In reality, you can pickle any cucumber. Their subtle flavor is well suited to the dill, garlic, and other spices used to create these delicious snacks. Slicers can be used to make excellent bread-and-butter pickles, but if you’re looking for a prolific harvest to make jars and jars of pickles, start by planting the little ones.
The heirloom ‘Boston Pickling’ cucumber has been around since 1880. It is a good example of a standby that produces a bounty of 3-to-6-inch fruits with a firm texture. The best rule of thumb is to harvest cucumbers for pickling when they will fit in your jar. But if the fruits grow too large—in the heat of summer, this happens overnight—you can always cut them into spears or slices.
Gardeners with small spaces should try ‘H-19 Little Leaf’. It’s parthenocarpic, so the female blossoms form fruits without the benefit of pollination, plus it’s of a smaller stature that is suited to growing in large containers, especially if you provide some growing support. In addition to being a good size for pickling, this is also a perfectly acceptable fresh cucumber for sandwiches or salads.
If you haven’t yet experienced the wide range of cucumber possibilities, make a point this year to try one of the new or specialty varieties. It opens up a brand new world.
Prepare the soil. Cucumbers grow best in light, fertile soil that stays moist but not waterlogged. Before planting, amend the soil with plenty of compost or other organic matter. In clay soil, ensure adequate drainage by growing cucumbers in raised beds or on mounds of topsoil.
Rotate crops. After the last spring frost, plant cucumbers in full sun on ground where other cucurbits (melons, squash, pumpkins, gourds, etc.) have not been grown in 3 or more years.
Give plants a head start. Although cucumber seeds can be sown directly in the garden, Tom Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds offers two good reasons for starting the seeds indoors. “When seed is untreated, it can rot in soil that is too cold or damp,” he says. Also, larger seedlings have a fighting chance against cucumber beetles, a common pest. Start seeds in individual pots in a greenhouse or indoors under grow lights, 3 to 4 weeks before setting them in the garden. The seedlings should have at least two sets of true leaves at transplant time.
Defend against cucumber beetles. In order to ward off cucumber beetles, Stearns recommends treating seedlings with Surround, a kaolin clay product, before planting in the garden. “Mix it with water to form a slurry. Before you transplant, dunk the seedlings into the slurry,” he says. If the cucumber beetles do find these disguised plants, they’ll be so busy grooming themselves to remove the fine particles that they won’t have time to eat.
Another option: Some gardeners shield young cucumber plants with floating row covers to prevent the beetles from reaching them. Remove the row cover when the vines begin to bloom to give pollinators access; or grow parthenocarpic varieties that form fruits without pollination.
Cucumber beetles are notorious vectors for bacterial wilt, an infection that plugs up the vascular system of the plant, eventually resulting in death. It takes only one bite from an infected beetle to spread the disease.
In regions where cucumber beetles are problematic, try the pickling cucumber ‘County Fair’, which is reported to have wilt resistance, or choose cultivars that are low in cucurbitacins, bitter-tasting compounds that occur naturally in cucumbers. Cucurbitacins are said to stimulate feeding behavior in cucumber beetles; in theory, varieties with less of the compounds, such as ‘H-19 Little Leaf’, should be less attractive to beetles. Varieties that are low in cucurbitacins are often billed as “bitter-free” or “burpless.”
Let them climb. Cucumber vines are content to sprawl across the ground, but give them a structure like a tomato cage or an A-frame trellis and they will scramble upward. Trellised vines tend to produce straighter fruits and save garden space.
Stagger plantings. Organic gardener Theresa Martz sets out several rounds of cucumber seedlings, the last one in July. Staggering the planting dates of different varieties spreads out the harvest and also makes it less likely that bad weather or a pest outbreak will wipe out the entire crop.
Harvest early and often. Smaller fruits usually taste better and have soft, immature seeds. If a green-fruited variety starts to yellow, you’ve waited too long.
Photography by Rhonda Adkins
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, April/May 2014