over the centuries. Gardeners today can choose from cucumbers bred for making pickles or for slicing; ones that are as long as two to three feet or as small and round as a lemon; and cukes that are dark green, pale green, or yellow. Most cucumbers are vining plants, but there are even bush-type varieties for space-strapped gardeners. With such a diversity, there's a cuke that's just right for every garden!

Hybrid or Open-Pollinated

Open pollinated cucumber varieties offer tried and true varieties, as well as some with the most unusual shapes and colors. These varieties are typically monoecious, meaning they bear separate male and female flowers on the same plant. After a visiting bee has carried pollen from a male blossom, the fertilized female flower is the one that gives rise to the cucumber fruit.

Hybrid cucumber varieties often offer greater disease resistance and higher yields. If you select from these varieties, you'll come across the term "gynoecious." These hybrids produce only female flowers. Since every flower has the potential to produce a cucumber fruit, gynoecious varieties produce the highest yields. But there is a catch! You need to grow a monoecious variety nearby that bears male flowers to provide the pollen required for pollination and fruiting to occur -- one monoecious plant for every seven or eight gynoecious plants. Usually seeds of a monoecious pollinator variety will be included right in the seed packet of the gynoecious variety. Just be sure when you are thinning direct-sown seedlings that you make sure to leave some of the pollinator plants.

Here are just some the hybrid and open-pollinated cucumber varieties we are offering this season.

'Calypso' (51-53 days)-A high-yielding gynoecious hybrid, this pickling variety shows good disease resistance.

'Dasher II ' (58 days) - Fruits of this early gynoecious slicer are 8 inches long and a uniform dark green.

'Marketmore 76' (68 days) - An excellent slicer, this open-pollinated variety bears 8-9 inch, very dark green fruits and shows good disease tolerance.

'Fanfare HG' (62 days) - A very disease resistant monoecious hybrid with slim, dark green fruits, this All-America Selections winner makes compact, vigorous vines.

'Green Long' Indian Sub-Continent (35-35 days) - The skin of the 9 1/2-inch long fruits of this very early open-pollinated variety is green and spiny.

'Olympian F1' (59 days) - An early gynoecious type with high yields and attractive, dark green fruits.

Cool Cukes Like It Hot

Cucumbers may be considered icons of coolness, but that's not what the want when they're growing. Cukes like it warm. Their seeds won't germinate in cold soil and even a touch of frost will finish them off.

In short season areas you can get a little jump on the season by starting seeds early indoors. But cucumbers are not easy transplanters, so sow seeds in peat pots to minimize root disturbance at planting time, and start them no more than three weeks before it's time to set them in the garden.

Whether you are transplanting seedlings or sowing seeds directly in the garden, wait until the soil is warm -- at least 65 degrees F -- and the weather is settled, usually about two weeks after the last frost date in your area. Pre-warming the soil in the planting bed by covering it with black plastic for a couple of weeks prior to planting can be helpful, especially in cooler areas.

Planting and Care

Cukes do best in rich soil that's been amended with plenty of compost. Unless you are planting bush varieties, you'll get the best harvest if you give the vines some type of support. Depending on the type of support you put up, you can plant in rows or hills, following the spacing directions on the seed packet.

Cucumbers are over 95 percent water by weight, so it comes as no surprise that a consistent supply of moisture is key for delicious fruits. Cucumbers from water-stressed plants are often bitter and misshapen. Drip or soaker hose irrigation is ideal; it keeps plants well watered but allows the foliage to remain dry, lessening the likelihood of disease problems.

To keep disease at bay, choose disease-resistant varieties, make sure that plants have good air circulation around the vines, and use at least a three-year rotation for their location in the garden.

There are number of pests that can cause problems in the cucumber patch, but the cucumber beetle is one that troubles cuke growers regularly in most parts of the country. These yellow and black striped or spotted pests are a triple whammy. The adult beetles chew on the leaves of cukes; the grubs in the soil attack the plants' roots; and the beetles transmit diseases such as bacterial wilt as they feed. The easiest way to protect young plants from beetles is to cover them with floating row covers, but you'll need to remove them when flowering begins so bees can get in to pollinate. For severe infestations as the crop develops, spray with a natural pesticide labeled for this use, such as spinosad.

Harvest and Storage

Cucumbers get big -- often too big -- fast, so pick frequently to keep vines bearing well. If you leave over-mature fruits on the vine, the plant will think its job is done and stop producing new fruits. Most slicing varieties taste best when they are between 6-8 inches long. Picklers are best harvested when they are 2-4 inches long.

For the longest storage, cool just-picked cucumbers quickly by submerging in a bowl of cold water, then store in plastic bags in the refrigerator.

Question of the Month: Growing Cucumbers in Containers

Q: Can I grow cucumbers in containers?

A: Yes, you can get a good crop of cucumbers from a container planting! You'll be most successful if you use at least a 5-gallon container with a minimum soil depth of 12 inches for each plant. If you're growing the gynoecious hybrids described above, remember that you'll also need to grow a monoecious pollinator. Bush varieties are probably the easiest to grow, but you can also grow vining types if you provide some support. Plants in containers are growing in a limited volume of soil and dry out more quickly than plants in the ground, so be sure to check your containers daily to see if they are dry, as consistent moisture is key to a good crop of cukes. Your plants will also need regular fertilization throughout the season. Mix a slow-release fertilizer into the soil mix at planting time and supplement with a soluble fertilizer as the season progresses.

Article published on April 5, 2013.

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