Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) are a fruit from the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae).
Originally from South Asia, cucumbers have found their way into gardens around the world. Botanically, cucumbers are classified as berries because they are the fruit of a single ovary.
There are many types of cucumber: slicing, pickling, gherkins, bush, burpless, and seedless. Seedless cucumbers are a parthenocarpic cultivar, which means the plants develop fruit without being pollinated. These cucumbers are usually grown in greenhouses. All the other types of cucumbers are self-incompatible. This means they need to be cross-pollinated, from a different plant, for fertilization to occur. While any cucumber can be pickled, pickling cucumbers are bred for consistent size and shape, and they tend to have larger bumps. Varieties of pickling cucumber that perform best in the Bay Area include Pot Luck and Pickle Bush (good container plants), Saladin, County Fair 83, and Liberty Hybrid. Bush Champion, Parks Bush Whopper, Salad Bush and Spacemaster are good slicing varieties for containers. There are many good slicing varieties, including Marketmore 76, Marketmore 80, Dasher 11, Straight Eight, and Raider are good in-ground slicing cucumbers. New varieties are always being developed. In fact, I just discovered a Mexican Sour Gherkin cucumber that tastes like a cucumber but looks like a miniature watermelon!
How to grow cucumbers
Cucumbers love rich soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5, so moderate acidification may be helpful. Seeds should be planted 1 inch deep and 6 to 10 inches apart. After seedlings emerge, thin plants to every 12 inches. Cucumbers need lots of sunlight, so they are not the best choice for shade gardening. Cucumbers grow on creeping vines that can be trellised onto tomato cages, along fences, cattle panels, or on a teepee made from bamboo or other thin poles. Keeping your cucumbers off the ground will help reduce insect damage and fungal diseases.
Cucumber pests and diseases
Cucumbers have the same problems as other members of the squash family. Aphids, spider mites, whiteflies, nematodes, leafhoppers, leafminers, cutworms, squash vine borers, cucumber beetles, and squash bugs will all try to sink their tiny mouthparts into your delicious cucumbers, so keep a look out.
When you shop for cucumber seeds and plants, you may see an alphabet soup of letters on the tags. These letters are a shorthand for disease resistance. Common cucumber diseases that have resistant varieties include:
If you see AAS, it means All-American Selection, which is a plant that resists most diseases. Some diseases, such as sudden wilt, belly rot, and bacterial wilt do not have resistant varieties (yet). Many fungal and bacterial diseases can be avoided by waiting until leaves are dry before working an area. This reduces the likelihood of any diseases spreading to uninfected plants.
Cucumbers and bitterness
Sometimes, cucumbers can taste bitter. It was once thought that water stress was the only culprit, but research has shown that this bitterness is often caused by two genes that control the creation and inhibition of two compounds called terpenoids, which are more likely to occur when temperatures are lower than normal. Bitterness can also occur when plants are exposed to temperature fluctuations that are greater than 20 degrees F, or when they are stored next to other ripening vegetables.
Cucumbers and cross-pollination
Cucumbers of differing varieties or cultivars can cross-pollinate. Although cucumbers are members of the gourd family and cousin to melons, squash, and pumpkins, they cannot cross-pollinate with these varieties.
Increase pollination and fertilization rates by planting flowers near your cucumbers. This will attract more honey bees and result in larger yields.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!