Cucumbers- Gardening Tips from the Culinary View
as recommended by Michael Vidrine
Autumn officially begins in late September and sometime this month we will see a moderation of the really hot Summer temperatures. In particular, we will get cooler nighttime temperatures so plants can recover from daytime heat. Many vegetables will perk up noticeably and increase production. From now until temperatures get too cold, our cucumbers should produce well.
The Cucumber (Cucumis sativus) is a widely-cultivated creeping vine plant in the gourd family Cucurbitaceae . Cultivation started in South Asia over 3000 years ago and the cucumber is now widely distributed. Cucumber types are broadly categorized as either a slicing or a pickling type.
Slicers usually have smooth skins and are harvested at a relatively large green immature stage – up to 12 inches long for some varieties. Any cucumber can be pickled but varieties specifically bred for pickling tend to be shorter (usually 3 to 5 inches) and have bumpy skin with tiny white or black-dotted spines. Some cucumber varieties are bred to be easier to digest with a milder taste and tender skin. These are often described as “burpless.” Botanically the cucumber is a fruit but we treat it as a vegetable.
Cucumbers grow best in full sun and in well fertilized garden soil. Regular watering will be required unless rain is averaging at least an inch a week. Regular weeding may be needed particularly when the plants are small. Like other cucurbits, cucumbers can develop disease problems and have issues with some pests. Monitoring and early control with appropriate fungicides and pesticides may be required for best production. Especially when it is still very warm, the plants appreciate a good layer of mulch to keep the roots a bit cooler. In the really hot months the plants also appreciate some protection from the worst of the afternoon sun. I like to plant my fall cucumbers on the east side of other tall vegetables like okra or tomatoes.
Traditional cucumbers produce both male and female flowers on the same plant (they are monoecious) and are insect pollinated. Without pollination, these plants will not set fruit. Commercial cucumber farms usually hire apiarists to provide bees for their plants. Some hybrid cultivars produce mostly female flowers (known as gynoecious) and may require a male pollinizer cultivar also be planted. There are now also cucumber cultivars that will fruit without pollination (known as parthenocarpic ). Parthenocarpic cucumber fruit will have no or very undeveloped seeds. To keep them this seedless, parthenocarpic varieties should be isolated from other cucumbers to avoid pollinization.
There are some short vine cucumbers developed for patio and container gardens that only vine 2 to 3 feet. Most other varieties will develop vines that are 6 to 8 feet long. To save garden space, cucumbers are often grown on a trellis. Getting the vines and fruit up off the ground also helps with disease management and can make harvesting easier. If planted on a trellis, cucumbers can be direct seeded at 6 to 8 inch spacing. For growing flat, cucumbers can be planted in hills spaced 3 feet apart with 3 to 4 seeds per hill. We usually plant in the Spring for harvesting through most of June and then plant again in the later part of the Summer for harvesting through the Fall. Cucumbers can grow very rapidly and need harvesting every other day at peak production. Over-mature fruit becomes tough with large seeds and may also become bitter. Oversized fruit should be removed to keep the plant in production.
The Brazos County master gardener website and the Aggie Horticulture site offer a number of suggestions for varieties. Some we’ve grown include Spacemaster which is a good short vine variety. Diva, one of our favorite cucumbers, is a parthenocarpic variety that sets really wonderful fruit but the plants tend to fade when it gets really hot. Speedway is a productive gynoecious variety. We have also had good production from Eureka which has really good disease resistance and makes a good slicer or pickler.
Cucumbers are mostly water but do provide some vitamin K and A and some phytonutrients. Primarily we enjoy them because they taste good and are refreshing. Bitterness in cucumbers is usually the result of weather or water stress and is more prevalent in the stem end and in the skin. Removing these parts of the cucumber can make bitter cucumbers more palatable.
Cucumbers are most often eaten raw. Their mild flavor pairs well with acid ingredients like vinegar, sour cream and tomatoes. Gaspacho is one of our favorite ways to enjoy fresh cucumbers and tomatoes in the warm season. Cucumbers add a nice extra flavor to fresh pico de gallo and salsas and they make great low calorie dippers or can be chopped into dips for a nice crunch. Cucumbers are added to a host of refreshing cocktails – especially with gin. There is even a “World Cucumber Day” on June 14th that just happens to be primarily sponsored by a gin manufacturer. Adding cucumbers to lemonade really kicks it up a notch.
Cucumbers are the quintessential pickle. From the quick refrigerator pickle to the homemade fermented pickle – sweet, sour, spicy or mild – there’s a pickle for just about any taste. If you do have an overgrown cucumber, remember that it is in the squash family and can be prepared in the same ways. Sautéed, stir fried and baked cucumbers are fairly typical in a number of Asian recipes including a very nice vegetarian curry.
In a salad, in a dip, in a soup, in a drink – I’ll have some more cucumber I think. (Thank you Dr. Seuss)
Brazos Valley Gardener, Orchardist, Apiarist and Instructor