The vegetable packed with ‘cool-power’
It is about this time of year when I get one of those “pregnant cravings” for a fresh refrigerator dill pickle. Alas I am going to have to hold off on any satisfaction for that hunger until the summer when the garden cukes start coming in like gangbusters. There simply is nothing to compare to those chilled and crispy-beyond-measure pickles that must — simply must — be made with little, just-picked cucumbers.
So of course the first seed selections I’ll be considering as I fill out my seed order will be cucumbers. Oh the choices! Considering that 2014 has been designated the Year of the Cucumber, I think I’ll add a few more varieties to my regular mix.
According to the National Garden Bureau, the cucumber is one of the top five most popular garden vegetables. Cucumbers are very adaptable. They have been grown in space and a mile underground in a nickel mine. Very easy to grow from seed, you’ll find that starting them indoors, in small pots about five or six weeks before the garden soil warms sufficiently will give you a leg up, timewise, so that planted in the garden the vines can hit the ground running and will produce long before those started from seed in the garden.
The cucumber is native to India, where it has been grown for almost 3,000 years, according to NGB. Although the first wild cucumbers have never been fully identified, evidence seems to point to C. hardwickii, an unappetizingly small and very bitter native of the Himalayas. Bitterness, a plague to cucumber lovers throughout the ages, seems to be a natural protective device derived from its wild ancestors. That bitterness comes from cucurbitacins, a terpene derivative, that repels certain insects as well as some humans.
Proving its adaptability to many climates and cultures from native India to space flights, the cucumber grows and produces fruit in many varying conditions. Chosen by the NGB for special recognition in 2014, the cucumber is easily grown by beginning and expert gardeners.
Botanists term this crunchy vegetable Cucumis sativus, a branch of the family Cucurbitaceae. There are more than 500 cousins in this extended family, including squash, pumpkin, melon and gourds. All are characterized by trailing vines with rough, hairy leaves. Cucumbers have yellow flowers that bear fruit which may be globular, oblong or cylindrical. Most cucumbers are a dark green color and have prickly skin when immature but look for the white, yellow and brown varieties also.
Cucumbers are placed in two major categories, either slicing or pickling, based on use. They can be further classified by plant habit, either bush or vining. Using the knowledge of these major categories, gardeners can choose the best type of cuke for their garden, says the NGB.
Slicing cucumbers: The majority of cucumbers fit into this category. They are to be eaten fresh from the garden. The fruit are green, elongated and slightly tapered on the ends. Depending upon variety, the mature length can be four to 12 inches. Types include:
Mideastern — Originated in Israel. It differs from other cucumbers because it is burpless and has a smoother, thinner skin. This type is also called beit alpha.
Oriental — From Asia has a crispy, sweet taste, and thin skin with some spines. It is harvested at 10 to 12 inches and often grown on trellises so that it forms straight, high quality fruit.
Greenhouse — Primarily bred in Europe, specifically for forcing in greenhouses. Used by commercial greenhouse growers, they are not normally recommended for the home garden.
Pickling cucumbers: Used for preserving as pickles. Most pickling varieties are versatile, usable at all stages of growth. Pick cukes at 1 inch or up to 5 inches for a large dill pickle. Some varieties can be used fresh as a slicing type.
Other types of cucumbers include Lemon and Armenian (yard long). The Lemon is a round cuke about the size of a lemon with a cream color skin. Immature fruit are suitable for pickling; mature fruit can be sliced and eaten fresh. The Armenian cucumber is actually an elongated cantaloupe (Cucumis melo), best if cooked like a summer squash or eaten fresh when immature. It produces ribbed, pale green, white or striped fruit that, if left on the vine can grow to three feet. It is certainly a novelty; harvest at one foot for best eating quality.
The taste of one cucumber can easily be bitter to one person and bitter free to another. To complicate matters more, a cucumber’s taste can change, according to the NGB. When grown under environmental stress such as high temperatures and inadequate water, a fruit can become increasingly bitter. To remove most of the bitterness, cut off the one inch of fruit closest to the stem and peel off the skin, if necessary. Some of the newer varieties contain a gene that eliminates all bitterness from the plant and fruit so that the fruit remains bitter free even under stress.
Cucumbers love the sun, so choosing a site in full sun is important. Soil should be light, fertile and well-drained. Amending the soil with plenty of compost or well-rotted manure will ensure good yields. Check soil drainage before planting, as a soggy garden will promote disease and cut down production.
How much space is allotted to the cucumber patch depends on the variety chosen. Standard types may spread four to six feet; grow them four to five feet apart. The restricted vines of dwarf and bush varieties require much less space; some as little as 2 square feet.
It’s no mystery why cucumbers are so juicy, they are among the thirstiest of vegetables. The NGB recommends long, deep waterings rather than frequent sprinklings. Mulching will repay the gardener’s efforts threefold. Moisture is conserved, soil temperature remains uniform and weed growth is deterred. Once the seedlings have grown a few inches, put down a three to four-inch layer of organic mulch or cover. Cucumbers are heavy feeders. A side dressing of 5-10-10 fertilizer at the time of planting and once a month thereafter is sufficient.
While it is true that cucumbers are greedy for space, they need not dominate the entire vegetable plot. They adapt well to vertical growing. Many types of support materials can be used for training cukes. A lattice, trellis or “A” frame with netting is simple to construct and easy to incorporate into a garden design. Use a structure at least 6 feet high and place it a few inches off the ground to allow for air movement. Help the young cucumber plants find the structure by placing their tendrils around the support and tying them. Continue training vines up the support as needed. Growing cucumbers vertically produces straight, blue ribbon quality cucumbers.
Cucumbers also love sunflowers. Growing them together helps not only to produce more flavorful cukes, but the vines can easily climb the tall sunflower stalks. They are also a good choice for container growing when space is at a premium,. Try large planters, pots or even hanging baskets, but remember to provide plenty of water and nutrients for plentiful harvests.
There are three rules for harvesting cucumbers-pick, pick and pick! If mature fruit is left on the vine, the plant figures it has finished production and will stop setting new fruit. Slicers are mature when 6 to 8 inches long; the larger slicing varieties should be picked before they are 10 inches long. Pickling varieties are harvested in between 1 to 4 inches.
Most cucumbers reach maturity in 50 to 65 days. The fruit will be firm to the touch and the skin will have a uniform dark green color. To avoid damage to the vine, cut or clip the cuke from the plant rather than twisting or pulling it.
I can just picture it. The hot summer sun is beating down and there, in the shade of the climbing plants are the coolest of cool — cucumbers waiting to be discovered. What a delightful reward!
Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the Garden Writers Association’s Silver Award of Achievement, and she gardens in Camden. Got questions, or comments? Visit her blog, and join in the conversation at: gardeningonthego.wordpress.com or ”friend” her on Facebook to see what’s new in the garden day-by-day.