Veggie Basics: Growing Great Cucumbers

If you think of cucumbers as a space-invading crop with 4 to 6 foot vines invading adjoining crops and walkways, think again! Actually, cucumbers can be one of the most productive small garden crops grown, if you take advantage of their tendency to vine and grow them vertically.

TYPE, VARIETY

Basically, there are two types of cucumbers: slicing and pickling. The slicing types mature when they reach 6 to 8 inches long. They are ideal for fresh use in salads and vegetable trays. They can also be sliced and preserved as bread and butter pickles but are not a good choice for making whole pickles. The pickling types are much smaller when mature - 3 to 4 inches and maintain their crunchy texture when pickled. They also can be used fresh in salads and are the right choice if space limits you to planting one type of cucumber.

Slicing varieties for Texas include Burpless, Dasher II, Poinsett 76, Sweet Slice and Sweet Success. Recommended pickling varieties are Calypso, Carolina and Liberty.

SOIL PREPARATION

Cucumbers have extensive root systems and respond well to the liberal application of compost and barnyard manure. Begin the process by tilling the area to be planted. Keep in mind that the roots will spread beyond the actual area that the vines occupy. Then spread compost and well-rotted manure over the area - about 25 to 50 pounds of manure per 100 square feet and as much compost as you can spare. If your philosophy permits, add 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of a commercial fertilizer over the same area. Then till this into the soil. To improve drainage, pull the soil into a raised bed 4 to 6 inches high. Rake the planting area smooth and you are ready to plant.

GET VERTICAL

The easiest way to get your cucumbers growing up is to plant them in cages - the same ones you use to cage your tomatoes. Since caged cucumbers require less space you can plant them closer together. You can also grow them on a fence or trellis but cages are the best choice since they can be rotated to different areas of the garden from year-to-year.

Your plants may need a little guidance to attach to the cages. Just guide the young vines through the wire a few times and they will do the rest. Not only does growing cucumbers vertically save space, but it reduces disease problems because of better air circulation and allows for easier harvesting. Now, if plant breeders could just develop a red cucumber that would be easier to spot!

PLANTING TIPS

If you are direct seeding your cucumbers, wait until the soil temperature is 60 degrees or higher. Cucumbers are sensitive to cool temperatures and will grow poorly if planted too early.

If you insist on having an early crop, here are some techniques that will help you beat the odds.

•Use black plastic mulch, rather than light-colored mulch, to warm the soil.

•Plant your cucumbers in pots and maintain indoors about three weeks before your expected planting date. Then set them out at the appropriate time.

•Plant in cages and wrap them in fiber row cover or plastic.

•Pray for an early spring.

Plant your cucumbers in hills 3 to 4 feet apart (use the closer spacing if you are using cages). Plant seed 1 to 1 1/2 inches deep, depending on soil type (deeper in light soils and shallower in heavy soils) and thin hills to 2 to 3 plants per hill. Pinch or cut thinned plants out with scissors or a knife. Pulling them up will disturb the roots of the remaining plants.

UP, UP AND AWAY

Once your seedlings emerge, be sure to maintain adequate soil moisture. Once they start to vine, sidedress them with a tablespoon or so per hill of nitrogen fertilizer - either ammonium nitrate or ammonium sulfate. Organic purists can use manure tea as a substitute for commercial fertilizer, but this mild mix should be applied more frequently. Work the fertilizer in very lightly to avoid root damage and then water.

CUCUMBER PESTS

Cucumbers are plagued by a host of pests and diseases. The most common insects to watch for are aphids, cucumber beetles, squash bugs and leaf miners.

Try to encourage beneficial insects that will help keep these bad guys in check. Use appropriate labeled insecticides only as a last resort. Even some organic pesticides are toxic and can harm beneficials. And never spray in the morning when honey bees are active. Honey bees are responsible for pollinating cucumbers and many other garden crops. So, apply insecticides only in the afternoon when bees are less active.

Poor fruit set in cucumbers is almost always a result of a lack of honeybees or a misuse of pesticides in the garden.

Cucumbers are also susceptible to several diseases. The most common are downy mildew and powdery mildew.

Some mildew most commonly occurs during periods of high humidity. Improving air circulation by planting in cages can help reduce incidences of this disease.

Also, water in the morning or early afternoon and avoid getting water on the plant's foliage. Better yet, use drip irrigation. Downy mildew shows up as yellow or brown spots on the upper leaf surface and a moldy growth on the lower leaf surface.

Powdery mildew occurs when climatic conditions are exactly opposite of those conducive to downy mildew, i.e. scorching hot, dry weather. If you suspect that someone has dusted your cucumbers with bath powder, then you probably have powdery mildew.

Both of the above can be controlled using an approved fungicide applied at the first sign of disease. As your cucumbers continue to grow and reward you with a bountiful harvest, sidedress them again with a nitrogen fertilizer as previously mentioned. Also, keep them watered well. Failure to do so will result in small, misshapened fruit.