The Back Yard

Justin Newcombe's tips for creating a gorgeous and productive garden

Gardening: Cool as a cucumber

By Justin Newcombe

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It has to be a good thing if a vegetable's been popular for thousands of years, writes Justin Newcombe.

Climbing cucumber plant. Photo / NZ Listener
Climbing cucumber plant. Photo / NZ Listener

It's that time of the year where every weekend there's a new plant to get in the ground. This week it's cucumbers. In fact any of the extended cucurbit family can be safely considered (in warmer regions anyway) from now on: pumpkins, zucchini, squash and melons. For now however, our focus shall be cucumbers.

Cucumbers originated in India which goes part way to explaining (I'm guessing here) that wonderful culinary experience that is curry accompanied by cucumber and yoghurt. They have been cultivated for at least 3000 years in Western Asia and probably took hold in Europe thanks to the Romans and their imperial zeal.

Roman emperor Tiberius was near-obsessed with the cucumber and insisted it be on his table 365 days of the year, forcing his gardeners to develop a complex system of cultivation props to indulge this food fetish. Sometime later, in 9th century France,

Charlemagne was similarly enthralled by the cucumber's virtues and made sure his gardens were planted with them.

Most modern peoples seem to fall into two distinct camps with this popular summer veg: you want either the long green slicing variety (a la telegraph) or you prefer the compact, fleshy apple sort (a la crystal apple).

Regardless of shape preference, the growing requirements remain the same. Bearing in mind that cucumbers like heat and moisture, plant four or five seeds into a well-drained mound enriched with compost or rotted manure. Once they have germinated, select the two strongest plants and weed out the rejects.

Good ventilation is crucial for cucumbers as they are prone to fungal outbreaks. It is almost inevitable, but you can help stave off the onslaught by watering only at the base of the plant and by keeping the leaves as dry as possible.

Remove any diseased leaves as soon as they appear. Some people swear by the milk and baking soda spray combo so if you're feeling disciplined and dedicated then give it a go. It's worth repeating: moisture is important to this crop, so keep up regular dates with the watering can or hose and mulch your plants well.

The cucumbers we generally grow in our backyards produce both male and female flowers but it is only the female flowers that produce fruit. In an ideal world honey bees and bumble bees work the magic of transferring the male flower's pollen to the female flower but in anticipation of a pending ecological disaster, you can act as a less graceful stand-in. Armed with a small brush, transfer pollen from the male flower to the female flower by gently brushing the centre of each flower (obviously starting with the male first).

Female flowers can be identified by the small swelling at the base of the petals. Typically, the first few fertilised flowers fall off - which always leaves me feeling a little bereft. Keep up with the watering and feeding and things usually come right.

Cucumbers seem to be all about choices (oh my God!) and once you've chosen your variety and location you will need to think about orientation - horizontal or vertical. No, I'm not being suggestive. If you're a little short on space then I recommend the vertical option.

Make sure you put your supports up before they are needed and then provide a helping hand to get the vines attached. If you've got a little more space consider letting them ramble under corn, beans or tomatoes, they'll thank you for a little shade come the hotter months.

- NZ Herald

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