Cucumbers are among the top five vegetable crops in the world. Most people think of them as a super-healthy vegetable, but botanically, they’re fruit, though this crisp, crunchy delight behaves like a vegetable in the kitchen, however. You can serve cucumbers raw as snacks or in salads, or pickled. But it might surprise you to learn they’re also delicious baked, roasted, fried, and in soups. The easy-to-grow cucumber belongs to the same family as cantaloupes, watermelons, and pumpkins. Whether you're new to veggie gardening or a pro, consider adding this versatile pick to your garden.
There are 40 species of cucumbers, divided into four varieties: pickling, slicing, bush, and vining. Pickling cucumbers have thinner skins so that the pickling liquid can be absorbed easier and grow to between three and four inches in length. Slicing varieties grow longer, between seven and eight inches, have much thicker skin, and are a dark green color. Look for the “burpless” type, a seedless variety that doesn’t contain cucurbitacin, a compound that causes belching. Vining cucumbers need more space than bush varieties, which are the easiest to care for.
Purchase starter plants from a local nursery or start your cucumber patch with seeds. Plant two or three seeds one-half to an inch deep into mounds about eight inches apart. Once they’ve sprouted, move the plants so that they are two feet apart. If you’ve chosen starter plants instead or are using a trellis, plant them about 12 inches apart. Add compost to each planting hole for an added boost and to improve soil drainage.
Cucumbers need at least eight hours of full sun each day. Early morning sunlight is beneficial because it dries up the dew on the plant’s foliage and vines, preventing mildew or blight. Cucumbers are super-sensitive to cold, so don’t plant them until any danger of frost has passed. They grow best in well-drained, sandy loam soil, and they're sprawlers. Add a trellis for them to climb if you don’t have a lot of ground space in your garden.
Start with larger containers for the best result. If you’re planting seeds directly into the potting soil outdoors, sow them in a depth of a half to one inch. If you choose to grow your plants from seeds, be careful when you transfer them to the outdoor pot. Experts note that cucumbers are very picky about having their roots disturbed. Keep the soil moist — don’t allow it to become completely dry between waterings.
If you notice pale, yellowish leaves on your cucumber plants, chances are they’re not getting enough nitrogen from the soil. Cucumbers are "heavy feeders", which means they require a lot of minerals to thrive. Apply one cup of nitrogen-rich fertilizer per each ten-foot row. Fertilizer chemicals can damage leaves and stems, so apply it to the soil near the plants, mix it into the surface, then water. Stop fertilizing once you see fruit. Fertilized cucumber plants that don’t produce a good harvest but look lush and green may have been overfertilized.
Moist soil and weekly watering keeps cucumbers thriving. If the temperatures are hotter or there’s a lack of rain, the vines may require more water. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation methods are effective because they keep the foliage dry, which prevents leaf diseases. Most cucumber plant varieties have both male and female flowers. Male flowers blossom first, then fall off. They carry the pollen on their stamens inside the petals. The female blossoms have a miniature cucumber at the petal base — this is the plant’s ovary, where the fruit forms. Seeds germinate in about five to 10 days.
You can reap your harvest 50 to 70 days after you plant your crop. With warm soil, you’ll likely see fruit within six weeks. If you see that the cucumbers are turning yellow, it means you’ve waited too long to harvest them. They fill with seeds and have a bitter flavor. Harvest ripe cucumbers regularly to keep the plants producing. If there is an overabundance of ripened fruit, the plant will expend its energy making the existing fruit bigger rather than producing new blooms.
If you want an ample cucumber supply throughout the growing season, try sowing a new plant every two to three weeks. Stop planting about three months before the expected first frost date. Then, one month before the frost, pinch off emerging new flowers. This encourages the plant to focus its energy on ripening existing fruit rather than growing additional cucumbers.
Cucumber beetles munch on the stems of your plants. If you see yellow, wilting leaves with holes in them, chances are these little pests are the culprits. The larvae feed on the plant’s roots, while the adults go for the leaves. The yellow and black-striped bugs prefer not only cucumbers, but other cucurbits like watermelons and squash. The spotted cucumber beetle has 12 black spots on their yellow abdomen and will munch on a variety of other plants as well. Use yellow sticky traps to catch them.
If you’re seeing plenty of blooms but no fruit, chances are something is interfering with pollination, and you may need to hand pollinate your plants.
Avoid planting potatoes near your cucumbers. They release a substance into the soil that prevents cucumbers from growing. Instead, surround them with beneficial varieties like radishes or flowers for increased yields and nicely shaped fruit. Radishes repel beetles and aphids, while certain flowers attract pollinators.