by Master Gardener Ellie Samuel
Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) have been grown for approximately 3,000 years. They are mentioned in the Bible, were believed to aid beauty (Cleopatra), were beloved by Roman Emperors both raw and as pickles (Tiberius and Julius Caesar) and were consumed by Napoleon, George Washington and the first Queen Elizabeth to name just a few historical cucumber devotees.
Though cucumbers have been cultivated for thousands of years, they were not improved until the 1800's. The varieties that are used today come from these hybrids. There are many varieties to choose from: pickling, slicing, burpless (meaning the skins don’t cause indigestion), bush, seedless, English, Persian, Armenian, African and Asian. How to choose? Chose a variety that is disease resistant and meets your eating and spacing needs.
Master Gardener and food garden writer, Steve Albert, suggests the following varieties for Sonoma County:
- Slicing – ‘Dasher 2,’ ‘Greensleeves,’ ‘Marketmore 76,’ ‘Marketmore 80,’ ‘Raider,’ ‘Slice Master Hybrid,’ ‘Straight 8,’ ‘Sweet Success,’ ‘Burpless Hybrid,’ ‘Orient Express,’ ‘Sweet Slice’
- Bush (more compact): ‘Bush Champion,’ ‘Bush Crop,’ ‘Bush Whopper,’ ‘Fanfare,’ ‘Pot Luck,’ ‘Salad Bush,’ ‘County Fair’
- Pickling: ‘National Pickling,’ ‘Pickle Bush,’ ‘Regal,’ ‘Saladin’
Cukes are easy to grow but sometimes people avoid them because of their bitter taste. The bitterness in cucumbers derives from a compound called cucurbitacin which increases when cucumbers are stressed, especially with weather extremes and uneven moisture. Look for bitter-free varieties such as ‘Marketmore’ and most pickling cukes.
One last thing about cucumber varieties. A single plant of most cucumber varieties produces both female and male flowers. Like squash, only the female flowers produce the fruit, but they rely on pollinators to fertilize them with pollen from the male flowers. However, single plants of a few cucumber varieties only produce flowers of one sex. In this case, you will find, in the seed packet, some seeds marked as male. Make sure that you plant both female and male seed in this case.
Cucumbers thrive in rich soil in a sunny spot. Plant seeds in hills or rows after all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed up to at least 60 degrees. Plant trellised cucumbers 8 to 12 inches apart. Cukes need between 1 and 2 inches of water per week. Keep them evenly moist and mulched to conserve water. It is most efficient to use drip irrigation or a soaker hose. They are heavy feeders and should be side dressed with compost and/or fertilizer after the first flowers appear. The more cukes you pick the more you get. Keep them as weed free as possible as weeds can harbor insects and carry disease.
Many cucumber varieties have trailing vines that will occupy at least 25 square feet of garden space. Instead, you can plant a bush variety in a pot or you can trellis or cage a vining variety. Start to train them up when they flower. It keeps them clean and it gets them off the ground so that they dry faster (less disease prone). If you work with the vines while they are wet you can spread disease. Wait until the moisture evaporates.
Harvest cucumbers when they reach their mature size—which varies greatly based on variety. Seed packets or catalogs are a good source for this information. Cucumber nutrients are mostly in the skin. They are a good source of vitamin C and folic acid. Some minerals they contain are potassium, magnesium and silica. Silica promotes strength in joints and connective tissue.
Cucumbers provide a low-calorie crunch to your sandwiches and salads. Try sliced cucumbers in a 2-hour pickle in apple cider vinegar with sugar, salt and pepper to taste. Cucumbers are used in soaps, lotions and facial masks for skin beautification. A slice of cucumber placed on the eye reduces puffiness and swelling.