Growing Cucumbers at Home
If you’ve only ever seen cucumbers in the vegetable section of the supermarket, or in jars in the pickle aisle, then you might be surprised at how many different kinds of cucumbers there are in the world. In addition to the familiar cylindrical green varieties, there are little white ones, round yellow ones, and even some that are creamy white or light green and curved. In good news for the organic grower, quite a few cucumber seed varieties are available in organic form.
Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) originate from tropical regions, which means that they like warm weather, but not heat that is intense nor dry. They aren’t adapted to tolerate frost, but since they typically grow and mature somewhere between 55 and 60 days, it’s easy to have homegrown cucumbers even in a short season – provided that you plant them during the sunny season.
Before deciding where to place cucumbers, it’s necessary to think about how they’re going to grow. Cucumber plants are viney plants and they have long vines that can easily take up space in the garden. You can certainly allow them to sprawl on the ground, but in that case, each plant may take up to about 9 square feet. If you don’t want to do that, the solution is to grow your cucumbers vertically.
Growing cucumbers vertically not only saves space, but also produces fruits that are healthier and cleaner. If you have a garden fence that gets full sun, then you can plant your cucumbers there and let them climb the fence, securing them as they grow. Another approach would be to, grow them up on stakes or on trellises hung with netting, wire, or string, being sure to pinch the growing tip when it reaches the top, and prune side shoot in order to lessen the weight of the vine. Mature cucumber plants are quite heavy and large, so the structure that supports them needs to be sturdy as well.
The highest cucumber yields are achieved in clay soils amended with a good deal of humus. Soil with a bit of sand may help with faster crop yields though. Cucumbers generally like fertile soil, so it would be wise to add plenty of organic matter, such as a rich compost or thoroughly rotted manure. Make sure that the soil pH is around 6.0 to 6.5.
Types of Cucumbers
Before buying your cucumber seeds, make sure they suit your growing plan. There are four commonly accepted groups of cucumbers:
- Burpless cucumbers (these include the Asian cucumber, which is mild in taste)
- Slicing cucumbers (these include the American cucumber)
- Pickling cucumbers (these include the Kirby cultivar)
- Greenhouse cucumbers (these include the Japanese and English cucumbers which are burpless as well)
What is the difference between all of them? Well, ALL cucumbers contain cucurbitacin, which is a bitter-tasting compound that cause us humans to burp after eating them. Therefore, cucumbers generally are divided into those that have varying degrees of cucurbitacin. Therefore for consumption, they are either sliced or pickled, but burpless and greenhouse groups have been added as well in recent times, with the burpless ones considered to be the ones most suited to be eaten raw and fresh, because they have the lowest levels of cucurbitacin.
Pickling cucumbers generally have bumpy skin with tiny spines, and are shorter or thicker than slicing cucumbers. Slicing and burpless cucumbers have thin, smooth skin. Greenhouse cucumbers are those cultivars with less tolerance to frost and should be grown indoors. But in general, all cucumbers need lots of sun and warm conditions to grow well.
Quite a few gardeners start their cucumber seeds indoors a fortnight before they plant them outside, in order to lengthen the season. However, unless you can ensure that your seeds are at 21-26° Celsius during the day, and no colder than 15° Celsius at night, then it’s better to just simply wait for warmer weather to arrive.
If you do sow your seeds indoors, keep whatever planting medium you’re using moist, but well-drained. Peat or cow pots work best, because they’ll enable you to set your little plants out in the garden without disturbing the roots, which is something that cucumbers really can’t stand. In a greenhouse/indoors, cucumbers can be planted at the end of spring, but if your greenhouse is heated, you may plant them even in March.
If you sow your cucumber seeds outside, directly in the garden, the optimal time for planting is early summer before the onset of frosts. You can plant either in clusters (hills) or in rows, at a depth of about ½ an inch. Seed spacing will depend on the variety. If the air and the ground are still cold, protect your plants with a floating row cover, which will also prevent cucumber beetles from munching on them. Make sure you remove the cover once the female blossoms appear, so that they can be pollinated. At that point, it will be time to set up any vertical supports, and training the vines around them.
The alternative way to growing outdoor cucumbers is to germinate the seeds indoors, and/or let them grow in a cold frame for a week or so, before planting them outdoors. This helps to acclimatize them to the colder outdoor conditions.
Mulch the plants well, to protect the fruit (if you’re letting them sprawl), keep down the weeds (weeding can damage cucumber roots), and keep the soil evenly moist. Cucumber plants need a very big, consistent water supply, but they don’t like standing water; you’ll need to provide good drainage. Once the plants are about a foot high, top-dress them with manure tea or liquid seaweed fertilizer.
Cucumber Pests & Pathogens
Common pests of cucumber plants include aphids, mites, cucumber beetles, and pickle worms. Meanwhile, common diseases of cucumber include anthracnose, powdery mildew, downy mildew, angular leaf spot, and bacterial wilt. One thing worth noting is that slicing cucumbers are regarded as resistant to the aforementioned diseases.
Companion Plants for Cucumbers
Suitable companion plants for cucumbers include corn, various beans, oregano, marigold, nasturtiums, and peas. These plants increase nitrogen in the soil, which will benefit cucumbers, or in the case of oregano, marigolds, and nasturtiums – act as repellents for the pests that feed on cucumbers. Avoid potatoes near cucumbers, because they both compete for the same nutrients. Sage also should be avoided, as it seems to attract cucumber pests.
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