Whether you call them cucumbers, cukes or gherkins, cucumbers are one of the most popular home garden vegetables. A few years ago, cucumbers weren’t so easy to grow. Older varieties were prone to disease and insect pests and often failed to set fruit. The fruit was often bitter, mushy or prickly.
But agricultural researchers have solved these problems. Today’s cucumbers are more disease resistant. You’ll find seedless, burp less and thin-skinned varieties that taste better. New “gynoecious” species contain more female flowers so more fruit sets and you get a bigger yield.
In fact, cucumber plants give such large yields that one plant is probably all you’ll need, unless you plan to do a lot of pickling. And once you taste a homegrown cucumber, you won’t be satisfied with the wax-coated, tasteless store-bought variety. So, save a corner in your garden this year for cucumbers. Below, you’ll find everything you need to get started.
Soil and Location
Cucumbers are native to the sub-tropics so they like warmth and even moisture. Even a little frost can kill them, while dry, scorching heat shrivels the leaves and turns the fruit bitter. Choose a spot in your garden that gets full sun.
Cucumbers are members of the melon family and they grow on long, trailing vines. You’ll need at least 9 square feet of garden space for one plant. If you’re lacking in space, try training cucumbers to climb the garden fence or install a strong trellis. Another option is to select a compact, upright variety, such as ‘Bush Champion,’ ‘Spacemaster,’ or ‘Potluck.’ Some varieties can even be grown in containers.
Cucumbers tolerate a variety of soil types. They’ll produce heavier yields in clay soils, but they’ll produce an earlier crop in sandy soils. They prefer a soil pH between 5.5 and 7.0. Regardless of your soil type, cucumbers will perform best if you give them some compost and manure. Dig 1 to 2 inches of compost or manure into the garden before planting cucumbers. Amend the soil with lime if the pH falls below 5.5.
Plant cucumbers in rows or hills after the last frost. Plant the seeds ½ inch deep and space them 6 inches apart. Thin the plants when they stand 3 inches tall. Space plants in rows 12 inches apart or grow 3 plants in each hill.
Cucumbers mature in 50 to 70 days, depending on the species, so even if you have a short growing season, you can succeed with cucumbers. However, if you’d rather, you can start cucumbers indoors two to three weeks before the last frost. Cukes don’t like their roots disturbed so plant them in peat pots. Store the pots in a warm location like on top of the refrigerator and spray them daily with a mister.
Transplant them outdoors once the plants stand 3 inches high and all chance of frost is passed.
Care and Harvest
Cucumbers, with their large leaves, flowers and fruit, are hungry plants that benefit from some fertilizer during the growing season. Give them a little nitrogen fertilizer about one week after blooming and again three weeks later. Don’t overdo it, though, or you’ll end up with lots of lush greenery and few fruits.
Additionally, cucumbers need a steady supply of moisture, especially during hot weather. Stressed plants produce fewer fruits and the fruit often tastes bitter. Use a soaker hose to keep the leaves dry, and water every other day or so to keep the soil evenly moist, but not soggy.
Cucumbers don’t compete well with weeds, yet their shallow, fine roots are easily damaged by cultivation. The solution? Begin mulching them when they stand about 6 inches tall. Spread untreated grass clippings evenly around the plant weekly for a free, biodegradable mulch that adds nitrogen to the soil. Never apply more than 1 inch of grass clippings at a time, though, or the grass mats together in a smelly mess.
Alternatively, install black plastic over the soil at planting time. Secure it with clips and cut holes in it for the seeds. One caveat about black plastic mulch: Black plastic heats up quickly in the summer sun and can burn plants. Time your planting so the plants stand at least 12 inches high when the heat of summer arrives. These large plants will shade the plastic so it doesn’t become as hot.
Cucumber Diseases and Pests
The cucumber beetle is the number one enemy of cucumber plants. This hungry insect chews leaves and vines, damaging the plants. More importantly, it can spread several diseases, such as bacterial wilt and mosaic. These two diseases are often fatal to the plants.
Inspect your garden daily for cucumber beetles, looking in the cucumber flowers and under leaves. Hand pick any that you find and drop them in a bucket of soap. Severe infestations may require rotenone spraying, or spread netting over the plants when they are small.
Cucumbers may also develop powdery mildew, anthracnose or leaf spot. These diseases are hard to control and your best bet is to plant disease-resistant varieties if you live in an area prone to one of them.
Start picking cucumbers when they reach 4 to 6 inches long, depending on the variety. Cucumbers taste better when they’re young and become dry and bitter if allowed to age on the vine. Cut them off with a knife to avoid damaging the plant. Once your cucumbers start bearing fruit, you must keep picking them whether you need cucumbers or not. If you stop picking, they stop producing and the harvest is over. Store them in a perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to one week.
Recommended Varieties of Cucumbers
Slicing (fresh eating)
Wisconsin SMR 18
West India Gherkin
Want to learn more about growing cucumbers?
See these helpful resources:
Cornell University Vegetable MD: Cucumber Slicers Disease Resistance
The Ohio State University: Growing Cucumbers in the Home Garden