The first cucumbers have to be one of the highlights of the summer garden season, with their crisp, cool crunch arriving just in time to relieve the summer heat. You can grow cucumbers in vegetable gardens or containers, here’s how.
Cucumbers are warm-season vegetables that thrive when temperatures are in the 70s-80s F. They’re planted after the last frost of spring, and they can be planted again in midsummer for early fall harvest.
Cucumber plants are fast growing vines that typically take over any trellis you give them, though there are more compact bush varieties available that might be better suited for small spaces or containers. Cucumbers are pretty plants, with large leaves, yellow flowers, and curling tendrils.
This year, I planted cucumbers to grow up the side of my shed, where they are both useful and decorative. You could also grow them on fences, arbors, and in containers with a sturdy stake or cage.
The varieties of cucumbers are usually divided into two categories:
Pickling Cucumbers: These smaller cucumbers grow around 2”- 4” long and have a wonderful crisp texture that’s perfect for making pickles. Examples of pickling cucumbers include ‘Little Leaf,’ ‘Carolina,’ and ‘Bush Pickle.’
Slicing Cucumbers: These are the 6”- 8” cucumbers we’re used to seeing in the grocery store, which are perfect for salads and dips. Examples include ‘Burpless,’ ‘Salad Bush,’ ‘Longfellow,’ and ‘Fanfare.’
Cucumber Growing Conditions
Light: Full sun, 6-8 hours or more of direct sunlight per day.
Soil: Well-draining, rich soil with plenty of compost or rotted manure. Cucumbers are fairly heavy feeders and need lots of organic matter in the soil.
Water: Cucumbers need regular water and will need to be irrigated during hot or dry spells.
Trellis: A sturdy trellis allows for vertical growing, which takes up less space, increases yields, and reduces pests and diseases. Also, vertically-trained vines will produce straighter cucumbers; cucumbers grown on the ground tend to be curled.
Cucumber Growing Tips
Plant After Frost: Sow cucumber seeds, or plant seedlings, a couple of weeks after your last spring frost, when soil temperatures are around 70° F. To get an earlier start, you can warm up the soil with black plastic.
Spacing: Plant 1-2 feet apart, and space the rows 5-6 feet apart. You can also plant in groups of 2-3 plants, with the groups several feet apart.
Shallow Roots: Cucumbers are shallow rooted plants, which makes them thirstier than other vegetables. Keep them well watered and mulched, and be careful when weeding not to disturb the roots.
Feeding: In addition to rich soil, cucumbers will benefit from monthly feedings with compost tea, fish emulsion, or a balanced organic fertilizer.
Water: Regular water is important throughout the growing season, but particularly when the plants are fruiting. A thick layer of mulch will hold in moisture.
Male and Female Flowers: Cucumber plants have both male and female flowers, and only the female flowers produce cucumbers. They are pollinated by honeybees and other insects, so it’s important to avoid pesticides that kill beneficial insects in your garden. If your plants aren’t producing, or the cucumbers are distorted in shape, you can try pollinating them yourself using a cotton ball or swab to transfer pollen from the male flowers (the plain ones) to the female flowers (the ones with a tiny cucumber at the base).
Cucumber Problems: The most common problems are aphids, bacterial wilt, and cucumber beetles. Keep an eye out for critters and diseases and address them before they spread to other plants.
How to Harvest Cucumbers
When to Harvest: Cucumbers usually take about 2 months to produce.
Ripening: As cucumbers become overripe, they turn yellow and bitter and cause the vines to stop producing, so harvest your cukes before they reach this stage. If any do over ripen, remove them immediately so the vine will continue to produce.
Harvesting Tips: Look for cucumbers that are firm and green. Bigger isn’t better; the best cucumbers are medium-sized and tender.
How to Harvest: Twist, pinch, or cut the stalk just above the tip of the cucumber, leaving just a little bit of stem attached to the cuke. This helps prevent rotting.
Harvesting Time: Pick cucumbers in the morning, while they’re cool, and get them into the fridge right away.
Harvest Often: During the peak season, your cucumbers (particularly pickling types) will need picking every day!
Cucumber Storage: Cucumbers keep in the fridge for a few days. The only way to preserve them is by pickling.
Cucumber (University of Illinois Extension)
Cucumber: How to Identify Male and Female Flowers (Completegarden’s)