Cucumbers are one of my kitchen heroes. They’re as essential in salads as the best of any leaves and add a thirst-quenching freshness to fruit smoothies. My absolute favourite way to enjoy them: cut in half, core removed then sliced on the diagonal to serve up with toasted sesame seeds and an Asian-inspired dressing of rice wine vinegar, sesame oil and a pinch of sugar and chilli flakes – yum!
All types of cucumber are very satisfying to grow and once they start producing their fruits you’ll be assured of plenty more to come.
Types of Cucumber
The standard cucumbers resembling those found in food stores are versatile enough and make a prolific choice for home-growing, producing on average 10 to 20 fruits per plant. But cucumbers are much more than just long and green. From quirky heritage or heirloom types to compact varieties perfect for container growing, there’s a cucumber suitable for every taste and location.
Slicing cucumbers: These are your standard cucumbers, perfect for, well, slicing. The skins tend to be thin and the flesh juicy and seed-free at the time of picking. Modern varieties have been bred to remove any bitterness, giving the fruits a mild, refreshing flavour.
Lunchbox cucumbers: A recent trend is for smaller fruits that can be eaten whole as a crunchy lunchtime snack. These are usually picked once they’ve reached 8-10cm (3-4in) long, though some varieties may be left to grow on into full-sized fruits.
Heritage/heirloom cucumbers: There’s an impressive array of interesting cucumber varieties available for those who like to experiment, from ‘Lemon’ or ‘Apple’ cucumbers with golfball-sized, round yellow fruits to large, white-skinned types that don’t need peeling. Many of these varieties also have dimpled or spiny skins.
Pickling cucumbers: The shorter, spiny fruits produced by pickling cucumbers or gherkins have a drier flesh, which makes them the perfect choice for preserving in this way. Gherkins pickled in brine and spiced vinegar is a great way of capturing some of summer’s bounty to enjoy later on in the winter.
In cooler climates, cucumbers are further classified according to whether they are best grown in a greenhouse or outdoors. Some easygoing varieties can be grown either way. All cucumbers thrive in rich, nutrient-dense soil that’s kept consistently moist, so it’s essential to keep plants well watered and fed as they grow. It’s a false economy to skimp on feeding them, so be on hand to drench the soil around your plants with a general-purpose organic liquid feed.
Preparing Planting Pockets for Outdoor Cucumbers
Traditionally grown on top of ridges to aid drainage, modern growing methods usually see cucumbers planted on the flat then left to sprawl across the ground or grow up trellising. Training upwards has been proven to boost yields, while making management of the plants easier.
The secret to getting plants off to a really strong start is to prepare planting pockets. These should be spaced around 60cm (2ft) apart. To make one, dig out a 30cm (1ft) square to a spade’s depth. Fill the hole back in with a mixture of well-rotted garden compost or manure from a trusted source, together with some of the excavated soil. Rake some organic fertiliser into the surface. Prepare your planting pockets about one week before planting to give them time to settle.
Growing Cucumbers Under Cover
Cucumbers grown under cover in a greenhouse or polytunnel need a minimum night-time temperature of 16ºC (61ºF), which can be difficult early on in the season. A heated propagator will help you to start off all types of cucumbers and cosset seedlings in their early stages of growth before acclimatising them to slightly cooler conditions. Or buy young, ready-to-plant cucumbers, which saves a lot of angst for a little additional investment.
Like outdoor types, you can prepare planting pockets to fuel their growth. Another option is to grow them two per growing bag or in large pots filled with quality potting soil. While cucumbers love it hot and humid, they will appreciate some shading in the height of summer to prevent the leaves becoming baked or scorched. They will also benefit from damping down, which not only cools the air temperature on excessively hot days, but raises the humidity.
Train the vines up taut strings, netting or canes to reach the roof of the greenhouse then pinch out the growing point. Side shoots, or laterals, should then be trained horizontally and pinched out after the fruits begin to grow, leaving two leaves after each fruit.
Most greenhouse cucumbers produce fruits without pollination, but many varieties of outdoor cucumber usually need pollinating to set fruit. Bees and other pollinators will of course do the job for you, though if you don’t see many about you can hedge your bets by using a fine paintbrush to tickle the pollen from the male flowers to transfer to the female flowers.
Cucumbers are at their best once they have filled out, but are just a smidgen shy of their final size. Pick them regularly and – it goes without saying – eat them as soon after cutting as possible. With a little bit of love and attention you’ll be picking them right through to autumn.