Getting Cucumbers To Cool It

THE REAL DIRT

May 01, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Cucumbers give me indigestion. Eating them is no problem. It's harvesting the fruit that tends to upset me.

Every year I raise cucumbers (that patch of ground was rototilled last week.) Every year the prolific vines run rampant over the garden, lawn and patio. And every year, at picking time, I go nuts trying to corral the cukes themselves.

Ripening cucumbers like to play hide-and-seek, concealing themselves beneath a thicket of dark green vines 20 feet wide. This throws gardeners like me into a tizzy. There is no clear path to pick produce. Often there is no path at all. How does one harvest cukes without tumbling into the pickle patch and crushing the vines?

A good cucumber bed may produce fruits for six weeks, if you can squeeze in there to get them. However, the plants are remarkably short-lived if tended by an overzealous gardener with two green thumbs . . . and two left feet.

Is there no way to gather cukes without flattening their kin? It's a dilly of a problem, but I think I've solved it.

I'm going to do cucumber calisthenics.

Not standard workout stuff, mind you. No sit-ups or push-ups or jumping jacks. Those exercises are for boot camp, not cuke camp.

The best way to prepare for cucumber harvest is to play Twister, the game where you bend over backward, perform all kinds of improbable gyrations and end up looking like a pretzel.

Playing Twister should be a great warm-up for collecting cukes. Then I can wade into the pickle patch with all the stealth of a cat burglar. Maybe this will work for you, too.

Cucumbers are a mainstay in American gardens, where they come in many shapes and sizes. There are straight ones, round ones and curvy ones that need to see an orthopedist. There are cukes the size of your pinkie, and yard-long Oriental types.

Given rich soil and lots of sun, most cucumber vines respond by growing, as one garden scribe said, "like they are racing for the edge of the earth."

In years past, I tried everything to keep my cukes in check. I grew them in rows instead of on mounds. Big deal: By midsummer, the vines still sprawled in all directions.

I raised cukes on a trellis, believing the fruit would be easier to harvest. The trellis collapsed under the weight of the cukes, crushing the whole crop.

I even tried growing the new dwarf varieties, which produce manageable plants . . . and disappointing yields. They also taste yucky.

I wish I had a magic wand, like the sorcerer's apprentice in Disney's "Fantasia." When I wave the wand at the back yard, all the cucumbers will dutifully arise, file out of the garden and into the house.

I can dream, can't I?

Alas, life is no cartoon -- though it seemed so several years ago, when I tried to gather veggies while hobbling on crutches with a back injury.

The tomatoes and okra, both head-high, were easy to pick. The ground crops were not. But the cucumber patch beckoned so I staggered in, parting the green sea with my crutch tips.

Eureka! Dozens of ripe fruits lay on the soil, begging attention. But how could I reach them?

I attempted to lift one without stooping. Using the crutches like chopsticks, I grasped a fat cucumber and tried to raise it. No luck. (Ordinarily, I'm a whiz with chopsticks, but you can't grow fried rice in the garden.)

Nudging the cuke with the crutch also failed; it wouldn't detach from the plant. Finally, in frustration, I tried to stab the fruit with the crutch, fondue-style. Uh-oh, I'd forgotten the rubber tip on the bottom of the crutch, which bounced high off the cucumber and struck my forehead. Startled, I dropped the other crutch in the garden.

When I knelt to retrieve it, my back seized up in mid-crouch. My wife found me hunkered over there, bent like a crookneck squash.

A scolding followed, after which I was helped inside. My wife then returned to the garden and picked every cuke she could find.

My back improved, but I saved the crutches for a rainy day. Of course, I needed them again.

I used them to make the trellis that collapsed.

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