Cucumbers are believed to have originated in Asia and have probably been used for human food for millennia. Excavations in Thailand have dated them to about 9700 BC. They were first domesticated in India. Like tomatoes, they are botanically a fruit rather than a vegetable. Although they were eaten fresh, many varieties were originally developed more for preserving and storage than fresh eating. Surprisingly, given their high moisture content, they can be dehydrated. This is one vegetable where the issue of plant sex rears its head, because some forms of cucumbers have been bred to have mostly female flowers, which increases yield. As far as I know, however, they’re all hybrids. Cucumbers are supposed to be subject to a lot of diseases, but I haven’t ever found that to be a problem. Sometimes ants will use them as an aphid farm, but if you remove the infested plant, that usually solves the problem. Infestations tend to occur when the cuke is fairly well along in its lifespan and is getting the dwindles, anyway. I generally just pull it out. If you want to save the plant, spray both ants and aphids with vinegar; won’t hurt the plants, but it knocks out the insects.
Cucumbers are a tropical plant and hate cold weather. Plant them too early and they’ll sulk or rot. They will do best if direct seeded, as they don’t like to be transplanted. You can get away with it if you use my method of growing in a smallish round container and tapping the root ball out intact. Like all cucurbits, they need plenty of water for best quality. You can grow them on the ground but they really do better on a trellis, as they are a vining plant. The cucumbers will also be straighter on a trellis and you’re not likely to lose as many under the luxuriant foliage. They can be very heavy when bearing fruit, so make sure your trellis can support their weight. If you use poles to support your vines, you’ll have to tie the vines to the poles, as they can’t quite manage to twine their way up the way a pole bean would; they climb a wire trellis easily with their tendrils. A slanted lean-to with a roof made of brush or slender poles spaced about four inches apart, or hog wire fencing wired across it, is ideal for cucumbers. They can climb it easily and the large spaces allow the fruit to hang down, easy to find and pick. You can also plant shade-tolerant crops such as lettuce under the lean-to. Face the tall end of the lean-to south, as the cucumbers will want to travel toward the light. Cucumbers come in three versions: slicers, picklers and either-wayers. They also come in bush varieties, but I don’t think they’re worth the effort unless you have very limited space. Vines produce a lot more and, if you grow them vertically, take less space. Growing them vertically also decreases the potential for rot and ground-dwelling insect attacks.
You’ll get vitamins A, C and K from cukes, as well as the minerals magnesium, phosphorus, manganese and potassium.
- National Pickling – The name makes it clear what its purpose is. They were developed in the early 1920s because pickle growers wanted a better-shaped and more versatile cuke. The National Pickle Packers Association and the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station collaborated to come up with this blocky, dark green cucumber that really makes great pickles, and released it to the public in 1924. Although they’re supposed to be equally good as slicers if you let them get a little bigger, I think real slicers are a better deal. National Pickling is a little more susceptible to short water rations and more likely to get aphids, as compared to Boston Pickling.
- Boston Pickling – this one is older than National Pickling by a good 40 years at least. It had some improvement work done in the 1950s to give it disease resistance. The original name – “Green Prolific” – gives you a clue about its production. This one is not meant to be a slicer, but if it’s the only one ripe at the moment, slice it thin and sprinkle very lightly with sugar. It’s considered the standard against which all pickling cucumbers are measured.
- Lemon – introduced in 1894. These are the original burpless cucumbers and quite sweet. Skins are very thin and there’s no need to peel them – a boon to the busy ranch wife. They can also be used for pickling.
- Crystal Apple – An Australian variation of the Lemon Cucumber that was first listed in a 1934 Ferry Morse catalog, also called the Apple Cucumber or Crystal Lemon. It tends to be closer to a pale creamy green, and the shape is similar to that of a Red Delicious apple. I think these are even better than Lemon cukes. One caveat: eat as soon as possible after harvest. They’ll start to shrivel within a couple of hours, whether at room temp or in a fridge.
- Marketmore – there are several versions: Marketmore 76, Marketmore 80 and Marketmore 97. As you would expect, 76 is the original version. Developed by Dr. Henry Munger at Cornell University, it was released in 1976, hence the number attached to the name. The 97 version is licensed and you can’t legally save the seeds. They’re all dark green slicers that grow up to 11 inches long, but they’re best at about 8 inches. Prolific and good in salads. I prefer the 76 version; the others supposedly have better disease resistance, but I don’t find that’s an issue.
- Straight Eight – the name comes from its growth habit and length at maturity. A slicer, this is a Ferry Morse introduction from 1935. Usually very productive for me. They can be peeled, although the peels are thin enough that you don’t have to. Also makes pretty good bread and butter pickles – the kind you store in the fridge for a week or so.
- Armenian – If you want something a little more exotic, you could try this one. It’s really more closely related to the oriental bitter melon family, and if you don’t keep it well-watered, it will begin to exhibit those characteristics. Pale green and deeply ridged, these can grow quite long, hence the nickname “Yard Long Cucumber.” They’re OK for a conversation piece, but I don’t think they taste as good as regular cucumbers. However, I have friends who prefer this to all other cucumbers.
If I could only have one cucumber, I would go with Boston Pickling. It does make an OK slicer, especially if grown on good soil and kept well-watered. Sprinkle it with a tiny bit of sugar to help bring out the flavor. It’s the best pickling cucumber I’ve found. Finally, it’s the most prolific of the ones I’ve grown and rarely has aphid problems.