Most of us think of cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) 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.
Cucumber leaves are somewhat triangular in shape, with pointed lobes. The texture of the whole plant is rough and prickly. Cucumber flowers are yellow and most commonly monoecious, requiring both male and female blossoms to produce fruits. Newer hybrids are being bred to be parthenocarpic, with only female blossoms that are self-pollinating.
Cucumber 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.
Cucumbers are planted in spring, after the last frost, and need about 50 to 70 days to produce harvestable fruit.
|Botanical Name||Cucumis sativus|
|Common Names||Cucumber, gherkin|
|Mature Size||9 to 18 inches tall, 3 to 8 feet wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun to partial shade|
|Soil Type||Rich, well-draining|
|Soil pH||Acidic to neutral (5.5 to 7.0)|
|Hardiness Zones||4 to 11 (USDA)|
How to Plant Cucumbers
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 plant 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.
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.
Cucumbers thrive in full sun, ideally at least six hours a day, but they will tolerate a little less.
Cucumbers like a slightly acidic to neutral soil pH of about 5.5 to 7. Make sure the soil is rich by mixing in compost or aged manure prior to planting seeds or seedlings. The soil should be loose and well-draining.
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 or let the soil dry out. Consistent, regular watering is critical for well-formed fruits that taste good. Missing waterings leads to bitter fruit.
Temperature and Humidity
Cucumbers love heat and thrive in the long hot days and warm nights of summer. They grow in both humid and dry conditions, provided they are properly watered.
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.
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; seeds can be scooped out to use the fruit as an edible serving bowl
- Armenian (Cucumis melo): Thin-skinned and crunchy; somewhat exotic and can be stripped or ridged
- English: Also called hothouse; thin skin and a mild taste; require a long growing season
- Bush champion, spacemaster, bushmaster, and similar: Great for growing in containers
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.
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.
Common Pests and Diseases
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. Watering the soil instead of the foliage is a good practice to help prevent disease.