This article was revised on 14 December 16 (a video I created was added towards the end of the post below – this gives some extra information on growing cucumbers and also how to ferment/pickle them).
Cucumbers, the phallic melon which takes pride of place displayed proudly in the fresh food section in supermarkets around the world are without doubt a truly amazing fruit. Everyone has their own personal experiences and when I think of cucumbers I almost always associate them with Pekin duck. The match between the Pekin duck, crispy skin, hoisin sauce, shallot, and cucumber, wrapped in a Chinese pancake is outstanding!
And, what about pickled cucumbers… The pickling of this fruit is what makes cucumbers universally famous. The fast-food chain McDonalds would not have been such a success if it wasn’t for sliced pickles – that’s what I reckon anyway. What would a McDonald’s restaurant be without sliced cucumber randomly flung and stuck to the ceiling and windows by teenagers?
A cucumber vine growing up a plastic trellis which is a long lasting, strong, lightweight, inexpensive, material ideal for gardening (image above)
Part of the cucurbit family (Cucumis sativus) the cucumber is related to other big leafy vines; such as, pumpkins, small squash, melons, gourd, zucchini, etc.
The reasons I love growing cucumbers are:
Fresh home-grown cucumbers are crisp and delicious. They are high in vitamin A (which is critical for our vision and needed by the retina of the eye). Also, a very good source of vitamins K and C and contains lots of micro-nutrients and antioxidants.
The fruit can be eaten at any time so there’s no wait for ripening and if a quick salad needs to be found and we want cucumber then young fruits are just as good (sometimes better) than mature larger sizes.
Cucumbers are easy to preserve – I especially love to lacto ferment them as shown in the video below.
They can be grown on a trellis and growing vertical saves space, makes harvesting easy, and helps keep the cucumbers free from pest and diseases. They can also be grown "down" as I show in the video.
They are not nutrient hungry and won’t deplete the soil like other heavy crops can.
Cucumber flower and buds (image below)
Are cucumbers hard to grow?
Cucumbers aren’t hard to grow for everyone; although, I sometimes find cucumbers difficult (nah…more like challenging) to grow in my backyard because of several factors but I think the main reasons are climate and disease (which covers quite a lot).
I grow my cucumbers through spring into summer like most people; however, the growing season is short in my backyard because, more often than not, just as the plants get producing they either succumb to powdery mildew, which thrives in our dry spring weather around here, or the humidity sucks the life out of them as our hot, wet, summer hits and they wilt, suffering horribly.
Cold regions with a mild summer, although different to my climate, would have similar short season problems for growing cucumbers, I’d imagine. Late spring plantings don’t give much time for a full season crop before it starts cooling down again.
My cucumbers also regularly get hit with cucumber mosaic virus, which drastically shortens the life of the plant and if infected early will kill the plant before any fruiting even begins.
Lots of cucumber vines sprawling together (image above)
In theory and by the charts, cucumbers can be grown in my part of the world (subtropics) from August right through to about April (late winter to early Autumn); but in truth it’s more like September – December (spring to early summer). However, I have grown cucumbers successfully in winter starting as seedlings mid-autumn. They grew slowly, but still grew and produced fruit! And, this makes an interesting point to reiterate about growing your own produce and that is, every place is different – even each backyard in the same area can produce slightly different growing conditions so it does pay to experiment outside of standard growing times documented for your area.
Your overall climatic conditions, your micro-climate, what pests and diseases have or have not been introduced, the soil makeup, nutrients, and several other factors, will determine how well certain types of fruit and vegetables perform. In my case, cucumbers can be a bugger to grow at times even if over the years my crop production has become consistently good.
How I overcame my cucumber woes?
Basically, I persisted through the frustrations and have adopted some techniques to combat our short cucumber season (or shortened plant life) so that we may enjoy the fruits long after these fickle plants have withered.
Firstly, I spread the risk by growing at least 3 different varieties (and several of each) at the same time. This ensures diversity, gives me a good chance of an extended harvest with different varieties growing at different rates, and by growing lots of plants I only need ½ dozen or so cucumbers per plant to have a bountiful harvest.
Later in the season, I will only sow varieties I know have a better tolerance to cope with our heat and humidity. I try and not grow cucumbers in the same spot from season to season so I can limit the build-up of specific pest and diseases known to affect cucurbits.
Also, I spread the plants throughout different sections of my garden so if one crop gets hit badly with disease hopefully it won’t spread too quickly to the other plants and I do generally grow at a time of year best suited to the cucumber temperature range between 28-33 C° which is spring into early summer.
Finally, as soon as I have enough fruit for a few jars I start picking, fermenting/pickling, and storing; because, I know how fast a cucumber vine at my place can go from productive to nothing. And since the season is short, preserving all I can to last us several months is a great way to keep eating organically grown backyard cucumbers long after they have stopped growing.
How to grow cucumbers?
Yes, I admit growing cucumbers can sometimes get me into a “pickle,” however, other people do find them much easier to grow. There is a small farm a few hours inland from me near a place called Esk and the people there have a cart (honesty system) out their front gate and all they ever sell is lots of cucumbers for (it seems) most of the year… Respect…
Nevertheless, I have found my "skill" for growing cucumbers has improved considerably over the past few years and as the following video explains I do like to grow them in high sided raised garden beds. I find this way of growing cucumbers convenient and productive as they seem to produce well tumbling down the high sides.
Cucumber seeds need a soil temperature above 20 Co to germinate and grow best when the temperature is around 28 – 33 Co, so they are definitely a warm weather crop (without the humidity). Frost will kill seedlings so in cool climates, sow them in spring when you’re sure the frosts have gone. Sowing direct where they are to grow in clumps of 3 gets good results by pushing them down into tilled soil about one knuckle deep. Then, as the seedlings (image left) emerge (about 7 days) keep the strongest two and remove the weakest.
Sowing in small modules works well too and can give seedlings a good start and root development before planting out about 30cms apart. This can also help avoid early diseases and negate the risk of seedlings being grazed off by animals (including insects) as they germinate and emerge from the ground.
Cucumbers are easy to seed save and one mature fruit will give lots of seeds; therefore, collecting seed from one season and liberally sowing them the next season to produce many seedlings and subsequent plants is cost effective. Of course, to save seed the parent plant needs to be an heirloom variety and can’t be an F1 hybrid cross.
The soil should be pre-prepared, fertile, and free draining with plenty of organic matter. Try not to over feed the plants with fertilisers, especially high nitrogen, because this just encourages lots of leaves and fewer flowers/fruit.
Also, keep the ground around the plants well mulched to prevent weed growth and retain soil moisture.
I rarely feed my cucumber plants once they are growing. If the plants look lacklustre around mid-season, I may water with a soluble fertiliser specifically for fruiting plants (higher in potassium and lower in nitrogen) or top dress with an organic blood & bone fertiliser.
Any type of trellis or wigwam of bamboo will benefit the cucumber plant greatly. Although the plant does have climbing tendrils its natural instinct is to sprawl along the ground, so training the plant up a structure is usually required. This can easily be done by waiting for a few leaders to grow a foot or two long and twist them up and around the trellis and before long it will find its way.
Cucumber vine growing up a steel reo mesh trellis (image above)
Cucumber plants mature rather quickly and usually flower quite well. You can get self-pollinating cucumbers but most still need an insect, primarily a bee, to do the job. In the unlikely event you find no fruit setting on the cucumber vine or grow the non-self-pollinating variety in an enclosed area which doesn’t allow insects, then hand pollinating can be done by placing the male flower (one without the thick stem under the flower) into the female flower and releasing the pollen by rubbing the stamens.
Once cucumbers start fruiting it’s amazing how fast the fruit grow. One day they are small gherkins waiting on the vine and seemingly the next they are the size of swollen oblong balloons!
Cucumbers and other salad vegetables selected straight from the garden (above image)
Gherkins are really just young, small cucumbers; just the same, be mindful when selecting certain varieties to grow. Cultivars sold as “gherkin” are usually specifically bred to be picked small (no larger than about 2 inches or 6-8 centimetres) and if left to grow larger turn bitter and become practically inedible. Whereas, the varieties bred specifically for a larger size, like Lebanese, can be more of a utility crop by using young cucumbers for pickling and letting the rest grow large for other recipes.
Remove the fruit from the vines whilst being careful not to damage the plant by twisting the fruit off or cutting with secateurs/scissors. Be aware, most cucumbers have small bristles on the skin which can cause slight discomfort when harvesting; however, these tiny prickles rub off the fruit very easily through handling leaving the cucumber skin smooth.
Pests and disease
The best way to stave off insect pests, disease, and fungus attack is to ensure the plant has the ideal growing conditions and that is: fertile free-draining soil, grown at the right time of year, regular watering, and support to keep the plants from sprawling along the ground. This action really does work because a strong plant is like us with a strong immune system – less likely to succumb to every passing nasty.
Unfortunately, and also like humans, good health and a strong immune system can’t stop all pests and diseases. Like I explained earlier in my intro, sometimes cucumbers get hit with problems no matter how well they are looked after. Honestly, if we tried to take all the recommended actions to prevent all the possible pests and diseases, we’d go crazy and never actually plant anything.
But there are some common problems like: cucumber mosaic virus, which is a serious problem for many cucumber growers. The virus is transmitted by sap sucking insects and is identified by mottling and yellow patches on leaves, and possibly deformed fruit. Once the plants get this virus, it’s “targets down patch out” with the plants dying or struggling on hopelessly. The infected plants need to be removed (and burnt if possible) then the soil dug-in and kept free from cucurbit crops for a few seasons so hopefully the virus will dissipate. If the plants get hit with the virus towards the end of the season, this will enable some fruit to be salvaged at least.
Cucumber mosaic virus will attack other crops too like: tomatoes, eggplant, capsicum, and cucurbit related plants so if you do have a breakout ensure you take action ASAP and isolate these other crops or you may lose half your vegetable garden to this wretched disease!
Powdery mildew can be common and devastating as well, this is distinguished by white patches on the leaves and is actually a fungus. If not corrected, the fungus causes dieback and fruit spoilage. This problem can be treated by applying a fungicide (sulphur) or by pruning but it needs to be done early otherwise the powdery mildew will take hold and nothing will help.
Raising the micro-climate humidity levels by keeping the plants well watered might help to avoid powdery mildew from getting out of control but try to limit overhead watering and plants having wet leaves overnight.
In the image above a potted cucumber grows central to a corn patch and over time will use the corn to climb over. Also, the corn provides some shade to the cucumber from the harsh subtropical sun.
Growing in pots is a great way to grow more plants at the same time and to combat losses if your garden is prone to soil-borne diseases. Use fresh, sterile potting mix and a little fertiliser like blood and bone and a regularly watered potted cucumber should grow well.
Insects don’t often attack cucumbers, occasionally caterpillars will have a nibble but they can be selectively picked off. Slugs can be a problem by eating holes in the fruit and getting the fruit off the ground by growing cucumbers up on a trellis helps greatly. If you live in a fruit fly area, your cucumbers may get stung but the larva don’t always create devastation and usually only cause blemishes in the fruit just under the surface. There are many new eco-friendly fruit fly remedies on the market nowadays if fruit fly is out of control in your area.
A lemon cucumber (below)
Types of cucumbers to try
There are many different types of cucumbers and several well-known true champions like:
Lebanese – Long, thin skinned fruit supremely popular in supermarkets;
Burpless – Easy on the digestive system;
Apple – Produces apple sized round fruit, which are very ornamental but also tasty;
Lemon – White lemon tinged oval fruit which have excellent taste and a vigorous growth habit with lots of fruit set;
Bush – Compact grower great for pots and as a backup plant when disease hits the main crop;
Gherkin – Green and white varieties which are designed to flower profusely and be picked when tiny (mainly for pickling purposes) because when left to grow larger than about two inches they taste awful;
Giant Russian – Good to grow in warmer regions due to hardiness and disease resistance, this larger sized cucumber is definitely a “one per salad” variety and fun to grow; and
Suyo Long – An Asian variety with a long growth to about 35cm and a-long with size, plus tasting good, it has excellent disease resistance too.
One type of cucumber you definitely should NOT try is the African Horned Cucumber (next image below) or Horned Melon. If you ever notice a cucumber vine growing in the wrong spot or with heart shaped leaves instead of the common tri-toed leaf then it may be this pest and was probably deposited by a bird. And, if you ever see it at the markets promoted as an exotic fruit – walk straight past!
The horned melon/cucumber is edible but not worth it unless you're a bird or other animal as inside is full of seeds and that's mainly why the spread of this "weed" is so successful. It is such a hardy and fast growing cucurbit that I wonder why plant breeders haven't tried crossing and refining the variety as it doesn't seem to suffer from the heat, powdery mildew, or cucumber mosaic virus near as much as its refined cucumber cousins – such a pity its fruit is so terrible.
The group image below is the African Horned Cucumber (or kiwano)
Yes, there’s lots of cucumber varieties some not so good but most are awesome…
Often, commercial growers only bother to grow a few tried market adapted varieties to be sure of a sale and that’s understandable. Nevertheless, there’s nothing stopping us from trying and growing a few heirloom and other different varieties of cucumbers – there’s a plethora to choose from if you do a little searching local or online. Some places to look are:
Who knows, you may stumble on some obscure variety that works perfectly for your garden and climate, tastes great, and turns into a seasonal love affair which you can’t grow without.
More so, if you’re like me and find cucumbers challenging to grow then accept the challenge with gardening gloves on, spade in hand, and a steely determination to get a crop of this fantastic fruit from your garden and into the crisper.
Believe me, home-grown cucumbers are an immensely satisfying food crop to produce and whether difficult or easy are a must to grow in anyone’s garden through spring and summer.
Feel free to use the comment section below and have your say (no email is required). If you want to talk about this topic in more depth you can also use our forum and go to the Fruit and Vegetable section then simply start a new conversation thread.
Thanks for reading and thanks for your support.
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Mark Valencia – Editor SSM
Mark Valencia retired from the Australian Army in 2008 after 21 years of service and is married with two children (boys). He has always been passionate about self-sufficiency (even as a child) and he is now enjoying the opportunity to communicate this passion through his Blog and YouTube Channel.
Self Sufficient Me is a blog about self-sustainment by growing our own produce (plant/animal), and self-fulfilment by looking after our health (physical/mental) through exercise and slowing life down a little.