Know Before You Grow: Cucumbers

You'll find new meaning in the term "cool as a Cucumber" when you discover the delights of this delicious, easy-to-grow vegetable! Slice 'em, dice 'em, pickle 'em, or pull 'em straight off the vine and enjoy their unmistakable and delicious flavor right there. They can be grown on hills, in rows, on trellises, or in containers, so there's a variety just perfect for you, no matter where you live or how large or small your gardening space.


Choosing a Variety

When you choose which Cucumbers to grow, you'll want to consider length, thickness, use, and the amount of space required for the plant. They come in a wide variety of sizes, from tiny Gherkin-appropriate ones to long, delicious slicers. The pickling types are usually smaller, and some of the slicers are burpless (less bitter and contain less burp-causing compounds).

There are several compact varieties just right for those with limited gardening space, and of course, you'll also be able to pick from various shades of green cukes, with some white and yellow types thrown in the mix!


When to Start

Cucumbers are best direct sown outdoors 1 to 2 weeks after all danger of frost has passed in the spring and once the soil has warmed -- it needs to be at least 60 degrees F. They can be sown indoors (at a temperature of 70 degrees F) 4 to 6 weeks before planting out, but direct sowing is recommended.


How to Start

Sow the seeds at a depth of 4 times the size of the seed, siting them in full sun in light, rich, well-drained soil. Fertilize before planting and then again every 3 weeks until you harvest. It's very important to keep the plants weeded and well watered. Be sure to disturb the roots as little as possible when weeding.

If you're growing your Cucumbers on hills, plant 4 or 5 seeds per hill, spacing them 4 to 5 feet apart. If instead you choose to plant in rows, space them 2 to 3 feet apart in rows that are about 5 to 6 feet apart. You can also grow them on a trellis, an option especially appealing if you have limited space. Expect germination in 7 to 10 days and harvests in 50 to 70 days.


Special Considerations

  • If your Cucumbers become too large (hard and seedy) they will sap the strength away from the plant that would otherwise be used to grow more fruit. Just throw away any that become too large.
  • Take care not to over-fertilize with nitrogen, as this can increase growth of the vine but decrease the amount of fruiting.
  • Standard varieties of Cucumbers need more fertilizer than do bush, dwarf, and short-vined types.
  • Cucumber vines produce both male (staminate) and female (pistillate) flowers. The first to arrive are male and will drop from the vine without bearing fruit. The ones to follow will be both male and female, allowing for pollination. So don't become discouraged when the first flowers you see don't produce fruit.
  • There are also Cucumbers available that bear only female flowers (gynoecious). These varieties will include in the seed packet specifically marked seeds of a pollinator that must be planted as well in order for proper pollination to take place.

Growing Tips

  • If you want to start your seeds indoors, use peat pots or pellets -- something that can be planted as-is, thus minimizing root disturbance. Transplanting shouldn't be done until all danger of frost has passed.
  • Cucumbers need long, warm, sunny days and mild nights in order to be productive.
  • Keep well watered and fed throughout the growing season.
  • Mulches, including black plastic varieties, can be useful in conserving moisture, preventing the soil from becoming compacted and the fruit from rotting, and in minimizing the presence of weeds.
  • Harvest your Cucumbers depending on their use, and therefore their size. They can over mature (and become bitter) rather quickly since they develop so rapidly after pollination, so check your crop frequently in order to pick them at their peak quality.
  • Be careful not to trample the vines any more than necessary while harvesting, and cut the stems about ¼ inch above the fruit.

Pests and Problems to Watch For

Powdery mildew:

  • Plant mildew-resistant varieties whenever you can.
  • If you can avoid it, don't apply nitrogen fertilizers late in the season. This will limit the production of succulent tissue, which is the most susceptible to infection.
  • Avoid overhead watering.
  • Remove and destroy infected plants -- DO NOT compost them!
  • Allow for as much air circulation as you can.
Squash bugs:
  • Choose pest-resistant varieties when possible.
  • Early detection is very important, so look over your plants often.
  • If only a few of your plants are infected, you can just collect and destroy the bugs and their egg masses. Boards, shingles, or something similar can be placed on the ground near the plants -- the bugs will often concentrate themselves to that area.
  • You can cover the vines until blossoming begins, at which time they'll have to be uncovered for pollination.
  • Burn or compost plant debris at the end of the season.
  • Chemical insecticides can be used if nothing else works. Follow all label directions and safety precautions.

Cucumber beetles:

  • Choose pest-resistant varieties if possible.
  • Plow early to remove vegetation and discourage egg laying.
  • Sandy soils aren't usually as susceptible to pest problems.
  • Row covers can keep them off until the plants are well established.
  • You can apply a foliar insecticide at the cotyledon stage (the appearance of the first leaves). Be sure to follow label instructions and safety precautions.

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