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2014- The Year of Cucumber

submitted by Sarah Browning, UNL Extension Educator

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According to the National Garden Bureau, cucumbers are native to India where they have been grown for almost 3000 years. But it is very likely that cucumbers have been eaten by humans for much longer. Excavation at the Spirit Cave site on the Burma-Thailand frontier in 1970 uncovered seeds of cucumbers, beans, and water chestnuts that, according to radiocarbon dating, had been consumed in 9750 B.C.

Of course, cucumbers are a staple of our modern diets, and are one of the top five most popular vegetables for gardeners. To celebrate our long history of growing and eating cucumbers, the National Garden Bureau has designated cucumber "Vegetable of the Year."

Growing Cucumbers

Cucumbers are so easy to grow that even beginning gardeners can be successful, just choose a site with full sun and well-drained soil. Cucumbers are adaptable to many soil types, growing well in loam, clay or sand. They perform well in either a traditional ground bed or large 25-50 gallon containers.

Cucumbers grow best when direct seeded after danger of frost has passed. They are a warm season crop, and a very tender annual, so don't tolerate late freezes well. Plant seeds ½-1 inch deep in the soil. When planted in rows, plants should be spaced 12-18 inches apart, but they can also be grown in hills, with 2-3 plants per hill. Space the hills 24-36 inches apart.

After plants have germinated adjust your watering based on soil type so that plants are kept moist but not waterlogged. Place organic mulch, like clean hay or straw, around the base of plants to help maintain soil moisture, reduce weed problems and keep the soil cool.

Cucumbers are heavy feeders. Side dress plants one week after flowering begins with a high nitrogen fertilizer, and apply a repeat application three weeks later. Use approximately 1 ½ ounces of 33-0-0 per 10 feet of row.

Cultivars to Try

Cucumber cultivars are grouped according to plant growth habit, either bush or vining, or by the most common use of the cucumbers, either slicing/fresh eating or pickling. There are hundreds of cucumber cultivars available so only a few are listed below, but each has a unique characteristic with which gardeners should be aware.

Gynoecious plants produce all or predominantly female flowers, but unless they are also parthenocarpic, will require non-gynoecious plants with pollen-producing male flowers for good fruit set. Parthenocarpic plants do not require pollination for fruit set, and produce seedless fruits. Use of gynoecious and parthenocarpic plants is helpful if gardeners have a history of poor harvest due to pollination problems. They can also be used if row cover fabric is employed to reduce cucumber beetle damage, since the plants don't require the presence of pollinators for fruit set.

  • Dasher II - hybrid slicer, 58 days from seed to harvest, vigorous, gynoecious, parthenocarpic. Available from Harris and Stokes Seed.
  • Diva - hybrid slicer, 58 days from seed to harvest, smooth thin skin, burpless, gynoecious, and parthenocarpic. Diva has been bred with lower levels of cucurbitacin in the foliage, which makes plants less attractive to cucumber beetles. Available from Park, Jung, Harris and Johnny's Select Seed.
  • Spacemaster - hybrid slicer, 60 days from seed to harvest with 7-8" fruits. Dwarf plants are good for containers or small gardens. Available from Burpee and Park Seed.
  • County Fair - hybrid pickler, 52 days from seed to harvest, gynoecious, and parthenocarpic. The only cucumber cultivar with resistance to bacterial wilt, a serious disease spread by feeding of cucumber beetles. Available from Jung, Reimers, R.H. Shumways, and Gourmet Seed.

Bitterness in Cucumbers

A common cucumber problem is bitterness. All cucurbits produce a group of chemicals called cucurbitacins, which cause the vegetables to taste bitter, and the higher the concentration of cucurbitacin the more bitter the vegetable will taste. In commercially cultivated cucumbers and zucchini, they are normally in such low concentrations that they cannot be tasted. These chemicals provide other attributes to the cucurbits, such as the musky scent of cantaloupe.

Mild bitterness is fairly common in cucumbers resulting from higher levels of cucurbitacin triggered by environmental stress, like high temperatures, wide temperature swings or too little water. Uneven watering practices (too wet followed by too dry), low soil fertility and low soil pH are also possible stress factors. Over mature or improperly stored cucurbits may also develop mild bitterness, although it can usually be eliminated by removing the cucumber skin before eating.

For more information on this year's featured plants, including a very interesting history of the cultivation and use of cucumbers through the ages, visit the National Garden Bureau.

This resource was added February 2014 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement

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