One of my favorite, childhood memories is eating cool crisp cucumber slices on homemade bread slathered with mayonnaise. My mom could raise just about anything but she really got a ton of cucumbers out of the dozen or so plants she put in the ground every spring.
Cucumber plants early in the growing season
When Mom was gardening (way back in the 50’s and 60’s), there wasn’t a slew of choices when it came to what you put in the ground. Cucumbers were cucumbers. Today, there are a whole lot of varieties that you might want to try.
Like tomatoes, cucumbers come in two varieties – hybrid and heirloom. There are three general categories or types of cucumbers, too, slicing, pickling and burpless.
I’m an equal opportunity cucumber person. I grow and eat them all. But if you’ve got a yen for a certain type of cuke or a bit less space than you’d like, it helps to know just how big the plants will get and what type of cucumber you will harvesting.
Let’s start with the ones that most people buy in the grocery store, the long green slicing cukes. There are a couple of varieties that have gained popularity in the last few years.
Burpless Cucumbers – burpless cukes are, according to researchers in the Department of Horticultural Research at North Carolina State University, actually Oriental Trellis cucumbers. And they are a little less bitter and a little less prone to cause burping. Whatever you call them, these sweeter, long hybrids grow well on trellises and are a nice addition to any garden. But remember, this is a hybrid so seed-saving may not work.
Marketmore 76 & Marketmore 80 – this cuke likes to have a trellis to climb, too. I use an old box spring for my cukes. Like the burpless cucumber, Marketmore cukes are dark green and straight (unless they grow through a bit of the bedspring) and quite tasty. And, they’re disease resistant, too.
Straight 8 – another dark green, cuke that grows long and straight (hence its name) is a wonderful slicing cucumber. It’s crisp flesh and mild flavor make it a favorite for cucumber salads and sandwiches. Straight 8 is an heirloom so you can save its seeds. Once most of your harvest is in, leave a cucumber on the vine and let it turn yellow. Pick it, scoop out the seeds, clean them off then dry them, thoroughly. Refrigerate and use next year.
Cukes for Limited Spaces
If you don’t have a lot of space to garden in or you’re working with container gardening, you can try a couple of the bush cucumbers. They’ll still give you long, green slicing cukes but they’ll take up much less real estate doing it.
Bush Crop – these plants are ideal for small gardens or containers. The Bush cucumber produces the same size cukes as it’s bigger brothers – 8 to 12 inch long – but it does it on a dwarf, mound-shaped plant. There are no runners, either.
Fanfare is a hybrid but oh what a cucumber it is. It’s got it all, great taste; high yield, extended harvest and disease resistant, the Fanfare produces fruit on compact vines. It’s a great choice for someone with small gardening space or the container gardener. The cuke is slim, dark green and grows to 8 to 9 inches long. And it has a wonderful, sweet cucumber taste.
Salad Bush is another hybrid but it matures in just 57 days. This tomato plant only grows that are 18 inches long but it still produces beautiful straight, 6 –plus inch long, dark green cukes. The seed is a bit expensive but if you’re garden space is small or your raising cukes in pots, this may be the one you want to try. Direct seed the Salad Bus and sit back and wait for your beautiful, compact bush to produce beautiful, flavorful cucumbers for your table.
Pickling cucumbers are smaller, have more spines and hold up to brining better than slicing pickles. But I think of the pickling cuke as a “two fer.” You can pickle them; you can also slice them and eat them right off the vine! Here are a couple that you might want to consider but don’t limit yourself to just these varieties.
The Bush Pickle is fast to harvest – producing fruit in just 48 days. It’s another compact plant so it’s good for container growing – no need for trellises or stakes! The Bush Pickle may be small but it produces a good-sized crop while taking up just 3 to 4 feet of space. The fruit is about 4 inches long, light to mid-green, with a crisp, tender flavor – perfect for pickles!
Carolina (Hybrid matures just one day after the Bush Pickle, taking 49 days to produce its straight, blocky fruit. The Carolina has medium-sized vines so you may want to trellis the plants. Vigorous, with great yields, the Carolina produces medium green fruit that are generally about 3 inches long and a bit blocky. The Carolina comes with spines, too and makes a great dill pickle.
Tips on Planting
Cucumbers are usually started from seed. Like their relatives, squash and melons, cucumbers like warm soil so only plant them after all danger of frost is past. In fact, I don’t plant my cukes until almost the end of May. They have to have warm soil and planting them early just means the seed may not germinate. Or if they do, growth will be slow and the plants will be small.
So, wait for the warm soil and warm air before putting cuke seeds in the ground. The same is true for transplants. But transplanting cucumbers is a bit tricky.
“Cucumbers resent transplanting.” I laughed out loud when I read that sentence in Moosewood Restaurant Kitchen Garden: Creative Gardening for the Adventurous Cook.
Then I transplanted some by pulling them out of their little plastic pots and shoving them in the ground. Needless to say the seeds I planted in the ground on the same day grew a whole lot faster than the transplants.
Apparently, cukes have lots of little tendrils – small branches off the central root that uptake water and nutrients and feed the plants. Harsh transplanting damages the branches and the plant may not recover, at all.
But since I like to have a jump on the growing season, I have worked out a way to do the least damage to the baby cuke plants while giving them about a 6 week jump on being put out in the ground.
I start seeds indoors in mid-March (Zone 5 ½) and once they get their true second set of leaves I simply place the 2 inch peat pot into a 4 inch peat pot and cover with soil. No transplant blues, no disruption and by mid-May, when these babies hit the dirt, they are tall, healthy and frequently covered with blooms
NOTE: when transplanting into the garden, do NOT remove from the peat pot. Just dig a hole deep enough to accommodate the 4 inch peat pot, place the whole pot in the ground and cover with soil.
Make sure you cover the top of the peat pot with soil or, just tear the first inch or so of the top of the pot. If you don’t, the wind will blow on the top of the peat pot and wick moisture right off the plant.
If you’re using seeds, you can put a single seed in the soil about every 12 inches and cover them with ½” to 1” of soil. Or you can create a small “hill” of soil and put 3 or 4 seeds in each hill and cover with 1/2 to 1 inch of soil and water them, gently. NOTE: you MUST water these seeds daily. If they dry out in the act of sprouting, they die.
If using the hill method. Leave 24” to 30” between each hill to give the plants a chance to grow without being crowded. If you’re using transplants, plant them in warm soil about 12 inches apart.
I usually put transplants on one side of the trellis I use for cukes (actually an antique bed spring I found by the side of the road) and put seeds in on the other side. This ensures that I have a longer picking season and, if I lose a plant or two to cucumber beetles, I have others to replace it.
By the way, unless you live in Maine or Canada, you can do a second planting for fall harvest by planting seeds in mid- to late summer.
Make sure you water cucumbers frequently. They have shallow roots and have to have moisture, especially when they are setting and maturing fruit. Try to use soaker hoses for cukes, too.
Cucumbers also like mulch – something that keeps the soil warm in early spring. And floating row covers can help keep your baby cucumbers warm, too. Once the cucumber transplants have settled into their new home, you can side-dress with nitrogen fertilizer when the plants begin to vine.
Be careful not to handle cucumber plants when they are wet as you can transmit diseases from plant to plant that way. I only harvest in the afternoon, after the sun has dried off the leaves, top and bottom.
Next week, how to find and destroy the bugs that bug cukes and my favorite refrigerator pickle recipe