How to grow cucumbers

cucs2It ain’t summer and it surely ain’t a salad until there’s cucumber in it. It might not be top of the nutritional content list, but cucumber really is the taste of summer, so if you’re growing your own salad leaves, it’s worth your while having a couple of cucumber plants to go with them.

One or two plants will provide you with all the produce you need. They’ll work out just fine in a container and look stunning as they scramble up a home-made wigwam or trellis – lush green leaves, attractive yellow flowers, easy peasy to grow… what are you waiting for?

Cucumbers originated in India, and as members of the squash family, are fond of trailing or climbing. If you prefer your cucumbers on the straight side, it’s best to opt for the climbing route; leave your plants to their own devices along the ground and you’ll end up with some rather interesting shapes and bends. Technically speaking, cucumbers, like tomatoes, are fruits.

To start:

cucsSow anytime between August and December if you’re in South Africa (or in spring if you’re not!). One seed per space in a seedling tray or two to a small pot. Once they have germinated, select the hardiest-looking ones for transplant either directly into the soil (in which case they’ll appreciate anywhere from 45cms-1 metre between them) or into containers measuring a good 37cms (one plant per pot).

At the same time as you plant them out, gently tie the stems to the supporting canes/wigwams – they grow like vines and will hang on by themselves, but the extra support makes all the difference, especially when your crops start appearing.

Day-to-day care:

Cucumbers like rich, well-drained soil. Although they are related to them, they’re a lot greedier than tomatoes so need regular watering which you’ll have to increase as they start setting fruit. “Regular” is the key word in that last sentence – the plants need steady growth if you’re to see a crop. The soil should be kept evenly damp rather than soaked

As your plants climb and grow, tie them in regularly to keep them well supported. Pinch out side-shoots from the bottom 60cm or so of the plant, allowing those above this height to take off. Once the baby cucumbers start to appear, you can pinch out the shoot a couple of leaves beyond them to ensure all the plant’s energies go into your crop. At the height of their growing period, you might find yourself doing this every day– well-looked-after cucumber grows like the proverbial triffid and if you’re growing more than one plant, you’ll soon be looking at a tangled mess.

Feed with your chosen fertilizer about once every two weeks.

Choosing varieties – important stuff to know:

Cucumbers traditionally offer male and female flowers before fruiting. The females are easy to spot as they have a baby

babycucumber

It's a girl!

cucumber swelling behind the base of the flower, while males don’t (that’s a female flower in the close-up picture I’ve posted with this entry). If you don’t remove the male flowers, they will pollinate the females, which will mean bitter, virtually inedible produce. You’ll have to pinch the male flowers out pretty much every other day. (I once had a part-time job in a commercial salad producer’s doing just that!)

If that sounds like too much trouble, you’re in luck – these days, all-female F1 seed varieties (such as Flamingo and Carmen) are widely available. If you’re in doubt, just ask at the nursery, otherwise take your chances and pinch out accordingly!

Harvesting your cucumbers:

Once they’ve reached the desired size – usually about 50 or 60 days after sowing – the flower will usually drop off the end, much as they do with courgettes. The more you pick, the more you’ll get – leaving one monster specimen to keep growing can prevent the rest of your fruit from fulfilling its potential. Use a pair of scissors or secateurs to cut the stem connecting the cucumber to the plant – don’t try yanking the fruit off or you’ll damage the plant and limit any future crop.

Pests, diseases, solutions:

Powdery mildew: This is most likely to occur towards the end of the growing season and looks like white/grey powdery coating anywhere on the plant. Pick off the affected leaves and lay-off any nitrogen-rich fertilizer you may be using, as this helps the softer growth more easily attacked by the mildew. You can use a sulphur spray to get rid of it but check with your nursery/the label for advice on how much to use. As with tomatoes or any other squash-type plant, good ventilation is half the battle, so thin out and tie back as much as you can.

Cucumber mosaic virus: Despite its name, this is a more common problem for courgettes. A virus, it is most readily spread by aphids or cross-contamination if you handle an infected plant and then move on to a healthy one. It’s easily recognised by the mottled, mosaic-shaped patterns it forms on the leaves. Eventually, the plant’s ability to flower (and therefore fruit) is reduced. Unfortunately, there’s no cure and your only option is to dispose of the infected plants. Burn them if you can and don’t compost them as that will only spread the virus further.

Red spider mite: Mostly affects plants grown in greenhouses or in hot, dry conditions (see the section on growing your own aubergines for more information). To prevent it, keep conditions damp and humid by keeping plants well watered or sprayed on the underside of their leaves.

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