Cucumbers offer a fresh and crisp flavor that’s perfect for the summer months. Thanks to many ways that you can use cucumbers, the vegetable is a great addition to any backyard garden.
Growing cucumbers is relatively simple. However, small details can make or break your harvest. I learned this the hard way. Despite my best efforts, many of my cucumbers from seasons past tasted bitter and rough.
I knew that if I wanted to enjoy cucumbers all that these vegetables had to offer, I needed to make some changes to how I was growing and caring for the plants. Luckily, it didn’t take long for me to succeed and get the harvests I was after.
What Are Cucumbers?
Cucumbers plants are a popular annual crop that thrives in any environment that can support its needs. Known scientifically as the Cucumis sativus, these plants originated in South Asia. However, they’ve since spread to most continents. The fruits are readily available at most grocery stores.
The interesting thing about cucumbers is that they’re almost 95 percent water. Like other summer fruits and vegetables, the high water content provides that iconic crisp flavor. They can keep you hydrated in the summer heat.
Because they’re made up of mostly water, don’t expect to get a ton of nutrients out of these vegetables. While they do contain small amounts of vitamins and minerals, raw cucumbers don’t have nearly as much nutritional content as other vegetables.
Don’t let that turn you away! There are still a lot of great health benefits to taking advantage of. For one, these vegetables have several antioxidants. They contain Vitamin C, beta-carotene, flavonoids, and more. The antioxidants can prevent cell oxidation and fight off free radicals. Plus, they can act as anti-inflammatories to keep your body in good shape.
The skins of the cucumber are also a great source of water-soluble fiber. They can keep your digestive system in check, which may help to keep your cholesterol and blood pressure low. When paired with a healthy exercise regime, cucumbers can even help you manage your weight.
What Are the Different Varieties Available?
When it comes to variety, there’s no shortage of plants to choose from. There are a couple of ways to categorize cucumber plants. The first is by examining how they grow.
These types of cucumbers grow in dense bushes. They were originally created to save space. Most species only require a few feet of square footage. As a result, they are ideal for those with smaller gardens or those who want to plant in containers.
Typically, cucumber bushes produce a moderate amount of fruit. You’re not going to get a crazy amount of crops at the end of the growth cycle. However, these plants do produce enough for most families. Plus, you can always plant multiple bushes in succession to increase your harvest.
Vining cucumbers are more similar to what you would find in the wild. As the name would suggest, these plants produce sprawling vines that require ample space to grow. Generally, it’s recommended that gardeners use trellises to save space and ensure that vines are getting enough sun.
When it comes to production, vining varieties tend to generate much bigger harvests than their bush counterparts. The plants get bigger, resulting in more growth potential.
Beyond growth habits, you can also select cucumbers based on their average size and how you plan to use them. Cucumber species can be separated into slicing or pickling varieties. The good news is that you can find vining or bush plants for either option. This allows you to pick a plant that truly works for your needs.
More than likely, the cucumbers you see at your local grocery store are slicing cucumbers. These vegetables are larger and have thicker skins, which is what makes them great for shipping and storage. Most are between 6 and 8 inches in length and have a diameter of about an inch.
Now, if you’re planning on making some delicious garnishes for burgers and hotdogs, pickling cucumbers are the way to go. When they are fully mature, pickling cucumbers are about half of the size of slicing varieties. They measure 3 to 4 inches long and less than an inch wide.
These cucumbers tend to be a bit thin-skinned, which is great for soaking in all of that pickling juice. Popular cultivars include the iconic Gherkin, Calypso, and Carolina cucumber.
Other Varieties Available
There are some oddball varieties out there as well. Several hybrid plants are available. They fall somewhere in the middle between bush cucumbers and vining cucumbers. Burpless cucumbers are also a popular option among gardeners.
These cucumbers contain less Cucurbitacin compounds. This compound is responsible for that bitter taste and often causes bloating in people who a lot of cucumbers. While the latter element is still up for debate, many people still enjoy burpless varieties because they can be easier to grow. We’ll get into why in a bit.
What is the Best Time to Plant?
The best time to plant cucumbers is a couple of weeks after the last winter frost. Cucumbers thrive in temperatures between 60 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. However, seeds are a bit more finicky. The soil temperature should be about 70 degrees to improve the germination rate.
Cucumbers are very susceptible to front and do not tolerate temperatures anywhere near freezing. These are summer plants that require full sun and toasty temperatures.
To maximize your harvest, you can start seeds about 3 weeks indoors. Plant a few seeds in soil cells or use a flat tray. It’s better to plant multiple seeds at once. You can always thin the herd later before you transplant outside.
Stick your seed trays in a warm and sunny spot. It’s important that you keep the soil above 70 degrees. You can put the seeds on top of your refrigerator to take advantage of residual heat. Or, you can invest in seed mats that produce warmth from below. Regardless of what method you choose, this small step will increase the chances of successful germination.
Approximately two weeks after the last frost, you can transplant your seedlings outside. Make sure to harden the plants off a bit before you do so. This will help to avoid transplant shock and reduce the mortality rate of your seedlings.
Cucumber plants take between 50 and 70 days to reach full maturity. The appropriate harvesting time will depend entirely on the variety you choose and your preferred texture.
This is a relatively short growth cycle, so you should have no problem harvesting plenty of vegetables before the growing season is over. As always, plan ahead and plant in succession if you want to get the most cucumbers possible.
Where Can You Plant a Cucumber Plant?
Prior to moving your seedlings outdoors, it’s good to choose an appropriate spot and prepare your soil. Cucumbers need plenty of sunlight to reach their full potential.
They do best in spots that get full sun. Some varieties will tolerate partial shade throughout the day, but it’s best to find a spot in your garden that’s exposed to sunlight all day long.
Finding the Right Temperature
As we mentioned earlier, ideal temperatures for cucumbers are between 60 and 90 degrees. Planting in full sun can help keep the soil within that range. However, you need to be careful if you live in a particularly hot climate.
Once temperatures rise above 90 degrees, you run the risk of stressing the plant out. The plants can be a bit sensitive to the heat and respond negatively if temperatures rise too much. To avoid making your cucumbers bitter, consider providing some light shade in the afternoons.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, gardeners up north have to deal with lower temperatures. If that’s the case for you, try using mulch or plastic sheeting over the soil. Both options can help insulate the dirt and retain heat during cool evenings.
Preparing the Soil
As for soil quality, cucumbers need a growing medium that’s fertile and full of nutrients. It also needs to have good drainage to prevent the roots from becoming waterlogged.
Mix compost or manure into the soil a few weeks before transplanting. Break up the dirt with a garden shovel and dig down about 12 inches. Make sure that you’re turning the soil to evenly distribute the nutrient-rich material you used.
How to Plant a Cucumber Plant in the Garden
If you have started your seeds indoors, thin your tiny seedlings so that you have individual plants to move in your garden. This will make things easier and prevent overcrowding.
If you’re planting seeds directly, you will need to choose your arrangement based on the variety you choose.
Planting Bush Cucumbers
For standard bush cucumbers, you can plant in rows. Seed should be between 2 and 3 feet apart to ensure that each bush has plenty of room once it’s grown.
Simply make a small hole in the soil and place your seed in. Then, cover the seed with about an inch of soil. If you’re in a colder area, consider planting the seeds in raised hills or use plastic covering to retain heat.
You can plant a few seeds per spot and thin them out once they get a couple of inches tall.
Planting Vining Cucumbers
Vining cucumbers require a bit more work to get into the ground. First, create hills that are about 4 to 6 inches high and 16 inches across. These mounds only need to be about a foot apart.
Then, plant your seed into the soil as normal. You can install your trellis or cage around the small mounds for the vines to climb up once they start emerging.
Another option is to create vine channels. This method involves creating long ridges that are 4 to 6 inches high. These ridges should run along the entire length of the cucumber garden.
Leave about 36 inches of space between each ridge to create the channel. This is where your vines will grow. So, you don’t need a traditional trellis.
Be careful about letting the vines grow on the ground. Once your fruits start to develop, it could lead to disease. This is especially true if you have stagnant water between the planting ridges. Many gardeners will place tiles or stones between the ridges to keep vegetables out of water.
How to Take Care of the Cucumber Plant
Providing proper care for your plants is crucial. What you do between the planting stage and the harvesting stage will affect how your cucumbers taste.
Remember how we mentioned that the cucurbitacin compound causes cucumbers to taste bitter? Well, the concentration of that compound is directly related to how stressed the plant gets. The more stressed out it gets, the more cucurbitacin your harvested vegetables will have.
All cucumbers have the compound. It’s concentrated on the stem of the vegetable. Unfortunately, it can creep up into the flesh when things go awry during the growth cycle.
Everything from dehydration to too much heat can elevate cucurbitacin levels, so you need to be vigilant about your plant’s health.
Provide Plenty of Water
Cucumbers need about an inch of water every week. While that’s a good guideline to follow, it’s always best to test the soil regularly and adjust your plant’s water intake accordingly. The soil should remain moist at all times.
To test the moisture levels, stick your finger into the soil up to the second knuckle. If your finger comes out dry, you need to hydrate as quickly as possible.
Many gardeners utilize soaker hoses to prevent hydration issues. This is a good technique because you don’t have to worry about remembering to give your plants a drink. Just make sure that you’re not overdoing things and drowning the plant.
Always provide water at the base of the plants. Avoid watering cucumbers directly on the leaves, as this could cause fungal infections. Also, hydrate your plants in the early mornings or late evening to avoid excessive evaporation.
Supply the Right Amount of Fertilizer
Cucumbers do quite well with fertilizer that’s high in phosphorus and potassium. You can apply fertilizer after planting to give the plants a good boost. This should be repeated after the flowers start to bloom and every three weeks thereafter.
Always side-dress fertilizer to avoid burning the foliage. Also, don’t go overboard with fertilizer. You want the extra nutrients to give your plant a boost at just the right time. Applying too much can have the opposite effect and stunt your plant’s growth.
Keep Weeds Under Control
Finally, make sure to remove weeds as they pop up. Weeds deprive your cucumber plants of essential nutrients and water. So, they should be pulled as soon as possible.
Get rid of weeds with your hands. Be gentle around the base of the plant, as the root system is quite delicate.
You can prevent future plant growth with a fine layer of mulch. The mulch blocks sun exposure. Plus, it helps to keep the soil moist. It’s a win-win.
How to Harvest and Store Cucumbers
The best time to harvest your cucumbers varies by cultivar. Generally speaking, slicing varieties are ready when they’re about 6 to 8 inches long. You can cut pickling cucumbers off at the stem when they are 4 to 6 inches long.
To remove the vegetable, cut the stem off. Don’t pull on the fruit. This will only cause damage to the plant and prevent any future growth.
It’s important to harvest your cucumbers when they are ready. Over-ripened cucumbers turn yellow and become quite bitter. Your cucumbers should be firm and vibrant green when you harvest them.
Storing Your Cucumbers
Like most vegetables, you can pop cucumbers in your refrigerator for fresh storage. Before you do that, consider wrapping it in cling film. Because the vegetables are over 90 percent water, they can quickly shrivel up in storage.
Fresh pickles are a great summer snack and go well with a variety of dishes. It’s a great preservation method that turns the vegetable into something brand new.
There are many different pickling recipes out there. However, most utilize a basic brining solution.
What Pests and Diseases Affect Cucumbers?
As with any garden plant, cucumbers can experience a host of issues as they grow. Unfortunately, you’re not able to control the environment or keep all pests out. However, you can learn to identify the signs of trouble early on and take action to keep your plants in good condition.
One common problem that gardeners encounter is powdery mildew. This is a unique fungal infection that occurs when the leaves get wet. It looks like a white powdery substance. You can treat this condition with some all-natural fungicides. Some good options include neem oil and sulfur.
As for pests, cucumbers are attractive to all the usual bugs. Aphids, squash bugs, and even slugs a start to chow down on your plants. Cucumbers also attract cucumber beetles.
These pests are notoriously difficult to get rid of by conventional means. You can’t use pesticides on cucumber plants, as it could stress them out. So, you’ll need to take care of cucumber beetles the old-fashion way with traps.
Most cucumbers are monoecious plants. This means that they are pollinating plants that produce both male and female flowers. There are some varieties that are Gynoecious as well. However, your average garden variety will usually produce both types of flowers for successful pollination.
If your plants aren’t getting pollinated, be patient. Cucumbers tend to produce female flowers first. Thanks to the lack of male flowers, those female flowers often fall off and die. Just let some more flowers grow.
While they look similar, female flowers are easy to identify thanks to their longer base. Look closely and you will see what looks like a miniature cucumber. After fertilization, this is the fruit that will grow.
If your plants still aren’t being pollinated, you can do so yourself. Just use a soft brush or ear swab. Touch the inside of each male and female flower. This will move pollen around and fertilize the female flowers.
You can promote natural pollination by attracting bees and butterflies. Give your plants a light misting of diluted water to draw those pollinators in.
Collecting your first successful cucumber harvest makes all the hard work you put in worth it. These vegetables are a summer staple that can be used in many different ways. So why not give cucumber plants a try?
The first step is to prepare your soil and planting site. Once you find your groove and learn how to care for these plants, it’s smooth sailing until harvest time.