The crunch of fresh cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) has helped cool down summers for more than 3,000 years, and cucumbers were likely one of the first vegetables to be preserved by pickling. Growing cucumbers is easy in fertile, organically enriched soil. Productive and fast to mature, cucumbers are a rewarding crop for new and veteran gardeners.
Cucumber Types to Try
The size, shape, color and flavor of cucumber fruits differ by variety, but all grow best under warm conditions. Growing more than one type each year is the best way to extend your cucumber season and ensure more diverse uses in the kitchen.
American slicing cucumbers are the oblong, dark green cukes you see in supermarkets. Varieties of this type have been bred for uniformity, productivity and strong disease resistance.
Pickling cucumbers bear smaller fruits with bumpy, slightly wrinkled rinds that make them naturally crisp and firm. Some varieties resist bacterial wilt, a widespread cucumber disease (described later).
Asian cucumbers are long and slender, with small seed cavities. Non-bitter Asian cucumbers are easy to digest, and are also not preferred by cucumber beetles.
Greenhouse cucumbers produce self-fertile female flowers, so you can grow many varieties of this slightly shade-tolerant type under row covers or in high tunnels.
Other Cucumis species include ‘Armenian’ and ‘Indian Poona Kheera’ cucumbers (both C. melo), ‘West Indian’ gherkin (C. anguria) and jelly melon (C. metuliferus, also called African horned melon).
See our chart for more information on these types, including recommended varieties.
When to Plant Cucumbers
Sow seeds directly into prepared rows or hills one to two weeks after your last spring frost, and make a second planting a month later. Where summers are short and cool, start seeds indoors under bright fluorescent lights two weeks before your last spring frost. If kept moist and warm (above 70 degrees Fahrenheit), cucumber seeds should sprout within five days. Set out 3- to 4-week-old seedlings after your last frost has passed.
How to Plant Cucumbers
Choose a sunny site with fertile, well-drained soil with a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. Grow cucumbers in rows or hills spaced 6 feet apart, or try increasing yields by training vines up a vertical trellis.
Mix a 2-inch layer of rich compost into the planting site, along with a light application of an organic fertilizer. Thoroughly water the soil before planting seeds half an inch deep and 6 inches apart. When the seedlings have three leaves, thin them to 12 inches apart, which is the spacing you should use if transplanting seedlings.
Cucumber Harvesting and Storage
Cucumbers self-regulate how many fruits they carry at a time. To maximize production, harvest fruits as soon as they reach picking size. Pick daily, because under ideal conditions, cucumber fruits can double in size in just one day. Use scissors or small shears to snip fruits with a short stub of stem attached. Lightly scrub, pat dry and refrigerate harvested cucumbers right away.
Depending on variety and size of the fruit, one cucumber plant will typically bear 10 to 20 fruits, which would total about 2 to 3 pounds. Apound of cucumbers yields about a pint of pickles, and six healthy plants of a pickling variety will produce enough cucumbers in one season to make more than a dozen pints of pickles.
Saving Cucumber Seeds
To save seeds from open-pollinated varieties, allow perfect fruits to ripen on the vine until they develop leathery yellow or brown rinds. Slice away the rinds without cutting into the seeds, place the cores in a pail of water, and mash with your hands. After two days, remove the seeds that have accumulated at the bottom of the pail and spread them out to dry on newspaper or paper plates (discard any floating seeds). Allow seeds to dry at room temperature for two weeks before storing your largest, plumpest ones in a cool, dry place. Cucumber seeds should stay viable for at least five years.
Preventing Cucumber Pests and Diseases
Grow cucumbers under row cover tunnels for pest protection. After plants begin blooming heavily, remove the covers so insects can pollinate the flowers.
You can control cucumber beetles using yellow sticky traps, but the traps may also snare small beneficial insects and pollinators. In large plantings, perimeter trap crops of ‘Blue Hubbard’ winter squash can be an effective cucumber beetle control strategy. Because the beetles prefer the squash plants, you’ll intercept the pests before they can wreak havoc on your future pickle supply. Nearby plantings of borage may also help suppress cucumber beetle populations: I suspect they are intimidated by the large bumblebees and other insects that hang out in the borage.
Bacterial wilt is a common disease spread by cucumber beetles. Initially, a single stem wilts, followed by another, and within a week infected plants are barely alive. The best defense is to grow resistant varieties, such as ‘County Fair’ or ‘Little Leaf,’ or to protect plants with row covers.
Powdery mildew often infects old cucumber plants, turning leaves dull gray and halting plant growth. Many varieties offer some genetic resistance, such as ‘Little Leaf’ and ‘Marketmore 76.’ Pull up and compost badly infected plants.
Growing Tips and Ideas
Use a trellis, such as a wire tomato cage, to increase the leaf-to-fruit ratio of your cucumbers, which will increase yields of flawless, flavorful fruits that are easier to pick. To further increase your yields, mulch beneath cucumbers with organic material.
Make two plantings a month apart to stretch your season, and try to plant different varieties. If your area has super-hot summers, grow a second crop in early fall, using row covers.
If you’re planning crop rotations, note that cucumbers often do well following cabbage-family crops.
A popular intercropping technique is to seed crimson clover between cucumber rows just as the plants begin to “run” (send out vines). The clover will germinate and grow beneath the cucumber vines, and will become well-rooted before winter.
In The Kitchen
Cucumbers are 96 percent water, so they are low in calories but do provide abundant vitamin C and fiber if eaten with their skins. For a refreshing summer drink, grate cucumber and a bit of onion into a cold glass of buttermilk. Cucumbers quickly pick up the flavors of marinades to become “refrigerator pickles,” and they partner well with any type of salad dressing. Gazpacho, a cold vegetable soup from Spain, is always in order if ripe cucumbers abound. You can make cucumbers into pickles by canning them in various brines using a water bath canner, or by fermenting them in a salt brine. See our recipes for great nonstop pickles and cool gazpacho soup.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.