Cucumbers - not just pickles and slices

In the Garden

July 03, 2005|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Writer Gertrude Stein, who famously asserted that all roses are alike, could as easily have said, "A cuke is a cuke is a cuke." And been just as wrong. But then few people know how many kinds of cucumbers we could be slicing into salads, putting pickled on hamburgers or sauteeing with haddock and herbs.

"There are 270 varieties of cucumbers here at Heritage Farm," says Kent Whaley, founder of Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa.

There are pickling cucumbers and American slicing cucumbers, the thick-skinned waxed ones usually sold in the supermarket. There are "burpless" varieties, whose thin skin is easily digestible, and Asian cukes, which run the gamut from striated butter-colored beauties to yard-long green wands. There are short white cukes and round lemon cukes and European (beta alpha) types.

"Those often grow in greenhouses, where they are usually seedless," says Steve Bellavia, vegetable product manager at Johnny's Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine. "But you can grow them outdoors just as easily, and they are very tender and crisp without any bitterness."

And there is the Horned African Cucumber (aka Kiwano Cucumber), which is actually a weird little spined melon filled with gelatinous seeds like a pomegranate.

Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus), members of the Cucurbit family along withsquash and melons, have a venerable history. Emperor Tiberius ate tons, Queen Isabella of Spain sent them with Columbus, and John Smith planted them at Jamestown. Not long ago, you could get maybe two varieties each of bush and vining types with a gherkin or picker thrown in. Now, there's a wealth of choices, including some very exotic-sounding varieties like Painted Serpent, also known as Striped Armenian, a lovely slim cuke with lime and kelly/forest green stripes.

"And Suyo Long is an old Chinese variety," says Bellavia. "It's really big but not at all bitter. If you let it grow on the ground, it will curl, but trellised it will grow straight."

The long Asian/oriental types, including Tasty Jade, Tasty Green, Orient Express and Harris' Burpless 26, are generally "burpless," i.e., easily digestible. Cornichons, the little sour pickles that the French serve with cold meat, can be made of almost any cuke provided you pick it early enough (1-3 inches). But there are also specific cornichon varieties like Parisian Pickling and the unusual Miniature White.

Pickling cukes, which stand up to brining, include Snow's Fancy Pickling, Little Tyke Hybrid, Homemade Pickles and Little Leaf. Mexican Sour Gherkin, which looks like a tiny watermelon, and a Jefferson favorite, West India Gherkin, are not actually cucumbers though they taste cucumbery and pickle beautifully. Cool Breeze Hybrid, County Fair Hybrid, Boothby's Blond, with pale yellow skin over a pale green interior, and White Wonder, an 1893 Burpee introduction that turns ivory when it's over the hill, are all delicious, both pickled and fresh.

"Regal is great for slicing or pickling," says Mark Willis, vegetable seed manager at Harris Seeds in Rochester, N.Y. "And it's a tremendous yielder."

Among the lemon cukes, which look like pale yellow or yellow-and-cream-striped tennis balls, True Lemon has been a favorite for over a century. For gardens tight on space, there's Bush Crop, Salad Bush and Bush Champion, among other bush varieties.

"Patio Pickles is a very good cucumber for small gardens," notes Willis.


Cucumbers, which go from seed to fruit in about 55 days, are generally asnap to grow here in Maryland (though this year's gray coolness has been lessthan helpful).

"You pretty much throw seed into the ground and wait," laughs Bellavia.

Cukes need full sun and an inch of rain a week. They do best in sandy soil, though they also like well-drained garden loam and appreciate feeding every couple of weeks. Plant either in hills or in rows. Four plants growing up a trellis or ladder will produce plenty for four people plus enough for several quarts of pickles.

"Keep fruit harvested as they mature to keep it producing," Willis advises.

Cucumber beetles are the primary pests and can be hand-picked or sprayed. And if there are no natural pollinators (bees), you can pollinate them yourself. Take pollen on a Q-tip from the male flowers and put it into the female flower, which has tiny fruits at the back of the blossom.

"You want to do it while the female flowers are open," he explains. "The more pollen, the better quality fruit. There are a couple of self-pollinating cukes - Cool Breeze and Sweet Success - but most need pollination to produce good fruits."


Harris Seeds

355 Paul Road

P.O. Box 24966

Rochester, NY 14624-0966


Johnny's Selected Seeds

955 Benton Ave.

Winslow, ME 04901-2601


Seed Savers Exchange

3094 North Winn Road

Decorah, IA 52101


The Cook's Garden

P.O. Box C5030

Warminster, PA 18974


Territorial Seed Co.

P.O. Box 158

Cottage Grove, OR 97424-0061


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