It’s one of the most popular crops in the home garden. It’s 95 percent water, low in calories and an excellent source of vitamin K. It’s been grown in space and a mile underground.
“The National Garden Bureau every year selects a vegetable, an annual and a perennial to encourage people to grow. They provide history and education,” said David Trinklein, horticultural specialist for University of Missouri Extension. “This year is the year of the cucumber.”
There are hundreds of varieties of cucumbers, but they all fall under one of two categories.
“There are two classes of cucumber: the slicing type and the pickling type,” Trinklein said. “Fact of life is you can slice and eat either one, and you can make pickles out of either one. It’s just most people prefer the slicing type for eating raw and the pickling type for making pickles.”
There are other choices to make when selecting varieties. Cucumbers contain varying degrees of organic compounds called cucurbitacins, which are similar to the compounds used to make turpentine. These compounds can give cucumbers a very bitter taste.
“It’s thought that this is a deterrent to keep herbivores from eating the fruit and the seeds,” Trinklein said. “Today’s cultivated cucumbers have been bred to eliminate these compounds, but occasionally, especially with heirloom plants, you can have cucumbers that are bitter.”
Cucumbers can also be the source of a faux pas. They contain a compound that, when it sits in your stomach long enough, causes you to burp, Trinklein said. Today, you can purchase burpless varieties.
Cucumbers are tender, warm-season plants and should not be planted or transplanted until all fear of frost has passed, Trinklein said. Even a slight frost will kill these sun-loving plants.
They do love full sun and well-drained soil, he said. Cucumbers are thirsty plants that do well with deep waterings rather than frequent sprinklings. Like most vining crops, cucumbers need to be fertilized carefully.
“If you put on too much nitrogenous fertilizer early in the life of the plant, you’ll get lush, lush vine growth and very poor flowering and fruiting,” Trinklein said. “Watch the nitrogen until you have fruit set, and then maybe add a little bit, but don’t overdo it.”
For the cucumber to produce fruit, sex matters. Cucumbers are monoecious, meaning both male and female flowers are produced on the same plant. Trinklein says people often contact him concerned that their cucumbers are flowering but producing no fruit.
“Nature values the female of the species more,” he said. “The cucumber will not put out a female flower until there are adequate male flowers to pollinate it. You can wait a lifetime and the male flowers, called staminates, will not produce fruit because they’re incapable of it.”
Beneficial and easy to grow, the cucumber is a worthy addition to any home garden. They also have an interesting physiology.
“Cucumbers can be as much as 20 degrees cooler inside than outside air,” Trinklein said. “Hence the expression cool as a cucumber.”