Cucumbers make a great summertime snack, whether they’re eaten fresh from the garden, added to a salad, or made into homemade pickles. And, they’re easy to grow at home, even for beginning gardeners! Here’s a guide to choosing the best cucumber varieties for your garden, and some advice on how to successfully grow them.
Types of Cucumbers
There’s a lot of variety among cucumbers! Here are the main categories, and how to choose between them.
Vining vs. Bush Cucumbers
Most cucumber varieties are “vining” types, meaning the plants grow long vines that climb and ramble along the ground and need quite a bit of space, but some varieties are considered “bush” type plants. If you’re growing in containers, or you just have a small garden, look for one of these varieties. They’ll say “bush” or “compact” somewhere in the description. The appropriately named “Bushy” cucumber is a great example. Even a bush type cucumber will do best with a trellis, however.
Slicing vs. Pickling Cucumbers
Slicing and pickling are the two main types of cucumbers that you’ll almost always see defined in seed catalogs. Pickling cucumbers are generally smaller (easy to fit into a pickling jar) and often have little spines that give them the classic bumpy texture you see in pickled gherkins. Slicing cucumbers grow bigger and longer and often have smoother skin, with few or no spines. Of course, there are no hard and fast rules about how to use your cucumbers. Pickling cukes can be good for fresh eating too (the “spines” are harmless - they’re not sharp, and brush right off the fruit), and you could slice up and pickle your slicing cukes if you wanted. They’re just categorized by what’s considered their ideal use.
- Marketmore 76 - The classic heirloom slicing cucumber.
- Suyo Long - An Asian variety that produces its distinctive slender, bumpy fruit whether or not it’s pollinated. A fruit that wasn’t pollinated won’t have any seeds, so these cucumbers are sometimes grown inside hothouses without pollinators in order to produce seedless cukes.
- Muncher - A large, smooth-skinned, and delicious slicer!
- Armenian - These quirky-looking ribbed and curved fruits are crisp, thin-skinned and delicious. Fun fact: though it tastes just like the cukes you’re familiar with, the Armenian cucumber is technically not a cucumber but a melon.
- Bushy - The perfect cucumber for a patio garden or small space.
- Puerto Rico 39 - An abundant producer of straight, light green cukes perfect for the pickle jar.
Some unusual cukes just don’t fit the slicing and pickling dichotomy. Lemon cucumber is an odd heirloom whose fruits are bright yellow and shaped like a ball with tiny black spines. Or there’s Mexican Sour Gherkin, also known as cucamelon or mouse melon, which is botanically not a cucumber, but is grown and eaten similarly. The fruits resemble tiny watermelons and taste tangy as if they’ve been pickled straight off the vine!
How to Grow Cucumbers
When to Plant Cucumbers
Cucumbers are not at all frost-tolerant, so you should wait until two weeks after your average last frost date to plant. They need about 70 degree soil to thrive, so it’s important to wait until your weather has reliably warmed up. Growers in cool climates can cover their soil with black plastic or landscape fabric to help warm the soil faster.
Transplanting vs. Direct Seeding
Cucumbers, like most vegetables in the Cucurbit family, are highly susceptible to transplant shock and do best when they are direct-seeded. If you do choose to start seeds indoors to extend your season, time it so that your transplants are no more than four weeks old when it’s time to transplant, and use paper pots that can be planted directly in the ground to minimize root disturbance. If buying starts from a nursery, look for young, small plants that don’t look leggy or have lots of roots growing out the bottom of the container.
Choosing and Preparing a Planting Site
Choose a spot with full sun, and mix in about two inches of good quality compost to prepare the soil. Cucumbers grow best on a trellis. They will take up less space, be easier to harvest, and be less susceptible to disease if given something to climb on. A section of woven wire fence works perfectly.
How to Plant Cucumber Seeds
Plant your seeds about one inch deep and 2 inches apart in a row along the trellis, and water thoroughly. In a few days, once the seedlings are up, thin them to one per foot. Try to leave the strongest seedlings - the one foot spacing doesn’t have to be perfect.
How to Care for Cucumber Plants
Cucumbers require very little care other than regular watering, and some occasional attention to keep pests at bay.
Cucumber plants need about an inch of water per week, and they do best when the soil stays consistently damp. A lack of water can result in cucumbers that are oddly shaped or bitter tasting. It’s best to water at the base of the plants and in the morning, so that the leaves and soil surface don’t stay wet too long.
Adult Pickleworm Moth (left, photo by John L Capinera, University of Florida. Striped Cucumber Beetle (right), photo by Brett Varner
Preventing Pests and Diseases in Cucumbers
- Water carefully: Watering your plants at the base, preferably in the morning so that the soil surface and leaves don’t stay wet, can help prevent fungal disease.
- Provide a sturdy trellis: A good trellis that keeps the leaves and fruits off the ground can also ward off moisture-related diseases and slugs.
- Regularly check for pests: Striped cucumber beetles and pickleworms are the most prevalent pests. Check the underside of leaves for clusters of small, yellow eggs and for caterpillar larvae. These are easy to pick off by hand if caught early. If bugs have already gotten a little out of hand, a spray of neem oil or BT can help get them under control.
- Remove any severely sick plants: Cucumber beetles carry a disease called bacterial wilt, which can destroy plants very quickly. If one of your plants suddenly turns yellow and wilts, remove it immediately and dispose of it in the trash (not the compost). By quickly getting rid of infected plants, you may be able to save their neighbors from the disease.
When your cucumbers start to bloom, begin checking for fruit every day. The plants usually produce quite a few male blossoms before producing any female blossoms, so don’t be alarmed if you see flowers but no fruit for a few days. Once your plants do start setting fruit, the cucumbers will grow quickly, and 24 hours can be the difference between a perfect cuke and a big, seedy, bitter one, so keep an eye out! The ideal size for cucumbers depends on the variety, so see what the description suggests, and just experiment. And if you find a cucumber that you’ve missed for a few days and is way past its prime, pick it anyway and compost it! Harvesting stimulates more fruit production, so make sure to harvest regularly, especially early in the season.
How to Store Cucumbers
Cucumbers don’t freeze or dehydrate well, so your options are to eat them fresh or pickle them. If you have canning equipment, you can make shelf-stable pickles that will last a year or more. (Make sure to use a tested recipe when canning!) If you’d rather not go through that trouble, it’s super easy to make refrigerator (quick) pickles that will last a few weeks in the fridge, or you can get a little more ambitious and naturally lacto-ferment your cucumbers for richly flavored pickles that will last in the fridge for several months.