There are two main types of cucumbers: small pickling types that are bumpy and rough and large slicing varieties that are meant to be eaten fresh. Pickling cucumbers also are flavorful and good to eat fresh, although not as large as slicing cucumbers. Slicing cucumbers, however, do not make good pickles due to their high water content. No matter which variety you choose, you'll enjoy their fresh, crispy texture and versatility. (You'll also find specialty cucumbers, too, like round, yellow Lemon cucumbers, white 'Dragon Egg', as well as tiny cucamelon, but most gardeners focus on pickling and slicing varieties.)
How to Grow Cucumbers
Cucumbers require a long growing season, and most are ready for harvest in 50 to 70 days from planting. The fruits ripen at different times on the vine, but it is essential to pick them when they are ready to avoid a bitter flavor that develops in cucumbers that are left on the vine too long.
Seed packets list the approximate size of the cucumbers and the number of days until harvest from the germination date, which gives you a general idea of when they will be ready to harvest. Watch for the first female flowers to open—they're the ones with the miniature cucumber right beneath the flower—and expect ripe fruit in 8 to 10 days. Check the vines daily after they start to produce. Cucumbers grow quickly.
How to Know When a Cucumber Is Ready to Be Harvested
A cucumber is ready to be picked when it is the size and color of a ripe cucumber of its variety. Most cucumbers develop a deep green color, but some cultivars have a white or yellow tint or a dappled appearance, so check the tag or seed packet. The cucumber should feel firm. The best time to harvest cucumbers depends in large part on the variety you are growing and how you plan to use the cucumbers. Here are some general guidelines:
- If you are harvesting pickling cucumbers to make sweet pickles or gherkins, harvest them when they are about two inches long. If you plan to make dill pickles, a good rule of thumb is to harvest when the cucumbers are three to four inches long.
- Most slicing cucumbers for fresh eating should be harvested when they are six to nine inches long and have a dark green color. If they get much larger than this, they'll be bitter and won't have a pleasant texture.
How to Harvest Cucumbers
Wear gloves when you harvest cucumbers. Some of them, particularly pickling varieties, are prickly. If the cucumbers have a lot of spines, remove them by rubbing a cloth or a soft vegetable brush along the length of the fruit.
Use a sharp knife or pruners to cut the cucumber of the vine. Be sure to leave a small, one-inch section of stem attached to the cucumber. This prevents the stem end from rotting in storage if you won't be using the cucumber right away.
Using a knife or pruners is the easiest way to harvest cucumbers and the least stressful method for the plant. If you twist or pull on the vine, the plant can be damaged.
The burpless varieties of cucumbers are susceptible to bruising. Lay them gently in a container as you gather the ripe fruit.
Extending Cucumber Season
Some people leave cucumbers on the vine and let them grow as large as they can, but the flavor is better if they are harvested earlier. Picking the cucumbers as soon as they are ready encourages the plant to produce longer into the season. To extend the season:
- Sow seeds indoors to have plants ready when the temperature heats up. Cucumbers are warm weather plants and you can't sow seed outdoors early.
- Plant two or three varieties of cucumbers that have a different number of days to maturity.
- Remove damaged fruit from the vine, so the plant doesn't waste any energy on it.
- Cucumbers do not continue ripening once harvested.
- Harvest fruit in the morning, when the vines are cool and damp.
- Don't leave cucumbers on the vines for too long. Continuous harvests encourages new flowers and fruit.
- As the first frost nears, prune small fruit and flowers from the plant to encourage all the plant's energy to focus on ripening larger cucumbers.
You can keep cucumbers in the refrigerator for about a week, but the flavor is best soon after you pick them. Pickling cucumbers will last a bit longer. Refrain from storing your cucumbers in plastic bags or lidded containers. Keep them directly in the vegetable drawer of your refrigerator or in an open container with a paper towel to collect excess moisture.