Growing Your Own Vegetables - Cucumbers
23rd Mar 2002
There's no doubt about it, not many things are more rewarding or more satisfying than growing your own vegetables. Yes I do know that supermarket vegetables look good and appear fresh, but they will never taste the same as those picked from your own garden and cooked or eaten within a few hours. Cucumbers for example are generally cling wrapped in polythene in an attempt to maintain their freshness and when sliced through are nice and moist. However to bring into the house a fresh cucumber cut from the plant and then slice through it, it isn"t just moist, the freshness and the juices seep from the cut like tear drops, quite a difference.
Some will tell you that cucumbers are not easy to grow and not worth the effort, but with a little know how and some gentle heat early on you can soon harvest the fruit of your labour. Cucumbers were certainly more difficult to grow years ago when we only had the traditional varieties that produced both male and female flowers with the female flowers only bearing fruit. It was therefore essential that the rather tedious and regular work of removing every male flower took place as soon as they were open as any fruits that had been cross fertilised would be bitter. To tell these flowers apart you had to look immediately behind the flower, the one with a tiny developing cucumber behind it is the female whilst the male will just have a thin stalk behind it.
The plant breeders have undoubtedly produced some marvellous all female F1 hybrid varieties over the past few years and the choice for the amateur grower is now quite extensive with various seed companies listing half a dozen or more. I personally have three favourite varieties, all distinctly different and all well worth growing for their respective merits. The first variety is Carmen, an all female F1 hybrid that will grow to around 12 inches or more, it's easy to grow, has powdery mildew resistance (a disease that covers all the foliage with white powder and has put people off growing cucumbers because of it) Should you be thinking of supporting your local flower show this summer, then this is the one for you as it regularly wins at the highest level.
Another favourite of mine that"s been around for many years now is Petita, an easy to grow F1 hybrid with the distinct difference that the fruit only grows to about 8 inches in length and therefore ideal to pick as and when required for a small family.
Two years ago I displayed a brand new cucumber on my Chelsea stand that resembled the shape and colour of a lemon. I was really impressed with this all female F1 hybrid variety called Sunsweet which is far superior to the other round type called Crystal Apple. The fruit develops in clusters at every leaf joint and if thinned down to three or four per joint will produce some beautifully shaped specimens. The flavour is superb and what's more, when the fruit is fully mature and turning to an orange colour, it can be cooked like a courgette.
F1 Hybrid Cucumber Seeds
F1 hybrid cucumber seed are expensive to buy but as you can expect to get an yield of around 25 fruits from each plant, you certainly don't need to cultivate too many. In order to grow well, cucumbers need a minimum night temperature of 60°F and if this can be maintained from a sowing made now, you should be eating plenty of fruit from early June onwards. I sow the seed individually in small shallow seed trays or small multi cells using a seed or multi purpose type compost. As the seed needs warmth to germinate it's advisable to have a propagator or start them off or in a warm room such as a conservatory. Do bear in mind however that once the seed have germinated, which will only take about five days, very soon after the young seedlings will need transplanting individually into 3 inch pots.
The reason for using a shallow seed tray rather than sowing directly into pots is two fold, As the seed need warmth to germinate well, the warmth will disseminate upwards from the base of the propagator to the seed much faster than in a three inch pot. It is also better to transplant the young seedlings as they can, even with good light, get a little leggy and until established will easily flop over when watering. When transplanting, place a very small amount of compost in the bottom of the pot and then, suspending your young plant by the leaves, fill around the stem with some more compost until the seedling leaf is nearly sitting on the surface. If you look closely at the stem of a young cucumber seedling you will notice that there are some dimples along it and these, when in contact with the moist compost, will throw out adventitious roots which will help towards developing a really strong powerful plant for either potting on or planting in borders or Gro bags.
The cucumber plant in many ways is very finicky early on when in the pots and establishing itself. The plant obviously requires water to grow, it certainly doesn't need to have it's feet constantly wet; as my father always used to tell me 'they are not water lilies you know'! A number of growers have trouble with cucumbers in the early stages, the young plants can collapse for no apparent reason, very often because they had been grown too cold and / or too wet. However later on, when the plant is growing away, there is nothing that the cucumber likes better than warm humid growing conditions.
It's often said that you can't grow tomatoes and cucumbers in the same greenhouse, this of course is not strictly true as I have seen both species grown well in very small greenhouses. This has arisen because for the plants to really thrive, they need lots of humidity around them, don't spray the plants all over with water, just keep a damp atmosphere around and below the plants. For instance, on hot sunny days it is always advisable to keep the paths and benches wet and the doors closed to increase humidity. I know of some keen growers who use wads of straw on the floor and these are always kept moist so that the air is always humid. There is also an added bonus by keeping the atmosphere in the greenhouse humid, it prevents that fine silky webbing appearing over the leaves and stems which is the hallmark of the Red Spider Mite. Such conditions however are not ideal for tomatoes as they like plenty or air around them so good ventilation is essential. Creating a humid atmosphere for these could possibly start off diseases such as Botrytis which can be so devastating to any tomato crop.