Crisp, fresh-from-the-vine cucumbers are the epitome of warm summer evenings. From the gourd family Cucurbitaceae, cucumbers can be pickled or sliced and depending on the variety, can be cylindrical or elongated in shape.
Traditionally thought of as an out-of-control vine rambling across the yard, it may surprise you to know that cucumbers also grow exceptionally well on a trellis, fence or even up corn stalks. Learning how to grow cucumbers sets you well on your way to enjoying the best that summer has to offer.
When to plant
Cucumbers are warm season plants so if you plan to sow seeds directly into the soil, do so a few weeks after the last frost. Cucumber seedlings do not transplant well. If your summer tends to be on the shorter and cooler side, you can speed up the growing process by sprouting the seeds indoors a couple of days before planting them outside. Simply place the seeds between damp, warm paper towels and place them in a warm, lit area. Once the seeds sprout, plant them in the garden immediately.
To prolong their growing season, plant different varieties of cucumbers, which in turn, can help you to get creative in the kitchen.
Site Selection and Preparation
Cucumbers love sunlight and warm temperatures. Choose a place in your garden that receives ample sun and is free from frosts. However, extremely hot conditions can also adversely affect the fruit set on the plants so give them some protection from the hot afternoon sun by providing dappled shade.
Cucumbers are gross feeders; therefore, rich, organic matter should be worked into well-draining soil. Thoroughly water the soil before planting.
After the vines develop their first flowers and runners, add additional compost, manure or organic fertiliser.
The Iconic Rambling Vine
Personally, I love a garden that has a bit of a wild look. I like companion planting and mimicking what I call “nature’s orderly chaos.” Therefore, I have a soft spot for sprawling vines. If the rambling vine is your calling too, you can plant seeds in rows or hills. For row planting, mound the soil to provide extra warmth and plant the seeds every 30 cm. For hill planting, each hill should be spaced about 90 cm apart and contain three plants.
If it is space that you lack or just prefer a tidier look, cucumbers grow well on supports or trellises. Make sure to select a site that is protected from the wind as strong wind can wreak havoc on the vines.
Not only will growing cucumbers on a trellis make for easy picking, but it also aids in air circulation around the plant, which assists in the prevention of diseases associated with growing cucumbers.
Additionally, the shade created by the vine and trellis provides an ideal habitat for lettuce or other greens such as spinach, bok choi or tatsoi.
(Ed. Note: for more Vertical Vegetable Gardening Ideas, see our recent article by Eileen O’Sullivan)
Cucumbers are over 90% water; therefore, it comes as no surprise that they require a good deal of it to prevent bitter, deformed fruit. The soil should be consistently moist. With the arrival of summer, mulch around the plants with an organic mulch such as leaves, straw or hay. Good mulching will retain moisture, keep the fruit clean and minimise weed growth.
Planting cucumbers amongst other plants can have great advantages. They do very well among corn and beans as all three plants require the same growing conditions. The corn also makes a great pole for the cucumber to climb. Another great support for the vines is sunflowers.
Cucumbers do well amid radishes, as radishes are natural deterrents for the pesky cucumber beetle. The beetles often carry bacterial wilt disease that causes plants to rapidly wilt and die. Adding dill to the mix can help attract beneficial insects, which attack predators like cucumber beetles and aphids, who harbour and spread cucumber mosaic virus. Plus, the dill will be incredibly handy for making dill pickles – my favourite!
Plant some nasturtiums nearby for some added garden colour and to repel the cucumber beetle – the flowers are also known to aid in the growth of the cucumber and to improve their flavour.
You can expect cucumbers to be ready anywhere between 50-70 days after planting. Size varies with the variety planted but the fruit should be uniformly green (unless it is a lemon cucumber), firm and crisp.
For eating purposes, do not let the fruit turn yellow – it will be bitter. Remove the fruit with scissors or a sharp knife.
Harvest cucumbers frequently to encourage prolonged production and good flavour. Rinse, gently pat dry and store immediately in the refrigerator.
Although you may be tempted to indulge in your most perfect cucumbers, save a few of them to harvest the seeds for more cucumbers the following year!
Let open-pollinated varieties turn leathery yellow or brown on the vine. Slice away the rinds without cutting into the seeds and place the core of the fruit into a bucket filled with water. Mash the fruit thoroughly with your hands. After two days, scoop out the seeds that have settled on the bottom of the bucket (discard any floating seeds) and allow them to dry on newspaper for two weeks. Save the largest seeds and store in a cool, dry place.
Cucumbers are extremely versatile and can be added to water for a refreshing drink, sliced into sticks for sushi rolls, chopped with tomatoes, jalapenos, cilantro and onion for a salsa to accompany fish tacos, added to a gazpacho, or simply enjoyed between two slices of freshly baked bread.