Did you know that the cucumbers sold in supermarkets are often picked two weeks before they actually end up on shelves? The blandness and bitterness often associated with old cucumbers is why many aren’t fans of this classic summer vegetable, but one bite of a homegrown cucumber immediately changes that. A freshly-picked cucumber is perfectly-crunchy and surprisingly juicy, with a sweetly refreshing flavour. Even better, the plants are easy to grow – here’s how to get started.
Growing Cucumbers: A Quick Snapshot
When to Sow – Feb-May
When to Plant – May-Jun
When to Harvest – Jul-Oct
Average Yield per Plant – 5-10kg
Spacing – 90cm
Depth – 1-2cm
How to Grow Cucumbers at Home
Just like courgettes, melons, and other members of the Cucurbit family, cucumbers are a fast-growing vine plant that do take up quite a bit of room. However, being highly productive and often quick to crop means that they’re worth making space for. Learn how to meet their basic needs and you could be picking your own fresh cucumbers just a couple of months after sowing the seeds!
Growing Requirements for Cucumbers
Full sun is essential when growing cucumbers. They need around 8 hours of sun a day in order to produce strong vines and fruit. Morning sun is best, as this helps to dry off any dew on the vines and leaves, which could otherwise lead to diseases.
In addition to sun, your cucumber plants will also need to be sheltered from strong winds. Even if you stake them (which you will likely need to do), they’re still easily damaged.
When it comes to soil, cucumbers need a rich but light mix. Plenty of nutrients to feed the plants is a must, but your soil must also allow for good drainage to prevent rot. If your soil is too heavy, mixing some compost in will help to both enrich and aerate it.
Finally, let’s talk temperature. The cucumber is a subtropical plant, meaning that it needs warm and humid conditions in order to thrive. For this reason, those who live in areas where temperatures struggle to remain consistently above 12°C usually choose to grow their cucumbers in a greenhouse. Anything colder than this will stunt the growth of your plants and severely affect yields.
Those who live in warmer regions can successfully grow cucumbers outside. Consistent temperatures of between 18-23°C is what you need for a big harvest.
Cucumber Companion Planting
When choosing a growing area for a crop, it’s always a good idea to check if there are any plants that shouldn’t be grown nearby. When it comes to cucumbers, these should always be planted well away from any potatoes. This is because of the natural chemicals that potatoes release into the soil, which will inhibit the growth of your cucumbers.
On the other hand, beneficial companion plants for cucumbers include:
Cucumber seeds can be sown from the end of February until mid-April. If you’re planning on sowing them directly outside, then you can keep doing this until early May, so long as you know that your summer will be warm.
If you and your family love cucumbers, then aim to plant about two to three cucumber plants per person in your household.
Since cucumber seedlings grow pretty quickly, you’re best off starting your seeds in individual modules or pots, as opposed to trays that you would then need to prick out.
Water well, making sure that excess water is able to drain freely from the bottom of the modules. This is especially important for cucumbers, since they need very good drainage
Make an indentation in the centre of each pot, about 1-2cm deep
Place two cucumber seeds into each indentation, making sure that you sit each seed on its side, and then cover back over with compost
Water lightly again and then place your modules somewhere warm.
Try to maintain temperatures of around 20°C during the germination process. If you don’t have a heated propagator, place your modules into a clear plastic bag and keep them in a warm spot in your home. The bag will help to increase heat and humidity, but will need to be removed once your seeds sprout
Caring for Cucumber Seedlings
If you keep your cucumber seeds warm enough, they’ll germinate in about 7-10 days. At this point, make sure that they have access to plenty of bright light. That being said, avoid placing them in direct sun, as cucumber seedlings can easily become scorched.
Cucumbers need plenty of water to grow, so keep your seedlings consistently moist. This is why drainage is so important, otherwise all of that water will end up rotting your young plants.
Depending on the size of the modules or pots that you have used, as well as how quickly your plants grow, you may need to transplant your young cucumber plants into a larger container before they are able to move outside. If you do so, be very careful to disturb the roots as little as possible.
How to Plant Cucumbers Outside
Not only should you wait until your last frost before planting your cucumbers outside, but it would be a good idea to give it an extra couple of weeks after this. As mentioned, cucumbers need warm temperatures – you don’t want to risk the temperature dropping below 10°C at night and damaging your cucumber plants.
Once the temperature is right and your cucumbers have at least three true leaves, they can be planted out.
Prepare your planting area, making sure that it’s weed-free. Then, dig holes that are large enough to accommodate each cucumber plant, spacing each hole about 90cm apart. However, check the expected mature size of the variety that you’re growing – some will do fine with less space, while others will need more.
Gently remove each cucumber plant from its pot and place it into a hole. While some vegetable plants like to be buried deep, make sure that the main stem of each cucumber plant is above the soil in order to prevent rot. Cover the roots with soil and gently firm down. Then, give your plants some water.
How to Plant Cucumbers in a Greenhouse
Cucumbers are most commonly grown in a greenhouse, using the same planting methods as when growing them outside.
However, many also grow their greenhouse cucumbers in pots or grow bags. Both options work well, so long as you ensure that each plant still has enough space. In terms of pot size, look for something that’s at least 30cm in both diameter and depth.
How to Care for Cucumbers
If you set your cucumbers up for success right from the start, then very little attention is needed as they grow. In fact, you could pretty much leave your plants to it and you’ll likely have some fresh fruit to harvest in a matter of weeks. Of course, for maximum yields, a little TLC never goes amiss…
Cucumber plants need about 2.5cm of water a week, or more if the weather has been particularly hot.
Little and often is a good watering technique for cucumbers, as a deep and intense watering session will increase the chances of your plants developing rot.
When watering your cucumbers, aim the water towards the base of the plant, avoiding the foliage as much as possible to prevent diseases from developing.
Unless you’re growing a bush variety of cucumber, then your plants will need to be staked. Yes, you could let the vines simply run along the ground, but not only does this take up so much unnecessary space, but it also means that the cucumbers produced will likely rot from coming into contact with the soil.
Bamboo canes or a simple trellis work well for cucumbers. As the main stem grows, wind it around your supports to encourage it to climb upwards. Once your plants start to produce fruit, you may also need to tie the vines to their supports – heavy cucumbers can sometimes pull an entire plant down.
Cucumber plants are heavy feeders, so you’ll need to start fertilising yours a couple of weeks after planting them out. Use a general-purpose fertiliser and apply this to the soil around your plants every two weeks.
Weeding and Mulching Cucumbers
Although vertically-staked cucumber plants will soon soar above low-growing weeds, competition from weeds can be a big problem for young plants that are still establishing.
Regularly weeding your cucumber bed is a must, but one way to get around this is to lay a mulch around your plants soon after moving them to their final growing positions. Not only will a mulch suppress weeds, but it will also help to maintain soil moisture and temperature, which should give you a much longer harvesting period.
Pinching Off Male Flowers
The female flowers on your cucumber plants are the ones that form fruit. Some varieties will only produce female flowers, but others will bloom with both male and female.
Although it’s not essential, pinching off any male flowers that appear is always a good idea. Pollination not only gives the fruit a slightly bitter flavour, but it also means that those fruits will be full of seeds. Removing the male flowers prevents all of this, giving you perfectly-sweet cucumbers with seed-free flesh.
It’s easy to tell the difference between the male and female flowers. The female flowers will have a small swelling behind them – this is the mini fruit getting ready to grow.
How to Harvest Cucumbers
Your cucumbers are ready to be picked once they have reached the average length for their variety. It’s important to check this in advance – pickling cucumbers will only need to be about 3-4cm before they’re ready to be picked, while larger varieties should be allowed to grow to about 20cm in length.
Once you think that a cucumber is ready, don’t leave it to remain on the plant for too much longer. The faster you harvest your cucumbers, the more fruit the plant will produce, making regular harvests essential for the biggest overall yields. Expect to be harvesting fruit every couple of days during the peak of summer.
To harvest a cucumber, use a sharp knife to cut the fruit off at its stem. Don’t try to pull it off – this will only end up damaging the rest of the plant.
How to Store Cucumbers
Cucumbers are at their best when used fresh. However, if you end up with more than you can immediately eat, they can be stored in the fridge for a week or two. You’ll need to first wrap each one in paper towels before placing them into an airtight bag.
Cucumbers can also be stored in the freezer for several months. You can either place a whole cucumber into the freezer as is, or peel it first. Although defrosted cucumbers won’t have much texture, they can still be useful for smoothies, dips, and more.
Another popular long-term storage option for cucumbers is pickling. Although pickling varieties are best for this, just about every cucumber pickles well, with the pickling process allowing them to be stored for a couple of years.
How to Prepare & Cook Cucumbers
Cucumbers couldn’t be easier to prepare. Simply cut off any remaining stem, as well as the ends if they look tough.
Some people choose to peel their cucumbers, but this isn’t necessary, especially since homegrown cucumbers, when picked at the right time, have a very thin skin. Plus, cucumber skins contain high levels of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, making it worth keeping them on.
Fresh cucumbers are delicious eaten raw, whether you slice them up and have them with a dip or chop them into a salad.
Other tasty ways to use cucumbers in the kitchen include:
Cucumber gazpacho and other chilled cucumber soups
Cucumber-based dips – try cucumber and apple, or a classic tzatziki
Asian-style marinated cucumbers
Common Cucumber Problems
Healthy plants are less likely to succumb to pests and diseases, but, even if you take the very best care of your cucumber plants, you may still encounter a few problems. Some of the most common are:
Aphids – these tiny pests, which can often be found clustered on the undersides of leaves, will not only suck the sap from your cucumber plants, but can also carry cucumber mosaic virus. Small infestations can be blasted off with a jet of water, or homemade organic sprays can be mixed up to tackle larger aphid populations.
Cucumber mosaic virus – this virus shows up as a mosaic pattern on foliage, and affects growth and fruit production. Unfortunately, there’s no treatment, so remove any infected plants immediately to prevent the virus from spreading.
Powdery mildew – if you notice white powdery deposits on your cucumber leaves, followed by the leaves shrivelling up, then this is a sign of powdery mildew. This disease is caused by a few factors, such as lack of air circulation and over-fertilising. Sprays are available to destroy the fungal spores, and, if you’re not able to improve growing conditions in any way, it would be worth looking for varieties that are resistant to this disease in the future.
Popular Cucumber Varieties to Grow
The first point to consider when choosing cucumber varieties is whether you plan on growing your plants indoors or outside. Either way, pick a variety that’s suitable for the growing conditions you can provide.
Then, decide whether you want small pickling cucumbers or something larger. Growing a mixture of both to begin with will help you to narrow down your options in subsequent years, based on which you prefer.
Some of the most popular cucumber varieties to grow include:
Burpless Tasty Green – one that does well both indoors and outdoors, with large fruit that’s known for its high vitamin content
Nimrod – a compact variety that produces fruit with a very dark green skin
Bella – only produces female flowers and does best in an unheated greenhouse. This variety is also resistant to powdery mildew
Petita – another all-female greenhouse variety, with small, crunchy fruits
Jogger – a very reliable outdoor variety with extremely juicy fruit
Crystal Apple (pictured above) – an heirloom variety with sweet cucumbers that look like large golf balls
Many gardeners are put off by the idea of growing cucumbers, believing that they’re high-maintenance plants that are difficult to grow. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Give them a try this year and chances are that they’ll become a summertime regular in your garden for many years to come!
Alina Jumabhoy has spent several years learning about, and experimenting with, different organic growing techniques at various gardens and farms around the country. Fuelled by her quest for self-sufficiency, she’s now putting that information to good use on her own rural farm.