Growing Cucumbers

growing cucumbers up a cattle panel trellis

Cucumbers grown on a trellis are clean and easy to pick. Use a trellis slender enough for tendrils to grab. Cattle panels work beautifully for this purpose.

A tropical vegetable, cucumbers thrive when the weather is hot and water is plentiful. Growing cucumbers is for warmer weather: Plants are so frost-tender that they shouldn’t be set into the garden until soil temperatures are reliably in the 70-degree range (no less than 2 weeks after the last frost date).

Cucumber plants grow in two forms: vining and bush. Vines scramble along the ground or clamber up trellises, while bush types, such as Burpless Bush Hybrid, form a more compact plant. Generally, vining cucumbers yield more fruit throughout the growing season. Bush selections are especially suited to containers and small gardens. You can increase the season’s yield of bush varieties by planting several crops in succession 2 weeks apart.

Whether you want a cucumber for slicing or pickling, there’s a variety to suit your taste. Lemon cucumber offers smaller fruits perfect for a single serving, while Boston Pickling boasts classic heirloom taste. The long Armenian cucumber is a specialty ethnic cucumber prized for taste and the fact that a single cucumber yields so many slices.

Soil, Planting, and Care

Cucumber transplants planted around a trellis in a garden with pine straw mulch

Set cucumber plants at the base of your trellis and mulch after planting unless the soil could use a little more warming.

Cucumbers need warm, fertile soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.8, although they will tolerate a bit more alkaline soil to 7.6. Work compost or composted manure into soil. Plant seedlings 36 to 60 inches apart, depending on variety (check the stick tag). For vines trained on a trellis, space plants 1 foot apart.

In areas where spring is long and cool, you can warm the soil 3 to 4 degrees by covering the hill or row with black plastic.If you do not plant in black plastic, then mulch with pine straw, wheat straw, chopped leaves, or your favorite organic mulch shortly after planting. If the weather is unseasonably cool, you can wait a while to mulch until the ground is warmed by the sun. Mulch is especially important to keep the fruit clean for bush types and vines not growing on a trellis. Straw mulch is also thought to be uncomfortable for slugs and creates an uneasy footing for cucumber beetles, helping to keep them at bay.

If you can, trellis your vines. This keeps the fruit clean and saves space. A 12- to 18-inch diameter cage made from 4- or 5-foot welded wire fencing or hog wire will support 2 or 3 vines. Wire is easy for the tendrils of climbing cucumbers to grab as the plant grows.

Cucumbers grow fast and don’t demand a lot of care. Just keep the soil consistently moist with an inch of water per week (more if temperatures sizzle and rain is scarce). Inadequate or inconsistent moisture causes oddly shaped or poor-tasting fruit. If possible, water your cucumbers with a soaker hose or drip irrigation to keep the foliage dry. This helps prevent leaf diseases that can ruin the plant.

You can fertilize with a liquid food, such as Bonnie Herb & Vegetable Plant Food, every 2 weeks, applying it directly to soil around plant stems. Or you can use a granular, slow-release fertilizer worked into the soil when you plant or sprinkled around the plants later.

Troubleshooting

A baby cucumber grows from the female flowers of a cucumber plant.

Cucumbers bear male and female flowers. Female blooms have a small swelling at the base, the makings of a fruit.

If vines bloom but don’t fruit, something is probably interfering with pollination. First, make sure that you see both male and female blooms. Male blooms usually appear first and then drop off, so don’t be alarmed if this happens. Within a week or two, female flowers will also appear; each one has a small cucumber-shaped swelling at the base that will become a cucumber. If you’re still not seeing those swellings turn into fruit, you may need to do a bit of hand-pollination.

Several pests bother cucumbers. Squash bugs may attack seedlings. Slugs like ripening fruit. Aphids can colonize leaves and buds. Straw mulch helps keep slugs at bay, as can trellising vines to get the fruit off the ground. Vines are also bothered by cucumber beetles, which chew holes in leaves and flowers and scar stems and fruits, but worse than that, they spread a disease that causes the plants to wilt and die. Powdery mildew is a disease that leaves white, mildew-like patches on the leaves. Apply fungicides at the first sign of its presence. To minimize disease spread, avoid harvesting or handling vines when leaves are wet.

Harvest and Storage

You can pick cucumbers whenever they’re big enough to use. Check vines daily as the fruit starts to appear because they enlarge quickly. Vines produce more fruit the more you harvest. To remove the fruit, use a knife or clippers, cutting the stem above the fruit. Pulling them may damage the vine. Don’t let the cucumbers get oversized or they will be bitter, and will also keep the vine from producing more. Yellowing at the bottom (blossom end) of a cucumber signals overripeness; remove the fruit immediately. Harvest lemon cucumbers just before they begin turning yellow. Although they are called lemon cucumber because the little oblong or round fruits turn yellow and look like a lemon, by the time the fruit turns yellow it may be a little too seedy for most tastes.

You can keep harvested cucumbers in the refrigerator for 7 to 10 days, but use them as soon as possible after picking for best flavor. If you don’t eat a slicing cucumber all at once, cover the unused portion in plastic wrap to prevent dehydration in the refrigerator. In fact, it’s a good idea to wrap your whole cucumbers in plastic or store them in a zipper bag in the fridge to keep them crisp.

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FAQs

I read that cucumbers can be planted in hills. How do I do this?

Make a hill before planting the cucumber. Just a small rise in the ground is adequate. Build the hill, or mound, about a foot in diameter and about three inches high; this is to drain water from around the stem. Plant the cucumber in the mound.

Should you stake cucumbers?

Stakes or cages hold plants up from the ground. Cucumber vines have little tendrils that will grab a string or wire and climb up a wire cage or trellis. Staking makes it easier to pick the cucumbers and keeps them cleaner than if they are on the ground.

Which varieties of cucumbers can be grown in containers?

Use our bush-type cucumber because it is more compact and is bred for containers and small gardens. The vines do not grow as long as standard types.

My cucumbers bloomed but failed to set fruit. Why does this happen?

This is a pollination problem. The flowers must be pollinated to set fruit. Did you use a pesticide that might have killed bees that pollinate the flowers? Look to see if any bees are visiting your plants in the morning. This is when they are most active.

Why do my cucumbers taste bitter?

Some varieties grown under stressful conditions — weather that is too warm or too cool, poor soil fertility, or disease — can develop a bitter flavor. The same thing will happen to fruit that is left on the vine too long and is overmature. To help minimize the potential for bitterness, plant varieties that are not prone to becoming bitter, such as Armenian cucumber, lemon cucumber, small pickling varieties (like Boston pickling), or “burpless” slicing varieties.

It is cold in the spring where I live. How do I protect my cucumbers from the chill?

Cucumbers are sensitive to frost. Plant at least two weeks after all danger of frost has passed. You can use plastic sheeting on the ground to help retain the earth’s heat. You can also cover plants with a row cover until they start blooming, if needed. After flowers appear you have to uncover them for the bees.

How often should I water my cucumbers?

Water often enough to keep the soil slightly moist all the time. Cucumbers will be small and can taste bitter if they get stressed for water. Mulch the soil around the plants to keep in moisture. It also keeps the fruit clean.

When should I harvest pickling type cucumbers?

Pickling cucumbers should be harvested when the fruit reaches 3 to 4 inches in length; for big pickles let them get 6 to 7 inches long if they are still tender.