Cucumbers for Salad and More

By Charlie Nardozzi

There is nothing like the crunch of a freshly harvested, refreshing cucumber. It's one of the summer vegetables that can be eaten right in the garden, or harvested for use in salads, sandwiches, dips, sauces, and soups. If you really love the taste of your cukes, you can easily make pickles for winter, too.

One of the best qualities of cucumbers is their versatility. They grow anywhere there's full sun, warmth, fertile soil, and water. You can grow long, vining varieties up trellises. When grown vertically, the fruits tend to grow straighter and are easier to harvest. You can grow short, dwarf varieties in containers and let them spill onto a deck or patio. Either way, the place to start is selecting the right variety.

Here are some tips on growing cucumbers in your garden or container.

Cucumber Varieties

Cucumber varieties are grouped as slicing or pickling. However, don't get stuck on labels. The shorter, fatter pickles are good eaten fresh, too. Most cucumber varieties are monoecious. This means they have separate male and female flowers on each plant. In order to get fruit, bees need to pollinate the flowers. Some varieties are gynecious. These have mostly females flowers, so can produce more fruit. If you're having a hard time getting fruit to set because of cold, rainy weather or lack of bees, try growing the newer parthenocarpic varieties. These produce cucumbers without pollination.

Here are some good varieties to try:

'Armenian' - (70 days) The pale green, 2- to 3-foot-long slicing fruits have a crisp texture and mild flavor. The vigorous vines produce fruit that are straight, if grown on a trellis; or curled, if grown on the ground.

'Diva Hybrid' - (58 days) This parthenocarpic variety has smooth, dark green skin and a sweet flavor. It can be used as a pickler when harvested at 2 to 4 inches long, or as a slicer when picked at 6 to 8 inches long. It has good disease tolerance.

'Eureka' - (57 days) This variety also can be used as a pickler or slicer. It can be harvested at the 2- to 4-inch-long size for pickling, or 7 inches long for slicing. It has the color and shape of a slicer and great disease tolerance.

'Homemade Pickles' - (57 days) A medium green with white spines, this pickler can be harvested from 1-1/2 to 5 inches long for canning. It has excellent disease tolerance.

'Olympian Hybrid'- (59 days) This gynecious slicer features tapered, 7-1/2-inch-long fruits on disease-tolerant plants.

'Pot Luck Hybrid' - (55 days) This space-saving slicer has compact, 18-inch-long vines that produce 6-inch-long fruits. It's great for containers.

'Slice Master' - (58 days) This early maturing, gynecious variety features heavy yields of 8-1/2-inch-long fruits on plants that tolerate disease and poor soil.

'Straight Eight' - (63 days) This vigorous and productive 7- to 8-inch-long classic slicer is resistant to bacterial wilt disease.

'Sweet Slice' - (62 days) A 10- to 12-inch-long, dark green slicer that features a sweet and bitter-free flavor. It has good disease tolerance.

Cukes in the Ground and in Pots

Cucumbers need warmth and water to thrive. Before planting, amend the soil with a 2- to 3-inch-thick layer of compost. Create raised beds on all but sandy soils. In cold areas cover the beds with black or dark green plastic mulch two weeks before planting to preheat the soil.

If growing gynecious varieties, be sure to include a pollinating variety. The pollinating variety seeds are usually color-coded in the same seed packet. In cold areas start seeds indoors three to four weeks before the last frost date. Plant seeds or transplants in the ground after all danger of frost has passed and when the soil temperature has warmed to at least 60 degrees F. Plant 6 inches apart in rows, or sow 3 to 4 seeds in 1-foot-diameter hills, if not using raised beds. Thin to the healthiest seedling after germination.

If planting in containers, select a compact variety and a 10- to 12-inch-diameter pot. Fill the pot with soilless mix. Plant 3 seeds or one transplant per pot. Thin to the healthiest seedling. In larger pots, plant cukes along the edge so they cascade over the side of the container. They grow well mixed with other vegetables such as dwarf tomatoes, lettuce, and beans, and even flowers.

Growing Cukes in the Air

Whether the cucumbers are in containers or the ground, trellising all but the dwarf varieties is a good idea. Growing cucumbers vertically saves space and keeps the fruit off the ground, making them less likely to rot. Also, for long fruits, the trellis helps the cukes grow straight and makes them easier to pick.

Use a sturdy trellis made of wood or metal. Set it up so the vines grow at an angle instead of straight up and down. This will allow them to hold onto and climb up the trellis more easily. The cucumber tendrils will grab the trellis to keep the plant upright.

Cuke Solutions

Once young plants start vining, side-dress with a handful of organic fertilizer, such as 5-5-5. If you aren't using plastic mulch, add a 3- to 4-inch-thick layer of organic mulch, such as hay, straw, or pine straw once the soil warms. The mulch will keep weeds at bay and keep the soil moist. In containers, keep the soil evenly moist and add a diluted liquid fertilizer every few weeks.

Grow disease-tolerant varieties if you perennially have problems with powdery mildew, cucumber scab, bacterial wilt, mosaic virus, and other diseases. The biggest insect pest on cucumbers is the cucumber beetle. The beetle causes damage by feeding and spreading bacterial wilt disease among the plants. To control this pest, place a floating row cover over the crop before flowers form. On all but parthenocarpic varieties, remove the row cover after flowers open so bees can pollinate the blooms. Spray plants with pyrethrum to kill the beetles.


Growing Melons in a Cold Climate

Q: I live in a cold part of Wisconsin and want to grow melons. What's the best way to get started?

A: There are tips to growing melons in a cold climate. First, select a short-season variety, such as 'Earli-Dew'. Start seedlings indoors three weeks before your last frost date. While the seedlings are growing, prepare the soil by adding a 3-inch-thick layer of compost and form a raised bed. Cover the soil with dark green or black plastic mulch. Transplant once the soil has warmed to 60 degrees F.

When the vines start to run, side-dress with an organic fertilizer. Keep well watered. In late summer, about one month before your expected first frost date, snip off any flowers, small fruits, and the growing tips of the vines. This will send more energy into maturing the fruits that are already formed.

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