September 19, 2017

Be Cool – Grow Cucumbers

Cucumis sativus - Cucumber

Janine Pineo Photo | Cucumis sativus – Cucumber

• By Janine Pineo •

Gardeners — what great imaginations they have.

“If you listen quietly, you can hear it grow,” a friend Down East said of his own patch of plants a few weeks ago.

So I tried it with my garden, only to hear gurgling — or was it a chorus crying for a life preserver?

Actually my vegetable garden made it swimmingly through the June downpours, if you ignore the fact that hip boots were required attire in the potato rows. Stepping off any well-worn garden path meant sinking straight down into ooze, a fine medium to grow in if you’re a clam.

Some of the vegetables seemed to take it all in stride. The peppers were bedecked with shiny green bells by mid-June. The broccoli started to head up by late June, with the cabbage not far behind. The brussels sprouts did whatever brussels sprouts do when they’re young; as one of my experiments, I view any progress as good, even if they don’t resemble any life form known to me.

Until a couple of weeks ago, my favorite section of the vegetable garden had me worried. Since the moment I planted it in late May, something plagued my paradise row. Frigid nights and inch after inch of rain took an early toll on the summer squash and cucumber patches.

Then out came the sun, and soon plants were overtaking the path and blossoms were popping open everywhere. I’ve got a slew of zucchini and summer squash — don’t ask how many varieties; I lost track after 12 — and I’m nearly dancing with delight over the first cucumbers.

From picklers and slicers to the lesser-known Middle Eastern varieties, cucumbers are cool treats. Fresh from the garden and warmed by the sun, they rank up there with ripe tomatoes as the best thing about summer.

The cucumber, Cucumis sativus, is thought perhaps to be the oldest cultivated plant at about 9750 B.C., with its origin in northern India. It reportedly was grown in Mesopotamia and cultivated in the storied hanging gardens of Babylon.

Cucumbers are part of the Cucurbitaceae or gourd family and a relative of the watermelon, not surprising when you learn that a cucumber is about 96 percent water. But the skin is rich in vitamins A and C, something to consider before peeling them.

Not much is required for cucumbers to thrive. A steady supply of water and rich, mellow soil — I dust the ground with a bit of lime before planting the seeds — will keep the fruits sweet.

One way to save garden space is to grow cucumbers up a trellis, but I think the plants have outsmarted me. Last year all the vines spread westward, so this spring I put the trellis on the west side of the row. The vines decided to stretch to the east. So much for my walking path.

After lots of trials and some fine eating, I’ve found several cucumber varieties that I would hate to go without.

A perennial favorite is the Lemon cucumber, an heirloom from the 1890s. This oddball is as good as its moniker, light yellow in color and round in shape, but its flavor is pure cucumber. It’s sure to garner the funniest of responses when offered to the uninitiated, who think it will taste like a lemon.

Lemon cucumbers, if kept picked, will produce heavily until the first frosts. The smaller the size, the less likely it will be bitter, although I’ve found the bigger ones work perfectly for pickles.

An Italian import, Bianco Lungo Di Parigi, rivals the Lemon cucumber for longest harvest of nonbitter fruit. This creamy white-skinned cucumber is knobby, making it hard to peel, which is really unnecessary because the skin is tender. These cukes are firm and crunchy even in the hottest weather.

A new category of cucumbers is Beit Alpha, also called Mediterranean or Middle Eastern. I’ve tried different varieties in the past couple of years, although this year I could find none of my previous trials, only two new types: Tamra and Amira.

Beit Alpha cucumbers have unbelievably shiny skins that look polished. The skin is thin and delicate (no peeling necessary) and the flesh is mild and crisp with small, tender seeds. Vesey’s Seeds Ltd. billed Amira as a high-yielding “burpless” variety and the best fresh cucumber available anywhere. I’m ready to put it to the test.

For a typical American cucumber, I’ve got a few hills of Marketmore 76, considered the standard for slicing cucumbers. This highly disease-resistant variety is dark green with fruit maturing at 8 to 9 inches long.

Among the pickling varieties I’m trying are Calypso and Patio Pickles. Calypso is gynoecious, meaning that it produces mostly female blossoms and, I hope, a lot more fruit. The Patio Pickles variety was bred for container plantings and has semideterminate vines, but needs several plants to ensure adequate pollination.

These are only half of the varieties I planted this spring, a tad too many I kept telling myself, but I have a perfectly good reason.

Nothing is more satisfying than a sun-warmed cucumber sliced up and put between two slices of bread only slightly slathered with mayonnaise and sprinkled with a dash of salt.

And when those beloved cukes get bitter? If life hands you lemons, make lemonade — well, in this case, pickles.

See Mustard Pickles recipe.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in July 1998.

2012 update: I still grow most of these cucumbers. Some I skip a year and do again another year. You can never try too many varieties, although I’ve been know to try too many in a single year and run out of space. And the Mustard Pickle recipe? Still fabulous. And that growing up a trellis idea? Still having a hard time making that work, but I keep on trying.