Vine crops are all sneaky plants, but cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) are the worst. They only grow when you are not watching. You can direct seed them, which is often most successful even in zone 1b, and then you wait and watch and try desperately to see a little tip of green coming up in the row, and nothing. Then you miss checking on them for one day and boom there’s a whole row of cotyledons looking back at you. I have had them be even sneakier when I’ve tried to seed them early indoors. They wait until I’m not paying attention and pop up one at a time. For sure if I plant six pots, three will show up within a couple weeks, another one a couple days later and two won’t grow at all until I am ready to toss them and then there they are, two weeks behind the ones I direct seeded in the garden.
Most varieties of cucumber do well in zone 1b because they are short season crops and we pick them as soon as they reach a usable size, well before they are actually ripe. As a direct seeded crop I usually plant open pollinated varieties, many from seed that I or others have saved. They are hardy and prolific and well adapted to local conditions. I have planted Straight Eight and National Pickling with good success. Pickling varieties generally grow shorter and fatter but have a good flavour for fresh eating too. Likewise, slicing varieties, that grow longer and thinner, can also make good pickles. Cucumbers like all cucurbits dislike having their roots tampered with so if you start them early it is best to start them in some pot that allows you to either remove the root ball easily or plant the whole pot. The nursery where I sometimes buy started cucumbers for my own greenhouse puts 2 seeds in a square two-inch plastic pot and does not pot them on to larger pots. They are sometimes root bound by the time I move them into the 5 gallon pots where they will live in my greenhouse, but slide out of the starter pots easily and I can drop them into a prepared hole in their new home without damaging the roots at all.
I have used peat pots to start cucumbers with little success. The theory seems good; but for me they seem to always be either too dry or too wet. I generally start cucumbers in egg cartons as described previously. Another of my favorites for starting larger cucurbits and potting-on other transplants is actually 10 oz. Styrofoam coffee cups. They are large enough to hold the curbit plant until setting out time, easy to make drain holes in and one can write on them so labeling each individual plant is easy. At planting out time I can just break the cup around the middle, pull off the bottom half of the cup and leave a ring of Styrofoam around the stem of the seedling to discourage cut worms. I do try to pick the cups up after the season but if the ring gets left out and hit by the rototiller it is not a problem – just more perlite in the garden.
Cucumbers and their cousins have been grown since ancient times, but plant breeders continue to improve on them. The seed catalogues list enough varieties to be truly confusing for beginning gardeners; so it helps to know a bit about types.
Open pollenated cukes come in pickling and slicing varieties, although either can be pickled or eaten fresh. Pickling varieties tend to be rougher skinned and are generally picked as smaller fruits. Left to mature they have a shorter season than most slicing varieties, although both types will eventually turn yellow and develop a woodier texture to the flesh as they ripen. Some have a bitter taste at that point.
Hybrid varieties also come in pickling and slicing, but also in American and English (or European) types. The English varieties are typically longer and have softer, smoother skin. The American ones have the reputation for being more tolerant of outdoor conditions in the garden.
Then there are some classifications based on the way in which cucumbers bear fruit. Most varieties are monoecious, meaning they have both male and female flowers on the same plant, but not both sex organs in the same flower. It is easy to identify which flowers are which as the female flowers have a little baby cucumber at their stem end. Gynoecious varieties have only female flowers and must have pollen from another plant to be fertilized. This seems counterproductive but the plants do put all their energy into producing fruit. Parthenocarpic cucumbers really have it figured out. They simply don’t need to be pollinated at all. So called “burpless” cucumber varieties have been bred to contain less cucurbitacin which sometimes gives cukes a bitter taste and causes digestive upset in some people.
Cucumbers are part of a family of plants known as cucurbits, which also includes squash, melons, and citron; and they all have a few things in common. Most notably for gardens in Zone 1b is that the plants freeze easily. One degree of frost and the top leaves of the plant will die off. Two degrees and the whole plant might perish.
Another thing they all have in common is that they need space. There are a few summer squash plants that grow on a sort of bush like vine, but most cucurbits like to spread out; and they are big plants. If one’s garden space is small, there are some newer varieties bred to have more bush like vines. I have grown Bush Crop and Bush Pickle which have yielded well. Encouraging the vines to grow up a trellis might also be a space saving idea.
In my greenhouse I have usually grown Sweet Slice but this year I am going to try some parthenocarpic varieties. I built a lovely trellis of plastic lattice for my cucumbers to grow on. They are not appreciative. I have had to string either wire or twine over it to make them climb, they simply refuse to stick their tendrils onto that plastic.
When it comes time to pick them, cucumbers get sneaky again. I watch and look over the vines waiting for the first pick-able cuke and when I find that first baby one starting, I watch it carefully, waiting patiently for it to get at least 3 inches long, salivating for that first fresh garden cucumber sandwich. When I think it might be ready and go to check after leaving it for a day or two, there is a dishpan full of them ready to be pickled. Sneaky things!