The Garden Patch: Anyone can be an expert cucurbit grower

052514-garden-excericiseWell, here we go again with our series of ideas on summer garden crops (the 11 most popular in our area). Let’s go this time with cucumbers

Although cucumbers need warmth, you can grow them here with little or no problem – some varieties even go from seed to harvest in as little as 50 days. If you can avoid cucumber beetle damage when plants are young, keep fruits up off the soil and prevent fungal diseases from spreading, you’ll harvest a good crop of juicy cucumbers.

Sun and Soil. Plant cucumbers in full sun in loose, rich soil that holds moisture well. For soil that isn’t rich in organic matter, spread up to 4 inches of compost over the planting area and work it in, loosening the top foot of soil as you work.

Planting. Sow seeds or set out transplants after danger of frost when the soil is warm (at least 60 degrees F; 70 degrees is ideal). Plant again if your growing season is going to be long enough (watch the date and the temps) to allow a second crop. Sow seeds 3 to 6 inches apart and thin the plants to 1 foot apart once they have 2 or 3 leaves. Sow the seeds directly in the garden in raised hills or in rows. Start seedlings indoors in peat pots 3 weeks before you plan to set them outside. Harden them off in a protected outdoor area (such as a coldframe for the last week).

Growing. Cucumbers and trellises are a great combination. The fruits grow straight, they’re easy to find and pick, they suffer fewer disease problems and you can grow more in less space. Construct an A-frame trellis or a vertical trellis. The vines don’t need any special support once they start to climb – the strong tendrils will cling to the trellis as the vines grow. Set up the trellis before you plant. As the vines elongate, pinch off the first few side shoots that form on each vine. After that, allow the side shoots to sprout and spread.

Problem solving. Cucumbers are prone to several serious diseases, including mildews, scab, anthracnose and bacterial wilt. Fortunately, plenty of disease-resistant varieties are available; some show resistance to several different diseases. Start by carefully choosing your cucumber varieties.

Many cucumber varieties bear flowers in the traditional way: Each vine first produces male flowers then female flowers produce fruits. Varieties with the broadest range of disease resistance are gynoecia (producing female flowers only) varieties. Planting a second variety (one that produces male flowers as well as female) is required for pollination and fruit set. Seed suppliers usually add a small amount of pollinator seed (marked with a red dye) to the packet of gynoecia seeds. You must plant some of the pollinator seeds (and not thin out those seedlings) in order to reap a harvest from the gynoecia variety. Parthenocarpic varieties also produce only female flowers, but do not require pollination to produce fruit. Often called European cucumbers, these cucumbers produce very tender skinned crisp fruits that many people prefer to standard slicing cucumbers. All of these details should be spelled out in the catalog description of a cucumber variety. If the description isn’t clear to you, contact the seed supplier and ask for clarification before you buy.

Cover seeded rows or seedlings with row cover; seal the edges well. This protection helps keep out insect pests such as the cucumber beetle which can munch plants to death and seriously damage them by spreading bacterial wilt and cucumber mosaic virus as they feed. Remove row covers when plants start to flower or when you need to start training them onto a trellis. If you’re growing parthenocarpic cucumbers without a trellis, you can leave them covered until harvest.

As they grow, spray exposed plants with kaolin spray to deter cucumber beetles. Spray them with plant health boosters or compost tea to help prevent disease problems. Avoid any moisture stress once fruits begin to form. Water-stressed fruits tend to be bitter. The best way to provide even soil moisture, especially for trellised cucumbers, is to run a soaker hose or drip irrigation line along a row of fruits. Trellised cucumbers are more prone to drought stress because the foliage is more exposed to sun and air (but they are less likely to suffer disease problems).

Spider mites and moisture stress are prime problems for cucumbers in arid regions. Spider mites feed more and reproduce faster in dry conditions, causing leaves to drop off. Any fruits that form will probably be stunted and bitter flavored. And in a dry climate, it’s more difficult to maintain even soil moisture. Instead of trellising cucumbers on a tall trellis, train them over an arch of wire fencing. The vines will be less exposed to drying wind and hot sun. You’ll be able to spray the vines lightly with water to promote humidity. Using a tunnel also results in the vines shading the garden bed which helps preserve soil moisture. A drip line running down the center of the bed under the arch allows regular watering without a fuss.

Cover the arch with row cover at planting time to protect seedlings from cucumber beetles. Remove the covers when the weather becomes too hot or once the vines are ready to twine through the wire mesh.

Harvesting. Watch for the cucumber flower to drop off the blossom end of the fruit. Pick the fruit anytime after that. If the cucumber has spines, watch for the dimpled areas around the spines to fill out; that’s a sign that the fruits are juicy and ready to pick. Harvest cucumbers for pickling when they are 2 to 4 inches long. Harvest cucumbers for slicing and salads when they are 6 to 8 inches long (many varieties will grow larger than this but younger fruit will have better quality). Pick European cucumbers when they reach about 10 inches.

OK! That’s it! You’re a cucumber expert now! Go out and grow a batch! I will! Till next time!


stevehallerSteve Haller, of Osage City, a K-State Research and Extension Master Gardener, writes The Garden Patch, featuring gardening ideas and tips for gardeners in northeast Kansas. In his words: “I am not a horticulturist. By education I am an economist. By experience, I am a marketing guru from a local to an international scale. Gardening was taught to me by my grandfather and my mom, and I’ve been doing it since World War II was going on.”

Steve can be contacted at [email protected], or leave questions or comments below.

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