Hot Tips for Cool Cucumbers

By Susan Littlefield

There nothing better to add cool crunch to a summer salad than a homegrown cucumber. And the culinary world would be much poorer without the wide assortment of pickles made from this vegetable, from tiny gherkins to sweet bread-and butter pickles to large, mouth-puckering dills.

There's a type of cucumber for every use, including slicers for fresh eating, and varieties bred especially for pickle making. You can, however, pickle any small cucumber, or eat picklers fresh right off the vine, so experiment with different varieties, regardless of how you intend to use them. Slicers generally form 5- to 9-inch long, cylindrical cucumbers with tender, dark green skins and bear over a period of 4-6 weeks. Pickling varieties produce smaller fruits on fast-growing vines and generally produce most of their crop in the space of a couple of weeks. This concentrated bearing makes it convenient to harvest plenty for a pickling session. You can also grow round yellow cukes that look like lemons or ones that can reach up to 3 feet long!

Monoecious or Gynoecious?

Open-pollinated varieties of cucumbers are old standbys and include the interesting ones with unusual colors and shapes. Hybrid cucumbers may bear more heavily and show greater resistance to some of the diseases that can trouble this crop.

Typically, cucumber vines produce separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Bees carry pollen from the male blossoms to the female blossoms in order for fruits to form.The term for these types of cucumbers is "monoecious."

But among the hybrids, you may see varieties labeled "gynoecious." These cukes only produce female flowers. Since every flower can produce a fruit, they bear especially big crops. In addition, these varieties have the broadest range of disease resistance. However, you do need to plant a monoecious variety that bears male flowers nearby in order to provide the pollen needed for fertilization. These types of cucumbers usually have some seeds of pollinator vines included right in the seed packet. Just be careful when you are thinning direct-sown seeds to leave some monoecious seedlings.

Cultivating Cukes

Give 'Em Heat While its name may evoke the epitome of coolness, cucumber plants like it warm. Wait to sow seeds directly in the garden until all danger of frost is past and the soil is at least 60 degrees F; 70 degrees is even better. Although plants can be started indoors in peat pots about three weeks before you plan to set them out, they don't tolerate transplanting well. Direct sown plants often produce earlier than transplants.

Planting Cucumbers grow best in rich soil that has been amended with compost or well-rotted manure. Plant seeds in row or hills, depending on how you plant to support the vines. When planting gynoecious varieties, include one monoecious plant for every seven or eight gynoecious plants for good pollination. Mulch to conserve soil moisture.

Raise 'Em High Although it is not absolutely necessary to support vines on some sort of trellis, if you do you'll get straighter, easier to pick fruits, save space, and have fewer disease problems to deal with. The vines cling by tendrils to supports. Tepees or vertical or A-frame trellises work well. Be sure to put the support in place before you plant your seeds.

Watch Out for Beetles Cucumber beetles are small yellow-green beetles with either black spots or stripes. They begin feeding in early spring on the leaves and stems of cucumbers and related plants; a heavy infestation may totally destroy plants. The eggs they lay hatch into white grubs that can stunt plants by feeding on their roots. In addition to the direct damage they do, the beetles can spread bacterial wilt and mosaic virus, two diseases that can harm or even kill plants.

One of the best ways to control these pests is to rotate the location of cucumbers and their kin (squash, melons, pumpkins) in the garden and cover seedbeds or transplants with floating row covers. You'll need to remove the covers when plants begin to bloom to allow bees in to pollinate, but covering helps to minimize damage to plants at the vulnerable seedling stage. Use a registered insecticide to control heavy infestations on uncovered plants.

Keep 'Em Watered Cukes are mostly water, and a consistent supply of water will give the best harvest. Moisture stressed cukes may be bitter and misshapen. Drip irrigation and mulch both help reduce the possibility of water stress.

Harvest Watch to see when the flower falls off the blossom end of the developing fruit -- you can start picking any time after that. Most pickling cukes are harvested when they are 2 to 4 inches long; most slicers are best at 6-8 inches.

Question of the Month

Bitter Cucumbers

Q: My cucumbers looked okay when I harvested them, but they tasted very bitter. What went wrong?

A: Many varieties of cucumbers naturally contain a bitter compound called cucurbitacin. When plants are stressed, they produce more of this compound, resulting in overly bitter cukes. Some of the newer varieties that are touted as "burpless" have been bred to have little or no cucurbitacin.

Stresses such as heat, drought, too cool temperatures, fluctuating soil moisture, low fertility, and diseased vines can all result in bitter cukes. Fruits harvested toward the end of the season from unhealthy plants are most likely to taste bitter. Cukes picked when they are overripe may also pucker your taste buds.

To prevent bitterness, water deeply and use mulch to conserve soil moisture. Sidedress vines with a balanced fertilizer about a month after planting.

Bitter cucumbers can sometimes be salvaged by cutting off the stem end (where the bitterness accumulates) and peeling the fruit. But if the bitterness is throughout the cuke, discard it. Even pickling won't help a bitter cucumber.

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