Most of us think of cucumbers as green, seed-filled slices on a salad. Long, green cucumbers are by far the most popular type grown in home gardens, but there are hundreds of cucumber varieties, including round cukes, yellow cukes, skinny English cukes, and exotic Armenian cukes. Cucumbers are relatively easy to grow in many different climates. Homegrown cukes are tastier and crunchier than most store-bought varieties (and they don't have that thick coating of wax!).
Cucumbers are in the same family as squash and melons. A popular way to categorize cucumbers is to describe them as either slicers or picklers. Both types can be eaten fresh, while pickling cucumbers hold their texture well during processing.
- Leaves: Cucumber leaves are somewhat triangular in shape, with pointed lobes. The texture of the whole plant is rough and prickly.
- Flowers: Yellow and usually monoecious, requiring both male and female blossoms to produce fruits. Newer hybrids are being bred to be parthenocarpic, with only female blossoms that don’t require pollination.
- Fruits: Fruits can vary in size from 1 or 2 inches long to over a foot. There are also round cucumbers. The outer skin is usually green or yellow and can be either tender or tough. Most varieties are sprinkled with spines, which wipe off easily. Parthenocarpic varieties are seedless.
USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 11
Full sun to partial shade
Plant size varies greatly among cucumber varieties. Vining cucumbers can easily cover 4 to 6 feet of ground. Bush varieties don’t travel as far, but they can spread out 4 feet in every direction.
Days to Harvest
Most varieties begin producing within 48 to 70 days from seed.
Cucumber Harvesting Tips
Cucumbers are best harvested slightly immature. After they reach maturity they start to turn yellow and become bitter, and seeded varieties develop more seed pulp the longer you leave them on the vine. Check your seed package or label for the recommended harvesting size for your variety.
Since cucumber vines are scratchy and unpleasant to touch, it's usually best to cut cucumbers from the vine. You can also twist the stem and snap the cucumbers off the vines. Don't pull them because you'll damage the vines.
Suggested Cucumber Varieties
Cukes are great for trying different sizes, colors, and shapes to see which varieties look and grow the best and, of course, taste the best to you.
- Marketmore: One of the most prolific, easy-growing varieties.
- Lemon: A round, pale yellow heirloom with a generous amount of seeds. You can scoop out the seeds and use the fruit as an edible serving bowl.
- Armenian: Thin-skinned and crunchy, Armenian cukes are somewhat exotic and can be stripped or ridged.
- English: Also called hothouse, these have thin skin and a mild taste. They require a long growing season.
- Bush champion, spacemaster, bushmaster, and others: Almost any variety with "bush" in its name is great for growing in containers.
Pests and Diseases of Cucumbers
Insects that attach cucumbers include squash vine borers, which bore into the base of the plant and cut off its circulation. Squash bugs feed on the plants, especially young seedlings. Cucumber beetles feed on the leaves and transmit a bacterial disease known as cucumber wilt or bacterial wilt, which is deadly to cucumber plants. Another disease, powdery mildew, is unsightly and weakens the plants, but they can survive it.
Cucumber Growing Tips
Cucumbers like a slightly acidic to neutral soil pH of about 5.5 to 7.0, and they love heat. Plant both seeds and plants after all danger of frost. Also, allow the soil to warm and dry out some. Cucumbers are easy to direct-seed in the garden. You can also buy cucumber seedlings, but they transplant best when still young.
If you are starting seeds indoors, seed them about three to four weeks before you plan to transplant. Sowing in peat or paper pots will reduce the effects of transplant shock. Otherwise, simply direct-plant the seeds in clusters of three to four seeds, about 1/2 inch deep, and spaced 18 to 36 inches apart. If the soil is loose enough, you can press them right into the soil without digging. If you plan to trellis your vines, you can plants them a few inches closer together. Another method is to plant clusters of seed at the top of small soil hills, spacing vining cucumbers in hills 5 to 6 feet apart, or spacing bush types 2 to 3 feet apart.
Give the plants at least 1 inch of water per week, especially when fruits are present (cucumbers are mostly water). Don’t let them sit in wet soil. As vine crops, cucumbers are heavy feeders. Start with a rich soil and side dress with compost once the plants start blooming. Give them another dressing or dose of fertilizer about three to four weeks later, in mid-season.
Common Problems Growing Cucumbers
If your plants are not setting fruit, indicating poor pollination, this could be caused by bad weather, lack of pollinators, or a lack of female blossoms. Female blossoms tend to start flowering later in the season than male blossoms.
One common complaint of eating cucumber is bitterness. Some people say cucumbers are more bitter near the skin and toward the blossom end. There are also bred varieties that aren't bitter, so trying a different type of cucumber plant can make all the difference.