Sliced onto a green salad, garnishing Thai food, chopped and added to chicken sandwich spread, pickled on a burger, or just sprinkled with salt and munched as a snack, cucumbers are as cool as, well, a cucumber, and the perfect food for the hot days of summer.
Cucumbers hail from hot and humid southeast Asia, a climate that couldn’t be more different from high, dry Colorado. I’ve often imagined a baby cucumber seedling popping its cotyledons out of the ground, only to be hit with the cold, dry winds of spring. Realizing cruel fate has somehow caused it to end up in Colorado, it immediately despairs, shrivels, and dies!
Actually, a cucumber plant’s prospects aren’t quite so dire. Cucumbers can be productive here with some determination and a bit of good luck as far as the year’s weather is concerned.
Basically, those of us at higher altitudes have two choices—grow low plants outside in the garden, or trellis vining plants in a greenhouse. If your only option is to garden out in the elements, there are ways to beat our ubiquitous wind and late frosts.
Trellises are frequently recommended for saving space, but if you garden on an exposed site, plants grown vertically can be stunted by our desiccating winds. It’s better to stay close to the ground where it’s warmer and more sheltered. If frost threatens, you can throw a blanket over the plants to trap the day’s heat and protect your plants. If space is an issue, bush cukes take up less square-footage than allowing vining varieties to sprawl. And no matter which type you grow, mulch will keep fruit from rotting.
Another consideration is disease resistance. Cucumbers are subject to a variety of problems, and it’s always easier to prevent a problem than attempt to cure it.
My favorite bush variety is Spacemaster, but I admit that I haven’t tried many others. You can start seedlings indoors two to three weeks prior to planting outside, or sow them directly a couple of weeks past your average last frost date (May 15 in Colorado Springs). Then pray for a warm summer!
If you have any sort of greenhouse structure, that’s the place to use a trellis. Cucumbers thrive in the hot, humid interior. The tricky part is pollination.
Cucumbers originally has separate sexes—some plants produce all male (pollen-producing) flowers, while other plants produce only female (cucumber-producing) flowers. You have to have both to get a crop. Not wanting to “waste” half the plants, breeders have developed varieties that are 100% female-flowering. These are called “gynoecious.” Each packet contains a few seeds of another variety so that some flowers are male and pollination can take place.
The ultimate cucumbers are self-pollinating, known as parthenocarpic. With these cultivars, not only are the flowers are all female, but they will all develop into cucumbers without the need for pollination. Since greenhouses have no bees to transfer pollen, these are the best choice for growing under glass.
My hands-down favorite cucumber is Cool Breeze (similar in appearance to the photo at right). A French “cornichon” (or gherkin) variety, Cool Breeze is intended for making those tiny cocktail-sized pickles, but the fruits are just as delicious when allowed to reach full size and eaten fresh. A crop is almost guaranteed since the plants are parthenocarpic and tolerant to/resistant of Cucumber Mosaic Virus, Scab, and Powdery Mildew. I think the best feature is how rapidly the plants grow; Park Seeds rates them at 45 days to maturity.
Another parthenocarpic cuke I’ve had good results from is the Mideast variety Diva. I trialed it with Sweet Success, and Diva was earlier and more prolific. Long, thin fruits have a smooth skin (see photo at top) and are also produced fairly early, listed at 58 days. They’re sweet and juicy, but never bitter. Diva is resistant to scab and mildews.
No matter which variety you choose, and however you grow them, they all taste much better when picked young. Be sure to harvest the fruits before the rind hardens and the seeds get big.
It’s been a while since I tried any new cucumbers, and there are a lot of new varieties I’m curious about. Which cucumbers do you grow? What results have you had? Which ones do you recommend?
Bottom photo: Mat Pound, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org