Tomatoes garner all the attention as the idolized epitome of summer vegetables, but cucumbers deserve some of the glory. As with tomatoes, the garden-fresh versions are far and away more flavorful than the grocery-store standard.
“When people bite into their first homegrown heirloom tomato, they have a wakeup call,” says Tom Stearns, founder and head seedsman for High Mowing Organic Seeds in Vermont. “It’s the same for cucumbers.”
Cucumbers have a long history of cultivation—and not all of it as a beloved vegetable. They were first grown as a crop in India. Although similar cucurbits were enjoyed as far back as 2400 b.c. in Greece and Egypt, cucumbers didn’t reach the Mediterranean or European regions until the 13th century during the Mongolian conquests. They were not widely accepted, probably because varieties at the time were bitter, prickly, and prone to cause gas. In England, cucumbers were dubbed “cowcumbers” and fed to livestock. The renowned 18th-century English linguist and lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson mocked the vegetable’s palatability, remarking that “a cucumber should be well-sliced, and dressed with pepper and
vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.”
But cucumbers have improved since then, and gardeners have become more adept at growing and harvesting them to avoid their becoming tough, seedy, or bitter. Today, cucumbers are acknowledged as a summertime treat. When the garden greens of spring succumb to summer heat, cucumbers become the salad staple.
When most people picture cucumbers, they think of long, slender, smooth-skinned slicers. Stearns says a big difference between American and European varieties of slicers is the thickness of the skin. Thick-skinned American types are better for market sales and shipping because of their durable nature, yet the more fragile European cucumbers can be eaten without peeling. Plant breeders are continually tweaking cucumber genetics to combine desirable characteristics, including mild flavor, productivity, and disease resistance.
For slicers, I grow the American ‘Straight Eight’, as well as ‘Green Finger’, a hybrid from Cornell University that combines the durability of the American types with the tender skin of the European varieties. In my experience, it’s not quite as prolific as ‘Straight Eight’, but it doesn’t require peeling and the mild flavor is superior.
Theresa Martz, who gleans material for her blog at tendingmygarden.com from her backyard organic garden in Lottsburg, Virginia, recently fell in love with the ‘General Lee’ American slicer. It’s a gynoecious type, meaning it produces mostly female flowers. Martz reports impressive yields from this hybrid, a standard choice for home gardeners and market growers.
One of the most intriguing European cultivars is ‘Picolino’. It’s a perfect 4-inch snacking cucumber with thin skin and a sweet flavor. While many European cultivars are bred specifically for greenhouse production, ‘Picolino’ can be grown in the open garden and offers some resistance to cucumber mosaic virus. This is a good one to pick and pack in a lunch.
While slicing cucumbers may get the most attention in seed catalogs, it’s the oddballs that are the most fun to grow. ‘Lemon’ cucumbers fit their moniker with a nearly spherical shape and citruslike flavor. They’re ready to eat when they’ve lost the green tinge. Pick them young, because they do tend to become seedy when left too long on the vine.
One of my new favorites is ‘Boothby’s Blonde’. I was surprised to discover this is an heirloom variety originating from the Boothby family in Maine, because it looks like a science project gone awry. ‘Boothby’s Blonde’ is pale yellow with bumpy skin and tiny black spikes. Harvest it before it reaches 6 inches long. It has a sweet yet tangy flavor.
“Boothby is great,” says Stearns. “And you can think of it as the little sister to ‘Silver Slicer’.” Open-pollinated ‘Silver Slicer’ is the newest Cornell creation. It’s a thin-skinned cucumber with excellent flavor and disease resistance. “It’s creamy white,” Stearns says. “It has a sweet flavor. There is absolutely no bitterness whatsoever.”
Cucumber aficionados looking for drama should grow the Chinese variety ‘Suyo Long’. The fruits will stretch—actually it’s more like twist—up to 2 feet long. ‘Suyo Long’ has a strong cucumber flavor, but it’s not bitter, even when it’s harvested on the large side. Stearns notes that the seed cavity doesn’t take up the entire length of the fruit, so the seedy section can be cut off with plenty left for eating.
To return to the cucumber’s Indian roots, try russet-skinned ‘Poona Kheera’—admittedly, an acquired taste. As Stearns says, “It’s different. It’s crispy, and it has a sweet, meaty flavor. When it’s bigger, it’s hard like an apple.”
The mild flavor of cucumbers lends itself to a number of sweet or savory dishes, yet they shine best in simple salads. Here are a few of my favorite ways to use them.
During summer, I live on salads with sliced cucumbers and sweet peppers. Crumble on a little feta cheese, a generous splash of balsamic vinegar, and sea salt to taste for a perfect meal.
My family also enjoys a salad of sliced cucumbers dressed with sour cream, vinegar, sugar, salt, and paprika. Some people leave out the sugar, but my grandmother considers that blasphemy. Dill can be substituted for the paprika.
Lemon juice is a perfect pairing with citrusy varieties such as ‘Boothby’s Blonde’ and ‘Lemon’. Slice or chunk the cucumbers, drizzle them with a little olive or flax seed oil, squeeze lemon juice on top, and add freshly grated Parmesan cheese and sea salt to taste.
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