The Most Common Cucumber Gardening Mistakes
Give your cucumbers the best opportunity to grow well this summer.
Nothing says summer like a cold cucumber salad, and winter would be diminished without a jar of crunchy dill pickles alongside your soups and sandwiches. After tomatoes, cucumbers are the most popular vegetable for home growers, but unlike tomatoes, which are pretty easy to grow, there are multiple mistakes gardeners make that can sabotage their crop of cukes. Learn how to avoid these pitfalls and keep cucumbers and pickles on your menu year-round.
You Grow Just One Kind
There are two main types of cucumbers: slicing and pickling. Slicers, like English or Straight Egights, are crisp and tasty; perfect for salads. Picklers, like Double Yield and Liberty, have firm flesh that holds up to pickling, though these can also be good to snack on when fresh. There are special varieties as well, with unique colors and shapes. Lemon look like lemons, and Boothby’s Blonde are pale and oval-shaped. Find the room to grow more than one type. Try a small snacker like Eureka and a large slicer like Sweet Success.
You Plant Them in the Wrong Spot
Most cucumber plants grow into large vines, so give them space to sprawl. Sow three or four seeds an inch deep, then thin the seedlings to two, or plant two small store-bought plants and let them intertwine, so each can support the other. Cucumbers need lots of sun, at least eight hours a day. Morning sun is best because it dries the dew from the leaves which helps prevents mildew. Always rotate where you grow your cucumbers from year to year to avoid soil borne diseases and overwintering insects. Cucumbers are related to melons, pumpkins and squash, so don’t plant them where you grew those the previous year. And never grow your cukes near potatoes! Potatoes release a toxin in the soil that inhibits cucumber growth.
You Neglect to Prepare the Soil
Moist, fertile well-drained soil is what cucumbers want. Their stems will rot in soggy soil, so build a small mound, about 18 inches around and 4 inches tall and plant them in the center. This will keep the stems safe during heavy rains. Add lots compost to the pile, and some coarse sand if your soil is heavy clay. Amend with an organic fertilizer like worm castings or chicken manure before you plant to spur good growth right from the start. Consider setting up a trellis or cage for the vines to climb. This keeps the fruits off the ground and saves space in small gardens.
You Forget to Feed and Water Them Regularly
Like all edibles that make big fruits, cucumbers are heavy feeders, so you need to fertilize your plants during the growing season to get the best harvest. Feed weekly with a fish or seaweed emulsion as the plants begin to flower. Bloom boosting fertilizers that are high in phosphorus will make more flowers, and you want lots of flowers because flowers become cukes. Cucumbers need lots of water to grow best. The bigger they get, the more water they need, so increase irrigation as the season progresses. Water regularly as inconsistent moisture leads to bitter fruit. Water slowly so it soaks in and mulch with straw to conserve soil moisture.
You Don’t Help the Pollinators
Cucumbers produce male and female flowers, and you need both to get fruits. The male flowers emerge first, so be patient and wait for the female blooms to follow. Female flowers will have a cucumber-like bulge right below the petals. That’s where the fruit will form, but only if it is pollinated by the male blossom. To help this happen, grow white clover, dill or chives nearby to attract bees and other pollinators. Some gardeners pollinate their plants by collecting pollen from a male blossom with a Q-tip and then brush the stigma of the female flower. It may seem a funny thing to do, but it works.
You Don’t Protect Them from Pests and Disease
A great way to avoid pest and disease problems is to grow resistant varieties like Marketmore or Regal cucumbers There are also safe and effective remedies for these issues. Use floating row covers over your spring seedlings to keep moths from laying eggs that turn into cutworms. Interplant your cukes with radishes, which help repel cucumber beetles and aphids. If you see beetles, try a safe spray made with kaolin clay to repel them. As for diseases, mildew is the main problem, so avoid overhead watering. Pre-treat plants with a food safe fungicide made with essential oils or better yet, grow natural anti-fungals such as nasturtiums or chamomile nearby. And of course, always rotate your crops!
You Don’t Pick Them On Time
Once your cucumbers begin to produce you must harvest regularly or else the plants will direct their energy into making larger, less edible fruits, and stop producing altogether. Large cukes left on the vine will become woody, be loaded with seeds and taste bitter. Check your plants daily because cucumbers grow fast. Pick slicers when they are 6 to 8 inches long, and picklers when they reach 4 inches. Don’t yank the cuke from the plant or you will damage the vine. Simply cut the stem above the fruit and remove it gently. Cucumbers are mostly water and when wrapped tightly in plastic they will keep at least a week in the fridge. Better yet, bite into one fresh from the vine, or take a break from gardening and fix yourself a cool cucumber salad.