Cucumber (Cucumis sativus Linnaeus)

20190718_093355You cannot have a true Greek village salad without cucumber, nor can you have true Greek tzatziki (cucumber and yogurt sauce).  So can you be a true Greek gardener and not grow cucumber?  I think not.

20190718_091049(All links open a new page, so you won’t lose your spot when you look around!  Get information on gardening and cultural traditions, recipes, stories, and more!)

*A handy growing summary chart is at the end of the article.*

Of course there’s other things that cucumbers are useful for, like pickles and other garden salads.  I’m not using them for cosmetic eye-treatments because I’d rather have them in me than on me, but to each their own.

Thankfully, growing them is relatively easy, and doesn’t have to occupy a lot of garden space.  Many newer hybrids offer disease resistance along with increased productivity, better flavor, and uniformly shaped fruits.  Yes, cucumbers are a fruit!  However, like any garden plant, there are things to be aware of to ensure a better harvest.

Minor bug damage on the leaves, but not bad.

Where to plant:

Cucumbers prefer full sun, but aren’t fond of hot, dry conditions.  For my zone 9 garden, this means making sure to stay on top of watering and mulching the soil.  Having a layer of straw over the ground is good to help shade the soil, keep it cool, and prevent water from evaporating away.  Light morning or afternoon shade can help in really hot areas.

Regular watering is essential for the best flavor in cucumbers.  Cucumber plants that haven’t had consistent moisture will produce compounds that cause a bitter taste.  Some newer hybrids have had those compounds eliminated, but dry conditions will still reduce plant productivity and the quality of the fruits.

Seedlings are easy to start.

You often hear of plants in the squash family being planted in “hills”.  This means creating a round mound a few inches high and up to three feet across, and then planting the seeds or plants in a ring halfway up that mound.  The mound isn’t necessary, but does allow for water to flow away from the plants.  You can plant 3-4 cucumber plants in a ring at the base of a round trellis similar in shape as a tomato cage, while leaving 2-3 feet between rings.  If you don’t use a trellis, be sure to give your plants several feet of ground space, as they are naturally climbing vines and will spread.

What to plant:

20190718_091157Choose varieties that will meet your culinary needs.  Some types are better for pickling, and some for fresh eating.  The skins of some will have little bumps, and those may have spines.  Yes, they hurt.  The thickness of the skin is also something to consider, as this will determine if you need to peel them.

Many heirloom varieties don’t grow straight, which makes them awkward for pickling.  Newer hybrids have been bred to remove some of these issues, as well as providing disease and pest resistance.  Regardless of what variety you choose, their growing requirements are the same.

When to plant and harvest:

Female flowers will have a swelling behind the petals that looks like a micro-cucumber.  The male flowers don’t.  This swelling is the ovary and if the flower is successfully pollinated, it will enlarge and become the fruit.

Cucumbers are not cold tolerant, so planting should be timed to avoid periods of frost.  They can be started from seed indoors and planted out after frost danger has passed.  However, avoid waiting too long if you have very hot summer weather.  Excessive heat will cause flowers to not form properly for pollination, and will mean reduced productivity.

Each variety will take different amounts of time to mature.  In general, you want to harvest when the fruits are large enough for use but before they show signs of yellowing.  The larger they get, the more bitter, seedy, and tough they will be.  It’s not really a tasty experience.  If your cucumbers are only a little too tough for fresh eating, but aren’t bitter, you can still pickle them.

20190718_091518When harvesting, don’t tug on the vine as that may damage, or worse, rip out your plant.  Instead, use sharp scissors to cut the stem just above where it joins the cucumber.  Harvesting regularly will also spur your plants to be more productive, giving you more fruits.  Check them daily in case you miss some as they are hard to spot, and they grow quickly.

Soil needs:

Cucumbers are heavy feeders, so ensuring the soil is amended with good compost will be helpful.  They also need soil that allows for roots to penetrate easily, so heavy soils like clay will also benefit from adding compost to loosen it.  Heavy soils also don’t drain well and can lead to root rot issues.  Sandy soils have opposite conditions and will benefit from amending since they are less able to retain the water and nutrients needed by the plant.

Pests and other problems:

There are critters that will enjoy eating your cucumbers as much as you.  Common pests include slugs and snails, aphids, cucumber beetles, “roly-poly”/”pill bugs”, and squash bugs.  Different methods can reduce their occurrence and severity.

Look closely and you will see tiny, hair-like spines coming out of each of the prickly black bumps on the cucumber.  Yes, they hurt!  These can be rubbed off safely with gloved hands.

Cucumber plants are climbing vines, so providing a trellis will get the plants off the ground and reduce the likelihood of problems.  Many of the insect pests listed above prefer to remain close to the soil where there is cover and moisture.  Unfortunately, this method exposes the soil surface to drying, which requires mulch to avoid, which then replaces the cover the bugs like!

None-the-less, it is better to use the trellis (I don’t always do so myself, and then I regret it!).  If you leave an open space around the base of the plant when laying down your mulch, you will get soil coverage, while creating an uncomfortable opening that the critters are less likely to travel across.  Straw mulch is also a deterrent to pests like slugs and snails.

Aphids show up anyway.  Careful blasts of water will dislodge them and reduce their sap-sucking damage.  Everyone’s favorite cutie-pie, the ladybug (read my post about them here), is an excellent aphid predator.  Having a garden with plant diversity attracts them and other beneficial bugs.  They can also be purchased at plant nurseries and hardware stores.  Treating for ants also helps.  Ants protect aphids so they can harvest the “honeydew” the aphids produce.  (They are really sucking aphid pee, but I digress.)

20190718_091456Inspecting your plants for damage on a regular basis will help you spot problems before it’s too late.  Look under leaves, along the bottom stem, the base of flowers, and on the fruit for signs of damage as well as for eggs or the bugs.  Before you decide to do any spraying or removal, know if what you’re seeing is really a pest and not a friend you want to keep.

Regular checking allows for you to detect diseases, too.  A common disease is powdery mildew, a white, powdery looking fungus that will cause the plant to eventually die.  Trellising your plants keeps moisture off leaves that encourages the growth of that fungus.  Many natural, copper-based sprays will take care of it if you treat early enough.  Make sure you follow the instructions on the label of the product you choose to use.

Any treatments for pests or diseases should be carefully selected.  Keep in mind that some will kill indiscriminately, including beneficial insects.  Depending on how you apply any pesticides, it can also kill off the bees you need to pollinate your plants to even get the cucumbers in the first place.  In many cases, plants can handle some degree of damage without permanent harm.

Plant Summary:

  • Annual: Plants will only live for a single growing season, successive plantings spaced 2 to 3 weeks apart can extend your harvest if your climate allows the time for it
  • Height: 1 foot if grown on the ground
  • Width: plants can spread on the ground or up a trellis 8 to 10 feet or more
  • Sun: full sun, can tolerate light morning or afternoon shade in hot areas
  • Water: regularly, do not let soil get dry
  • Soil pH: neutral to slightly acidic
  • Soil type: amend heavy clay or loose sandy soil
  • Key nutrients: fertilize as you would for other flowering and fruiting plants
  • Planting time: seeds can be started 4 – 6 weeks before last expected frost, started plants should not be put out until the weather is reliably above 70 degrees
  • Zones: 4 – 11



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