Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Cucumbers

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
jaschult@illinois.edu

Cucumbers are a crop I don't ever remember my parents having difficulty growing in the garden. From a young age, I remember helping my mom pick lots of cucumbers to make into refrigerator pickles, still a favorite of mine today.

You may not think of cucumber as "exotic", so it may surprise you to learn that cucumbers are believed to originate in India. It appears that trade routes helped spread this fruit far and wide, and it became very popular.

The Roman Emperor Tiberius reportedly loved cucumbers and demanded to eat them every day of the year. His subjects developed ways of maintaining cucumber plants year round so their Emperor could eat his beloved cucumber daily.

Cucumbers were enjoyed across Europe as early as the 1300's. Columbus brought cucumbers to the New World in 1494, and they became popular with native people and settlers alike.

Generally speaking, the cucumbers we eat today are very similar to those grown at least 400 years ago. There is a lot of variety among cucumbers, some typically used for pickling that are stubbly and prickly and only three to four inches long, some called "slicers" used for fresh consumption that are long and skinny reaching up to two feet long.

Most people find cucumber's flavor very pleasant and melon-like. Some people, like my husband, find cucumbers to taste disgusting and bitter, almost like eating perfume. There appears to be a genetic factor that makes people's taste buds detect the flavor compounds in cucumbers differently.

Botanically speaking, cucumber (Cucumis sativus) is in the gourd family Cucurbitaceae, also called the cucurbit family. This family also contains squash and melons. Although we commonly call cucumber a vegetable, botanically the cucumber is a fruit, developing from a flower.

If you have ever grown cucumbers, you know they grow on vigorous vines that can take up a lot of space in the garden. If you have limited garden space, cucumbers will easily climb a fence or trellis and utilize vertical space. There are also dwarf and compact varieties available that are perfect for small spaces.

I recently saw a great use of an old A-frame swing set. The person put wire mesh across one side of the old swing set, creating the perfect place for cucumber vines to climb, and found a new use for an item that would have otherwise been sent to the landfill.

Growing cucumbers in the home garden is relatively simple, and there are a few key points that will help keep your vines producing well through the season.

Remember that cucumbers are native to India, a generally warm region of the world. Cucumbers do not like the cold. They need to be planted in the garden after the soil has warmed, above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, preferably closer to 70 degrees.

Generally cucumbers are directly seeded into the garden. While it is possible to grow transplants for the garden, these should be moved into the garden when the plants are relatively small, when they have two to four true leaves. Cucumbers do not like their roots to be disturbed, and attempting to transplant larger plants will likely have poor results.

Also remember that cucumbers do not like to have their roots disturbed when cultivating your garden, as they are very shallow-rooted. They also need a lot of moisture, so it is beneficial to mulch your cucumbers to conserve moisture around their shallow roots.

Cucumbers are also heavy feeders, and will produce more when adequate nutrients are present. Incorporate manure or compost at planting time, and side-dress the plants with fertilizer as the plants begin to vine. Without adequate nutrients, fruits produced may be misshapen.

When flowers develop, the first flowers are typically the male, pollen-producing flowers that attract pollinators to the area. Later, female flowers develop. These are easily distinguished, as the female flowers have a tiny, undeveloped cucumber fruit at the base of the flower. Male flowers just have a stem.

Female flowers must be pollinated by male flowers to set fruit. Cucumbers depend on insects such as bees to do the pollinating. Misshapen fruit may be a result of incomplete pollination.

There are some cultivars available that are parthenocarpic, meaning the female flowers produce fruit without pollination, and the fruit that develops is seedless. Pollination of these varieties actually decreases their quality, so they are typically grown in greenhouses or field situations where insect pollinators such as bees are excluded.

There are also some cultivars available that are gynoecious, meaning they produce only female flowers—they don't produce male flowers, so they have no pollen source of their own. These cultivars must have another plant nearby that produces male, pollen-producing flowers, or they will not produce fruit.

When vines start to produce cucumbers, check plants daily and keep them picked. Cucumbers for pickling are typically picked at four to six inches long, and most slicers are eaten when six to eight inches long. Cucumbers are one of those crops that can suddenly jump to gargantuan size if you forget to check them.

The cucumbers we eat are actually immature fruits. A mature cucumber is large, golden yellow, and very bitter and tough, containing hard seeds. It is considered inedible. It is important to note that if fruits are allowed to mature on the vine, the vine will stop producing new fruits. So try your best to keep up with the harvest.

The major disease affecting cucumber, bacterial wilt, is transmitted by its major pest, the cucumber beetle. Bacterial wilt develops almost overnight—usually around the time you are just getting ready to pick your first cucumbers. The entire plant wilts and collapses. The plant is typically infected and looks fine for a time before it wilts. By the time the symptoms show themselves, it is too late to prevent the disease. There is no treatment for the disease, only prevention.

There are two species of cucumber beetle responsible for transmitting bacterial wilt. Both are about of an inch long and yellow. One species has black stripes, one has black spots. Both are destructive in their own right, besides the fact that they may carry the bacteria that causes bacterial wilt. Cucumber beetles feed on a wide variety of food crops, including corn. So it's no wonder the year that I tried to grow cucumbers near a corn field, my plants were solidly covered in cucumber beetles—the poor little cucumber plants didn't stand a chance.

This year I am trying to outsmart the beetles by using floating row cover. It is a translucent spun fabric (much like interfacing, if you are a sewer) that is placed over the young plants to exclude the feeding beetles. The cover is removed when flowers develop, as you need pollinators like bees to have access to the flowers in order to have fruits. Hopefully this method will work for me, as I prefer to grow my vegetables without use of chemicals like insecticides.

If all goes as planned, I will have my pantry and refrigerator stocked with sweet and dill pickles by summer's end, just like I remember my mom doing when I was a young girl.

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