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Cucumbers
(Cucumis sp.)


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Cultivars

Cucumbers.

Nero Wolfe, the great 286-pound gourmet (and detective), in a fit of anger swears an oath that he will eat no meat until the current case is resolved. Archie Goodwin, his All-American and sardonic associate, is unimpressed, and vows in response that in that case he will eat no boiled cucumbers until the case is over.

The cucumber assuredly has its partisans. We do not by any means dislike it, we just don't think it a really important vegetable. It is, we feel, at its very best when served quite cold on a hot day, dressed with yogurt and a heavy dusting of dill weed (a classic dish)--or when made into the soup-like Greek concoction called tzatziki, which is just the same cucumber/yogurt/dillweed combination, but whizzed in a blender. As Wakko Warner would say, "Deeeeeelicious!"

And, as with all our warm-weather crops in this region, we need early types, though most common ones are reasonably early. But before even getting to particular cultivars, it helps to know that a "cucumber" can be any of several different species, and even different genera (cucumbers and melons are quite closely related, and at least one "cucumber" type, the "Armenian", is really, in biological terms, a form of melon). The common type is often divided in seedsmen's catalogues into "slicers" and "picklers", but there isn't much real differentiation there other than traditional uses and perhaps size.

In gardening and culinary terms, not taxonomic ones, the usual and unusual sorts of available cucumbers are described below. While individual tastes can vary--is mildness of cucumber flavor a plus or a minus?--most sources do incline to perceiving the Armenian, Oriental, and Beit Alpha types as better-eating varieties than the familiar common types, as to actual flavor and also as to bitterness and gas production ("the burps"). Also noteworthy is that at bottom it seems most tasters put a higher premium on a lack of bitterness than on taste as such, which may be why the non-standard types tend to be higher-ranked. In the list below, we have shown what our investigations have suggested as choices. If we had to pick just one type, it'd be that rather unusual Indian cultivar the Poona Kheera, which looks more like a potato rather than a cucumber, but gets rave reviews on taste and productivity, and is also particularly early.


Common Cucumber

Boothby's Blonde cucumber

The Boothby's Blonde heirloom type was grown for generations by the Boothby family of Maine, and has recently become available to home gardeners. It is described as being early, tender, of excellent flavor, not bitter, and a host of other nice things. It is probably the best "standard"-type cucumber around, though it looks a little different from the greener sorts you see in supermarkets. (The common cucumber is often called the "Dutch" or the "English" cucumber.)



Armenian

Armenian cucumber

The Armenian is a long, often much curved type (as noted, actually not a true cucumber but a type of melon); owing to its shape, it is sometimes referred to as the "serpent" or "snake" cucumber. It is hard to recommend a particular cultivar, as few catalogues distinguish one "Armenian" type from another.

Though many find the taste of Armenian cukes superior to that of common cukes, some don't like their texture. Also, Armenians must be picked fairly young, else they often turn into a sort of giant generic "banana melon". They're usually at their best at 12" - 15" long, but can grow to 30" or even 36". As melons, they need more heat to grow well than do true cucumbers.



Oriental

Satsuki Madori cucumber

This type is also commonly called "Japanese", though many Oriental nations commonly grow the type (it is also often called "Asian"). It is another long type, usually thin and straight, with a milder flavor than standard types. The Oriental types have many partisans, who find them tender and better-tasting than common cukes (and less bitter and gas-producing), but otherwise generally similar. It is hard to select a single preferred cultivar, though one commonly mentioned is the Japanese Climbing Cucumber; also, some say that so-called "Korean" types are especially fine. (The Kitazawa Seed Co. has a representative cultivar list of Japanese cucumbers most--but not all--hybrids.)



Beit Alpha

Beit Alpha type cucumber

The "Beit Alpha" type (sometimes called "Persian") is an Israeli development (they have developed a lot of useful hot-weather crops, notably melons and lettuces) whose plants are largely or wholly female and so do not need cross-pollination. They are thought to have an excellent taste and low bitterness. All cultivars reportedly taste about the same. Note that owing to its origins, most beit alpha types are hybrids, but there are some open-pollinated cultivars available (such as the Super Zagross). Most seedsmen, however, do not distinguish cultivars: you're lucky if they say whether it's hybrid or OP.



Ball and Round

Lemon cucumber Poona Kheera cucumber

The "ball" types, small spheres (such as the "lemon cucumber") tend to be especially early. Generally, they are thought to be pleasant but rather low in distinct cucumber flavor, but there are some notable exceptions. In particular, the almost funny-looking new Poona Kheera, which resembles nothing so much as a potato (see image at right), is emerging as possibly the best-tasting cucumber of all cucumbers in many opinions.



Some Selecting

Cucumbers cannot usefully be preserved, so the amount one wants to grow is limited by the amount one can plausibly consume during their harvest window. We ourselves are thus limiting our types this year to two, which will be the Boothby's and the Poona Kheera; but we will definitely try the other three types in times to come. Let the best cuke win!


Planting

Timing

In our climate, cucumbers work best as transplants.

Cucumbers grow best at temperatures over 80° F., a temperature we only start to get as the daily high in middle to late June. Our temperatures normally peak around August 1st, so ideally our cucumbers' growing season outdoors should have that as its midpoint; if we went by the nominal 60-day growth (from transplant), that would be a July 1st plant-out date, but we hope for extended production and so start June 15th. But whatever your scheme, plant cucumbers out only long after the last expected frost--cucumbers cannot take frost. And prepare the soil with plastic mulch about two weeks before.

The seedling time, from sowing to transplant, is typically 3 to 4 weeks. We thus sow cucumbers indoors around May 15th.


Starting Seedlings

Plant seed ¼ to ½ inch deep. The optimum soil germination temperature is 86° F., and they will scarcely germinate below even 68°, so keep the seed tray or pot good and warm. Sow 2 or 3 times the number of actual plants wanted, then thin out the seedlings to the best plants (germination should take about two weeks).


The Bed

Cucumbers are not terribly fussy about soil type (though sandy loam is better) or pH (though some say that keeping the pH very low-acid, say 6.8 to 7.0, helps prevent that bane, the bitter cuke); but they do need really rich soil, so fertilize heavily.

Also, cucumbers require a lot of water, constantly available; on the other hand, they do not like "wet feet" and can damp off. Moreover, they have deep roots--three to four feet--best encouragedby "deep watering". All that put together means that cucumbers require really well-drained, really deeply spaded soil.

Their spot in the garden has to be a sunny one.

Some sources recommend avoiding use of the same ground for cucurbits (cukes, melons, squash) more often than once every two or even three years, owing to possible soil-borne diseases. We will rotate our plantings on a two-year basis and hope for the best.

Cucumbers, like a surprisingly great number of home-garden vegetable plants (including some said to have deep roots), do quite well in containers. We have lots of garden space, but are going to containers for cukes (and a number of other things) this year as a way to try to avoid the pest probelm--in our case, voles, who attack both seeds (not relevant for things we transplant, like cukes, but very much so for what we direct-seed, such as beans) and young plants. By keeping the seedlings off the ground in a container, we hope for better control of pests and also of their exact soil and other growing conditions.


Transplanting Out

Be especially careful with the roots when transplanting. In a deep or raised bed, space the plants a foot apart (though some sources suggest as much as two feet of separation). Recall that they are climbers, and provide some sort of trellis for them to grow up.

If you are considering containers, five-gallon containers are said to allow growing "one or two" cucumber plants.

The use of plastic mulch--set out a week or two before the expected transplant date--to get and keep the soil warm is a good idea for these heat-loving plants. The seedlings can be planted through X-cuts made in such mulch. A university report for commercial growers notes that:

Use of plastic mulch and trickle irrigation has been shown to be very effective with both transplanted and direct-seeded slicing cucumbers. Early and total yields are increased and more than compensate for the increased cost. For black plastic mulch to increase soil temperature, it is critical that the soil surface be smooth and that the plastic be in close contact with the soil. This can only be achieved by laying the plastic with a properly adjusted machine. Clear plastic mulch is excellent for transferring heat to the soil but does not control weeds.

A new generation of plastic mulch films allows for good weed control together with soil warming that is intermediate between black plastic and clear film. These films are called IRT (infrared-transmitting) or wavelength selective. They are more expensive than black or clear films, but appear to be cost-effective where soil warming is important.

Research has shown that the use of drip irrigation under black plastic mulch is superior to sprinkler irrigation with black plastic mulch. Yields usually increase dramatically.

Plastic, spunbonded, and non-woven materials have been developed as crop covers for use as windbreaks, for frost protection, and to enhance yield and earliness. They complement the use of plastic mulch and drip irrigation . . . . Non-woven or spunbonded polyester and polypropylene, and perforated polyethylene, row covers may be used for 4 to 8 weeks immediately after seeding or transplanting. Covers should be removed when plants begin to flower to allow proper pollination by insects. Row covers increase heat unit accumulation by 2 to 3 times over bare ground. Two to four degrees of frost protection may also be obtained at night. Soil temperatures and root growth are also increased under row covers as are early yields, and in some cases total yields.

(See our site page on colored plastic mulches for more information on that topic.)

Growing

Cucumbers, as noted, require a lot of water, constantly available, but need to be encouraged to send down deep roots. If you have prepared the soil well, as described above, give them a really heavy soaking every few days--one source says once a week--but take care that the soil around them stays moist for a good ways down (a good soil-moisture meter is, like a good soil-temperature gauge, an invaluable tool).

Keep cucumbers as weed-free as possible, but take care: do not hoe deeper than at most an inch or you will likely cut some feeder roots.

When the vines are about 10 to 12 inches long, side-dressing with some extra fertilizer can be a help, but don't go crazy, lest the plants grow more vine than fruit.

All cucurbits develop separate male and female flowers. Male flowers develop first, and are easily distinguished as a plain flower on a long stem, having only stamens; female flowers form large ovaries, which look like small fruit. After the first female flowers are pollinated, the vines develop both male and female flowers.

(Some melons, many squashes, and all cucumbers cross-pollinate with one another. If you plan to save seed, grow only one variety of each type. To ensure vigorous seed, you should hand-pollinate by removing a male flower from one plant then shaking it inside a female flower on another plant; to prevent further pollination of that second plant, close the female bloom with a piece of string or twist-tie for a few days.)

One expert source recommends that when the plants achieve six or seven true leaves--not seed leaves--you pinch off the growing points, so as to make the plants branch and straggle. But do not remove the flowers.

If any growing cukes are in contact with the ground, put something--glass, plastic, tile, whatever--under them to keep them out of contact with the soil.

Healthy cucumber plants grow relatively rapidly (east of the Cascades, harvest can often begin in early July). When once the plants start bearing, pick daily when the cukes reach a decent size (but the types we recommend can get pretty long!); whatever you do, do not wait till your cukes turn yellow--yellow cucumbers are overmature and will be strong flavored and of poor quality. Harvest by cutting the stem about ¼ inch above the fruit. Most sources suggest that well-picked healthy plants will continue to produce till the weather cools (and stop at the first frost).


More

Relevant Links

Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful:


Odds and Ends

Biology

Cucumbers are of the Cucurbitae family, and are very closely related to melons (the "Armenian cucumber" is really as much a melon as a cucumber); other well-known members of the family are squash and pumpkins. Cucumber flowers are monoecious (individual flowers are either male or female, but both sexes can be found on the same plant) and are pollinated by insects; the plant is thus self-fertile.



History

We try not to re-invent the wheel. Here's a link to a good history of cucumbers.


Envoi

Some say that cukes taste best eaten within a few hours of being picked, so plan on using lots of cucumber during their season; if you have no other ideas, recall that tzatziki (mentioned above) makes a mighty refreshing summer beverage, one that we, at least, never tire of.

We don't usually do recipes, but here's a super-easy tzatziki:

  1. Throw these into a blender:
  2. Whizz it up really well.

  3. Refrigerate it for at least an hour--it needs to be well-chilled.

  4. Drink it, then make some more. There--wasn't that easy?

And, in our classic Envoi form, here's a link to the very first edition of the e-zine Cucumber Focus.


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