This ancient ‘vegetable melon’ (a fruit, botanically speaking) remains calm and cool even when things get heated in the food garden.
Cucumbers may be 95% water, but they are indeed 100% cool. Densely nutritious, delicious, sleek and sexy, they are also very clever. Because of their low profile, high water content and highly evolved protective skin, and because water does not absorb heat as easily or quickly as does the air, cucumbers can remain cool, calm and collected for an impressively long time, while less well-designed fruit and vegetables wither. This is no doubt, the root of the saying ‘cool as a cucumber.’
Cucumbers are among my favourite foods to grow. They are resilient and do not demand too much space when grown on trellises placed in the ground, against a fence, or in pots and containers. I live in the Pacific Northwest, where damp and rain, and wet squidgy bits and bugs on the ground wreak havoc on low hanging fruit and vegetables, so ‘resilient’ and ‘trellisable’ can make the difference between success and failure.
Cucumbers, or ‘cukes’ are they are affectionately known, are not native to North America, or to Europe even, rather they hail from India (some reports claim Sumeria). No wonder they hold up under heat. Cucumber cultivation goes back over 3,000 years, and like many South Asian and Asian flavour favourites, they arrived to North America with explorers sometime in the middle of the 16th century, after making a 14th century appearance in Europe.
There are three types of cucumbers — pickling, slicing, and seedless — and countless varieties and cultivars whose growth habits are either ‘vining’ or ‘bush’. In general, vining cucumbers grow along the ground/on mounds/fences, and bush types are ideally suited for containers. As consumers, we tend to think in terms of only two types of cucumbers — those you can eat with the skin on (English cukes), and those you must peel or suffer the gastric consequences (thick-skinned field cucumbers). As gardeners though, we have so many exciting options.
I am enjoying a cucumber renaissance of sorts, experimenting with cukes of all shapes and sizes, growing in beds and containers, and patio pots. I will be planting in a fabric hanging grow bag even, designed for strawberries. This latter arrangement will be tricky though as cucumber seedlings don’t like having their roots disturbed. I am starting some dwarf varieties from seed, indoors, in compostable pots, so that I can sink the seedlings gently into cramped quarters with as little upset as possible.
Right now, seven varieties of cuke seedlings, ranging from tiny 1-inch long Cucamelons, also known as ‘mouse melons’, to traditional heirloom Chicago Picklings, are at various stages of development both inside and outside my home.
Cucumbers need warm soil to germinate, performing best in temperatures ranging from 70F to 85F (they hail from India, remember). Night-time temperatures where I live are still quite low during May, at 60F – 65F on average, and there is cloud cover about 50% of the time. Things warm up in June, but don’t really start cooking until July and August, so if I want to enjoy cucumbers for several months during the growing season, I have to cheat summer and start them inside like I do tomatoes and peppers.
I start seeds under LED grow lights set-up on a shelving unit in my home office, and because I grew extra tomatoes and peppers this year to donate to new gardeners, I didn’t have room to start my cukes as early as I would have liked. They germinate really quickly though, on a heat mat, so I can catch-up and have them garden-ready in just a few weeks.
The planting medium I mix myself in a bin on my kitchen table, is amended with organic compost and worm castings (poop). I don’t use fertilizer because the organics in the soil and the castings are natural-sourced, and the plants take from them what they need intuitively, without any negative side affects. Commercially available soil-less seed starting mediums are used widely, to great success, and are easy to find at garden centres and chain hardware stores.
Unlike tomatoes and peppers, some varieties of cucumbers mature relatively quickly — meaning that the ‘days to maturity’, or days from sowing to harvest can average as little as 45 days — a huge win in my book, given that germination alone (the time that it takes from planting the seed until it pops up through the soil) can take up to 10 days.
Cucumbers are considered ‘self pollinating’ because most varieties produce both male and female flowers on the same plant. This label is misleading however, because while cucumbers do not have to receive pollen from another plant, the do require the assistance of bees, wind, or other agitation event, to spread pollen from male flowers to female flowers. Male flowers are fewer and appear first, before female flowers open and wait to be pollinated.
In non-native territory like mine, damp and wet weather can upset the natural order of all things cucumber — that is, knock pollen from flowers and/or send pollinator insects like bees into hiding — so plant breeders have developed cucumber cultivars (kinds) with a more equitable ratio of male to female flowers, and some that require no pollination at all (for greenhouse and indoor growers where pollination by insects or by hand is not possible).
It isn’t immediately apparent if and when female flowers have been pollinated, as it takes several days to set tiny fruit. When that happens though, it is great cause for celebration.
I walk my garden early each morning, coffee in hand. The world is quiet and the birds are singing, and there is nothing to distract me from taking notice of new fruit and vegetable babies.
Cucumbers grow quickly and the varieties I grow are quite prolific, so I know that I better get to planning ways to consume, prepare, preserve, and share the ongoing harvest.
Cucumber Growing Tips These best practices work for me. Be sure to research your own plant zone and growing conditions, and adjust accordingly if needed.
- Plant single seeds 1”- 3” deep (depending on variety) in warm (70F+), well-drained soil, about 18” – 36” apart (depending on variety) if growing in the ground in rows, or slightly closer if trellised (8” works for me, or one plant per trellis upright). Plant two to three seeds per mound, if growing that way.
- Start seeds indoors three to six weeks ‘before’ the last frost date for your area/zone, and sow outdoors no earlier than two or three weeks before. The layer of soil that sits above the seed, should protect it from unexpected light late frosts. Know though that you may have to start over in the case of extreme weather events.
- Most seeds contain enough ‘energy’ to grow to an early transplant stage without the need for added fertilizer, but nutrients from an all-purpose, organic veggie fertilizer may be required for larger seedlings.
- Transplant seedlings only after their first set of true leaves have appeared. True leaves show up after the seed/embryonic leaves or ‘seed leaves’, and they look different.
- Water well but do not drench — think moist chocolate cake.
- Watering requirements vary by zone, so test moisture levels of transplanted cucumbers often by poking your finger in the soil. If it is dry beyond mid-finger, it is time to water.
- Take care to not let the soil dry out, before and after germination. Mulching with clean straw or drought tolerant pollinator flowers like sweet alyssum, will help conserve water.
- Water the soil, not the leaves, by hand or using drip irrigation. This will conserve precious water, plus keep powdery mildew and other foliage diseases at bay.
- The best fertilizer for cucumbers is healthy organic soil, amended annually with organic compost.
- Tie vines to trellis uprights as they grow, using soft garden twine or garden velcro. Cucumber vines crush easily, so take care to not tie too tight.
- Harvest fruit when it looks best, as per individual seed packet directions. Don’t fret about ‘exact best times’, rather experiment and taste your way to perfection.
- Utilize existing upright structures as trellises where possible, including slender tree trunks, dead wood, sign poles etc, wrapping with twine or garden netting to provide anchor points for tying off. I once used a ‘dead’ potted olive tree as a trellis; constant vine watering and mulching brought the tree back to life.
- Aphids, squash beetles, powdery mildew, and cucumber beetles may visit your cucumber patch. A healthy garden ecosystem is your best defence, as natural predator insects, birds, animals, will eat the enemy.
- Trellising cucumbers and/or minimizing fruit-to-soil contact goes a long way to safeguarding against fungus, rot and insect damage.
- Mechanical interventions like light row cover, sticky tape or pads will deter or trap insects. Companion plantings of nasturtium, sweet alyssum, dill, thyme and oregano will attract natural predators, to varying degrees.
- Transplanting seedlings into your garden, rather than direct sowing, will reduce the chances of attracting pests that prefer tender young shoots, and it will help prevent empty spots in your valuable garden real estate.
My 2021 pepper menu includes: (D2M = days from seeding to maturity)
- Artist Gherkin – vining, green, 1-6”. D2M: 45
My favourite for picking at all sizes, for eating fresh and for pickling. Dense, snow-white flesh with few seeds. Love it!
- Chicago Pickling – heirloom, short vining, green, 7”. D2M: 50-60
Workhorse cuke, introduced in 1888 in Chicago. Pick at 5-7” for fresh eating or pickling. Sweet but comparatively seedy.
- Crystal Apple – heirloom vining, yellow/green, round/oval, 3”. D2M: 75
New to me, but this variety has been around since 1934, so it must be good.
- Cucamelon – vining, speckled green, oval, 1”. D2M: 67
Not an actual cucumber, but marketed as one. Drought and pest-resistant. Super cute and a bit sour tasting. Delicious fresh, pickled, fermented.
- Green Fingers (Persian) — vining, green, 3″-5”. D2M: 60
My favourite to have on hand for veggies plates, lunch salads, ‘Greek’ salads, etc. Cute, small, dark green and gorgeous.
- Lemon – heirloom, vining, yellow, 3”. D2M: 70
I fell in love with these snacking cukes at the Farmer’s Market years ago. They store well and can be eaten like an apple. Great in lunch bags
- Patio Snacker – bush, green, 7”. D2M: 50-55
Awesome choice for containers and small spaces. Grow four vines up a small tomato cage, in a pot, and you will have cucumbers for ages. Great gift idea.
Cucumbers are high in nutrients, and because they are quite filling but contain mostly water and few calories, they are celebrated by dieticians, beauticians, and nutritionists in equal measure. There is some validity to the prescribed ‘cool cucumber slices over closed eyelids’ to reduce puffiness and increase brightness.
Cucumbers contain antioxidants, including flavonoids and tannins, which prevent the accumulation of harmful free radicals and may reduce the risk of chronic disease. The online resource Healthline, reports that a one 11-ounce (300-gram) unpeeled, raw cucumber contains:
- Calories: 45
- Total fat: 0 grams
- Carbs: 11 grams
- Protein: 2 grams
- Fiber: 2 grams
- Vitamin C: 14% of the RDI
- Vitamin K: 62% of the RDI
- Magnesium: 10% of the RDI
- Potassium: 13% of the RDI
- Manganese: 12% of the RDI
Cucumbers contain antioxidants, including flavonoids and tannins, which prevent the accumulation of harmful free radicals and may reduce the risk of chronic disease.
Cucumbers are delicious. I am not by nature, a prepared relish fan (store-bought ketchup, I love even less), but I do love preserving, so I thought I’d give relish making a try. I can’t find the recipe that I scribbled on a piece of brown paper, but it was very basic, designed to look beautiful in jars and on the plate, and it was fortified with exotic and Indian spices and aromatics like cumin, black/red/yellow/brown mustard seed, toasted shallot, coriander seed, chili flakes, turmeric, sun-dried dill, garlic, etc.
I diced Artist Gherkin cucumber, then salted-rested-rinsed it to remove much of the water. I diced and quick-blanched carrot and sweet onion; diced some sweet red bell pepper; combined all ingredients in a hot brine of white wine vinegar, honey and salt; packed the lot into sterilized half-quart/500ml jars, and hot water processed the jars for 10 minutes. The relish is gorgeous and delicious — lovely and cool (like a cucumber) with just the right amount of crunch and soft heat. As a curry condiment — so good. I’ll make it again this year, if I can find that recipe.
Cool Cucumber Smoothie or Fresh Juice
- 6 small Persian cucumbers (often sold as ‘mini cucumbers’, in 1lb bags), unpeeled
- 1 sweet and ripe pear
- 1 small sweet apple, such a Honey Crisp (or half of a large apple)
- 1 cup yellow/orange tropical fruit of choice (mango, pineapple), or orange
- Juice of 1/2 lime or lemon
- 1-inch piece of ginger, grated
- Mint or lemon balm leaves — small handful, plus some for garnish
- Ice (optional)
Method for Smoothie
- Chop washed cucumbers into 1” chunks
- Peel apple and pear, then chop into chunks
- Peel and chop yellow/orange fruit into chunks
- Juice the 1/2 lemon or lime
- Peel and grate the ginger
- Wash the lemon balm or mint leaves, remove any tough stems
- Blend all ingredients in the large bowl of a blender, or a Vitamix, until very smooth, adding ice if desired.
- Garnish with lemon balm or mint leaves, plus an angled slice of cucumber
Method for Fresh Juice
- Same as above, but do not peel fruits or ginger
- Process in juicer, as per model instructions
- Enjoy as is, or add to sparkling water
- Garnish with lemon balm or mint leaves, plus an angled slice of cucumber
Other ways to enjoy cucumbers
- Fresh, right out of the garden.
- Sliced into salads or cut into chips or sticks as part of a vegetable platter.
- Pocket snacks for kids — super fun to eat, and so healthy.
- Pickled or fermented whole, to create plain, garlic, or dill pickles.
- Crinkle or straight cut across, to make ‘bread and butter’ pickles, or old fashioned mustard pickles.
- Blended or juiced, along with apple, pear, mango, ginger, mint or lemon balm.
- As a cleansing additive to still or sparkling water, sliced, together with lemon and mint.
- French-baked Julia Child style, with butter, onion, basil, wine vinegar, pepper and salt. A seriously delicious dish that only she could popularize.
- Pureed and frozen along with mint and lemon, to make a gorgeous sorbet.
- Diced into a salsa, along with red and yellow tomatoes, red onion and jalapeno.
- Sliced fine crosswise, and dressed with a caraway and red wine vinaigrette.
- As a summer soup: Slice cukes lengthwise and remove seeds, cut into chunks and toss with olive oil and a little salt, before oven roasting until slightly golden. Blend or process together with sautéed onion and garlic plus fresh dill to taste. Thin with vegetable or chicken stock to taste. Chill. Garnish with a thin cuke slice and a dill spring.
- As the star attraction in Shirazi, the famous Persian/Iranian cucumber salad made with Persian cucumber, tomato and red onion, then dressed with lemon and lime juice, salt and pepper, and mint.
- As the supporting actor in the much-loved Greek/Mediterranean salad featuring vine-ripened tomato, cucumber and onion, dressed with olive oil and red wine vinegar, salt and pepper.
So that’s about it from me for this week. I hope that I have inspired you to grow, cook and preserve super cool cucumbers.