Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Cucumber Culture

Cucumbers are one of the best summertime garden treats.  They are so low calorie that I've heard they contain fewer calories than you burn digesting them, making them a great diet snack. 

In the garden cucumber plants are most likely to suffer from powdery mildew, this can be prevented by watering them only at the soil level, early in the day, and avoiding touching the leaves when wet.  Another major contributor to powdery mildew is planting too early, give the soil plenty of time to warm up and your plants will be in much better health.  Cucumber beetles can be a major pest problem, and spread bacterial wilt as well.  Pick off beetles and destroy them daily.  Watch for signs of bacterial wilt: unexplained wilting and sticky stringy sap inside stems.  If you discover a plant infected with bacterial wilt remove it immediately to prevent spreading the disease.  Avoid planting other cucurbits in the infected area for at least one year, preferably three to four years.  You can also place black plastic over the infected soil between planting seasons to heat the soil and kill off the disease and it's carriers, cucumber beetle grubs. 

Female flower with tiny cucumber ovary at base.
Cucumbers grow sturdy, spiny vines and depending on the type will put out either male, female, hermaphroditic, or male AND female flowers.  Gynoecious cucumbers have all female flowers that will not pollinate if there is no male flowered plant near them.  Often gynoecious seed packets include one or two male seeds that are tinted gray or black, to insure you will have a male plant in your garden.  Hermaphroditic cucumbers have both male and female parts on each flower and are capable of pollinating each other and their own flowers.  Monoecious cucumbers have separate male and female flowers on the same plant.  Similar to most squashes, these plants put on several male flowers before they begin to produce female flowers.  Parthenocarpic cucumbers have the ability to set fruit without pollination.  Parthenocarpic varieties are excellent for greenhouse or indoor growing where pollinators may be non-existent.

Male flower with no ovary at the base.
Of the varieties I planted this year, Marketmore 97 and Bush Pickle are both monoecious, while Lemon cucumber is hermaphroditic.  I'm not sure what the National Pickling is, but it appears to have both male and female flowers so I am going with monoecious.

Traditionally cucumbers trail across the ground, but by trellising them or wrapping them around a tomato cage you can reduce the risk of soil-borne disease reaching the leaves.  You can also look for bush varieties that take up less space if you are container gardening or don't have room for the large vining varieties.

Besides the different varieties of reproduction in cucumbers you also have choices based on what you plan to do with your cucumbers.  Slicing cucumbers are larger and tend to be better eaten raw.  Pickling cucumbers are grown for canning as pickles.  They are smaller, often with a tougher skin that protects the fruit during the canning process and becomes softer after brining and canning.  Canning a large slicing cucumber would just give you a mushy pickle.  Often pickling cucumbers produce larger amounts in a shorter time frame too, to accommodate picklers. 

There are also several unusual varieties to try out, such as the Lemon cucumber which develops as a yellowish fruit about the size and shape of a small orange.  Or the Mexican Sour Gherkin, a bite-sized cucumber with a hint of citrus flavor to them.

In conclusion, cucumbers are worth the space in a small garden, or in a pot on the patio; delicious, healthy, outstanding producers, and a cool treat in the summertime.  Give them a shot and don't be surprised if you find yourself wondering what to do with all of them! 

*Next up: What To Do With All These Cucumbers*

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