Sun-loving cucumbers are fun and easy to grow. With the right care and attention a single plant can produce between 10 and 15 fruits – ample reward for your efforts! Like zucchini, sweet corn and sunflowers, these refreshing, watery vegetables are great plants for kids to sow and care for because they take off pretty quickly and the later harvest can be highly rewarding for young gardeners keen on results!
Unlike the range for sale in the shops, there are about 100 different varieties of cucumber from the bushy to the clambering. Home gardeners can choose from the likes of standard long ‘Telegraph’, smaller and very prolific ‘Lebanese, short torpedo-shaped ‘Port Albert’ and apple-shaped ‘Crystal Apple’ – to name but a few. Those keen on pickling their own gherkins might like to give ‘Homemade Pickles’ a try.
Companions Sweet corn, beans, peas, carrots, beetroot.
Quantity 1 plant per person
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Lebanese there are lots of Lebanese varieties and they all produce heavy crops – at least 15 fruits per plant – of short, juicy green cucumbers that can be eaten whole. Great for lunchboxes.
Telegraph the classic long cucumber of many a genteel afternoon tea sandwich. Thin skinned and juicy.
Port Albert a heritage variety with round, rugby ball shaped pale yellow fruits. Plants produce prolifically and for a long time. Fruit flavour stays sweet despite age.
Homemade Pickles reliable heirloom variety for those keen on pickling. These gherkins are produced in great numbers over a long period.
August to January. As a general rule, sow indoors about a month before you want to plant your seedlings out in the garden.
Cucumbers are intolerant of cold temperatures and cannot handle any frost at all so wait until all risk of frost in your area has passed – this normally means at least after Labour Day – before you plant your seedlings in the garden. In colder parts of the country you may find you have to wait until December. Another option is to use a greenhouse – if you have one – where cucumbers will grow all year round.
A place in the sun with plenty of space is best for these sprawling, clambering plants. A disused rose arch, a fence or a hedge close to the compost heap (that you can actually plant into) would be ideal. Alternatively make a wigwam from bamboo canes or grow cucumbers through a clump of sweet corn. Because they grow above ground they are likely to cast shade on smaller plants growing on their southern side.
Cucumbers have an insatiable appetite for rich nutrients, they also love a slightly moist, cool soil to help generate sufficient moisture for all those leaves during the hotter parts of the day. I dig a round hole about the size or one or two buckets and fill it with rotted horse manure, seaweed, compost, chicken poo, sheep pellets – whatever I have to hand – mixing with the garden soil as I go. I slightly over-fill the hole so that it ends up like a gently pregnant mound. (Adding some untreated wood ash will provide extra potassium to boost production of flowers and fruits).
Seeds are best popped into a peat pot (around a finger length in height) filled with seed compost and put on a windowsill, in a cold frame or in a greenhouse to grow on and get a head start on the cooler weather of early spring. They should be ready for planting into the garden in about 4 to 5 weeks.
Take your seeds and put them in a glass of water to soak overnight before you plant – this will improve germination. Generally, it is a good idea to plant two seeds per pot. Push each seed about a finger tip below the surface of your seed compost and water in. Select the stronger of the two resulting seedlings when they have developed a pair of leaves (just pinch out the weaker one at soil level).
If you are buying seedlings then go for specimens that are well-rooted and have at least three pairs of leaves.
Allow about a stride by a stride per seedling. Just make a hole as deep as your pot and pop the seedling in before back-filling and gently firming the soil around it. Water well.
At this stage it helps to mark the position of each seedling with a bamboo cane (cover the end to prevent eye damage). This means you’ll be able to ensure accurate watering later on when the base of the plant is obscured by foliage.
Sweetcorn can be used as a living trellis for runner beans to scamper up. There is a cool planting combination called ‘The three sisters’ – originating from native American growers – that sees a ring of half a dozen or so sweetcorn plants with a squash or cucumber planted in their midst and a couple of runner bean plants growing up around their outside. The beans clamber up the corn and tie them together whilst fixing nitrogen into the soil. The corn benefits from the extra nitrogen and provides a climbing frame for beans and squash/cucumber. The squash/cucumber climbs on the corn and its broad leaves provide shade at the base of the corn – keeping roots cool and shading out weeds.
Water your plants at the base as they start to explore their territory – avoid spraying foliage with water as this can spread fungal diseases. Mulch heavily around the stem of the plant where its roots are concentrated – I use lawn trimmings which come in handy as my mowing seems to coincide with a need to apply more mulch. Pinch out the tip of the main shoot once it has grown to about an arm’s length. This can help to produce a good crop with more female flower-bearing side shoots.
In some years the harvest can start earlier than others – delays can come from colder springs causing an early lack of pollinating bees. If flowers appear to not develop into fruits before withering then use a soft paintbrush and hand pollinate on a warm, sunny day by dabbing gently from the centre of one open flower and onto another.
Once fruits start to form along the stems and begin to swell you can start weekly applications of liquid comfrey or similar liquid feed with a high potassium content to benefit fruit production.
Look out for aphids which can infect plants with ‘Cucumber mosaic virus’. Treat with Garlic oil spray or Tomato leaf spray as soon as you notice them.
Towards the end of summer cucumber plants often develop a grey, ash-like coating to their leaves. This is powdery mildew and its spread is often due to humidity, poor air circulation or irregular moisture levels. This can mean the end of fruitful fun if not promptly addressed. Remove any leaves as soon as you see the first signs to slow the spread and buy some time. You can spray powdery mildew with Baking soda spray but, given the size of these plants, this can be impractical.
Each variety will have an optimum eating size. Pick accordingly by cutting from vines or stems with scissors – this helps to prevent damaging the surprisingly delicate plants. Regular picking helps to ensure a prolonged and fruitful harvest.
Keep picking to stimulate ripening of more cucumbers along the vines.