Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) are one of the few vegetables that can be sown in December in most areas – their planting window generally stretches from September to December. They are a quick crop too, with those sown at the beginning of this month having their first fruit ready for harvesting by the end of January. That’s good timing because cooling cucumbers are a mainstay of salads in the hotter months. They may not be the most tasty of the vegetables, but they are always refreshing, whether mixed with other salad ingredients or eaten on their own with a delicious dressing. They can also be juiced together with celery to produce a cooling drink that helps to stabilise the body temperature during dry and hot weather.
Types of cucumbers
Cucumbers belong to the same family as watermelon, zucchini, pumpkin and other types of squash. There are two basic types of cucumbers. The cucumber that is generally known as the English or Dutch cucumber is long and cylindrical, with a thin edible skin that may be slightly ridged or smooth. The shorter, fatter ‘Beta alpha’ or mini cucumber is still popular because of its quick yield. It has a better flavour than the English cucumber but some people like to peel it because the skin is thicker and may have small spines or prickles. It can be pickled to produce gherkins. Thinner cucumbers generally have fewer seeds than the thicker varieties.
Cucumbers are ‘upwardly mobile’, so they don’t take up too much space in a small garden. The best way to support them is to make a frame consisting of poles at either end of the bed with additional poles placed by each plant. Wires are extended between the poles so that the growth from each plant can be wound around the wires. You may have to secure the plant initially but don’t make the ties too tight – the tendrils will soon attach themselves to the wire. Cucumbers can also be grown in pots, and here you will also need to make a frame to support their growth. Just be vigilant with the watering and feeding of pot grown cucumbers because they don’t like to dry out.
Cucumbers grow best in fertile, moist soil. Add a generous amount of compost to the bed before planting.
Sowing and transplanting
It is best to sow seed directly into the soil rather than in seedling trays because the seedlings are soft, which makes transplanting difficult. The soil should be kept consistently moist during germination; seed should germinate within seven days.
You can either pinch off the growing points when the plants are 60 cm high to encourage side shoots, as most of the fruit develops from this growth, or simply allow the side shoots to develop as the plant grows.
Cucumbers produce both male and female flowers on the same plant and are self-pollinating. The male flowers usually appear first, followed by the female flowers which have a small fruit behind the calyx. The English or Dutch cucumbers tend to produce a greater ratio of female flowers.
Cucumbers are not drought tolerant at all and need plenty of water during hot and dry periods. The best form of watering is flood watering so that the leaves don’t get wet (because this makes them susceptible to mildew).
Cucumbers in the ground can be fed with a balanced fertiliser, like 2:3:2, or a liquid fertiliser, two or three times during the growing season. Watch the leaves and if they become yellow it means the plants are hungry – they quickly recover after feeding. Boost the plant with a liquid feed when the first flowers appear. Cucumbers in pots should receive a weekly liquid feed.
Pests and diseases
Cucumbers are relatively pest free but can suffer from downy mildew when conditions are humid but cool, while powdery mildew is more prevalent during dry periods. These diseases can be treated with a broad spectrum fungicide or a home remedy such as bicarbonate of soda. If using bicarb beware of making the dose too strong and burning the plants. The Beta alpha cucumber ‘Sweet Crunch’ is resistant to mildew.
English cucumbers are generally ready for harvesting when they are 25 to 30 cm long and full, while the Beta alpha cucumbers are ready to harvest when they are 12 to 15 cm long. The timing depends on the temperatures and amount of sunlight. They should be picked as soon as they mature because leaving mature fruit on a plant causes it to lose its vigour.
Cucumbers store well in the crisper of a refrigerator.
As a quick side dish, this Asian cucumber salad is just the thing for hot summer days. Peel an English cucumber and slice. Make a dressing with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar, ½ teaspoon of sesame seeds, 1 chopped red chilli and a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar. Pour over cucumber when ready to serve.