Cucumbers are a summer garden staple, as delicious to eat as they are simple to grow. Once you taste a vine-ripened cucumber from your own backyard, it’s hard to understand why you haven’t started growing cucumbers yet. Especially, if you’re spending money on sour, tasteless grocery store varieties instead.
The wild ancestors of the cucumber plant have been eaten throughout human history, and early cultivated varieties were a delicacy for Egyptian pharaohs. You can take part in the long history of humans and cucumbers by starting to grow your own today. We promise it’s easier than you think.
Start Growing Cucumbers
For the best results for your home garden, follow these organic cucumber planting instructions.
When and Where Should You Grow Cucumbers?
Cucumbers are native to the Mediterranean, and cold weather is a death blow for the species. They need at least 65 days to reach maturity, so for the best chance of success, you need to plant your cucumbers where they will experience a long, hot summer. In fact, their seeds won’t even germinate unless their soil temperature stays around 70 degrees, and foggy, damp weather will stunt your crop or prevent it from growing at all.
Avoid these setbacks by waiting to plant your cucumbers outside until it’s about a month past the last frost date.
Understanding Seed Germination for Cucumbers
Like other members of the squash family, cucumbers don’t do well when their roots are disturbed, which makes it tricky to transplant them. If you must, it’s better to transplant them when they are still small. Because cucumbers are extremely vulnerable to frost (especially when they are young), it pays to err on the side of caution when planting them and wait for the perfect weather.
Once they start growing, cucumbers form long vines that produce large, hairy leaves. Tendrils on these vines make them perfectly situated to climb up any surface available, and each plant produces both male and female flowers. Male flowers bloom first but don’t turn into fruits, while female flowers bloom a week later and eventually transition into fruit.
If you have extras, cucumber seeds can stay viable for up to five years when stored in a cool, dry place.
Starting Seeds Indoors
If you live in a region with short summers, starting your cucumbers indoors may be smart. You can either sprout your seeds indoors a few days before planting them or grow seedlings that you transplant within a month.
- To sprout your seeds, place them between sheets of warm, wet paper towel and put them in a plastic bag. Keep this bag in a warm, brightly lit area and plant them in your garden as soon as the seeds have sprouted.
- To grow transplants, start your seeds under bright lights two weeks before the last frost date. Plant each seed about an inch deep in peat pots or small flats, and move them into your garden when they are three to four weeks old.
Remember, cucumbers are sensitive to severe changes in temperature and won’t do well if you plant them directly after they’ve been coddled for weeks indoors. You will need to “harden” your plants by slowly introducing them to the outdoors for a few hours a day for up to a week. If nights stay cold, it’s smart to cover your cucumbers with a plant protector or a frost cloth.
Preparing a Cucumber Bed
The quality of garden plot you use for your cucumbers makes a big difference in how they turn out. To maximize growing conditions, you need to choose a sunny plot (at least eight hours of sunlight a day) with well-fertilized soil that has good drainage. A pH level between 6.0 and 6.5 is ideal. Raised beds tend to be a good fit for cucumbers, though any soil can work so long as you top dress it with compost and organic material before planting your cucumbers.
You can space your cucumber transplants out in rows that are eight to twelve inches apart. When planting transplants, make sure to be especially careful around their roots to ensure they aren’t damaged in the process. Once the plants are a foot high, you should provide something for them to climb up like a fence or a trellis. Keeping vines off the ground helps to prevent disease while increasing the yield and also allowing for easier harvesting.
As the preferred planting method, direct seeding cucumbers is easy and effective. Wait to plant your seeds until three or four weeks have passed since the last frost date. Don’t worry about the lost growing time; cucumbers seedlings grow so quickly that they will soon make the time up.
At the planting site, mix a few inches of compost into the soil and add a sprinkling of organic fertilizer. It can be tempting to plant your cucumbers too close together, but give them the space that they need to thrive so that they don’t have to compete with each other. Water down the soil and plant your seeds half an inch down and six inches apart from each other. This method will require you to thin out every other seedling once they have formed their first two or three true leaves. You can also plant your seeds in mounds with two or three seeds each, spaced 18 to 36 inches apart.
Training your plants to grow vertically through trellising or a fence helps you to plant more in a tighter space and will prevent them from competing with each other. This also allows for extra airflow for the plants, which helps to prevent rotting and the spread of fungi.
Watering and Mulching Requirements
Cucumbers are a close relative of the watermelon and they need tons of water to thrive. Keep your plants provided with one to two inches of water a week, especially during the periods of rapid growth when they are flowering. Mulches are especially useful for keeping water in the soil and preventing your plants from drying out. Your best strategy is to keep the soil slightly moist at all times while preventing the vines themselves from getting too wet. For this reason, drip irrigation is a good idea. If you must use overhead watering, use it in the early morning so that the leaves have plenty of time to dry out before evening.
As much as cucumbers love water, they love feeding even more. Keep your plants satisfied with consistent applications of organic fertilizers and mulches. Top dress your cucumbers with compost, kelp, alfalfa and neem cake throughout the growing season to stop them from facing a nitrogen deficiency.
Companion Planting and Rotation Considerations
Cucumbers are well-behaved garden plants that do well with lots of different neighbors. Some especially good companion crops are corn, beans, and sunflowers because they all like the same quality soil. One popular strategy is to inter-crop crimson clover between cucumber rows right as the plants send out their vines. The clover grows well under the vines and roots itself in place long before winter. If your goal is to keep pests away, radishes and marigolds help to keep away cucumber beetles.
When planning your crop rotations, keep in mind that cabbage crops tend to grow well following cucumbers. Don’t plant anything in the cucumber family directly after cucumbers; this includes melons, pumpkins, and squashes. Potatoes are also a bad idea because they can stunt the growth of your cucumbers.
Common Pests and Diseases for Cucumbers
There are plenty of pests that can be a hindrance for growing cucumbers. Your best mode of defense is often to start your plants under row cover tunnels to prevent pests from getting in. Once the flowers bloom, you can remove the covers to allow pollinating insects to do their job.
The worst problems that usually face cucumber plants are cucumber beetles and powdery mildew.
- Cucumber beetles tend to come into fields in early June and they target young plants that aren’t well established. A beetle infestation spreads bacterial wilt, which causes cucumber stems to wilt until an entire section of the plant dies with little warning. The best defense is to prevent cucumber beetles from getting established by picking them off plants or to grow bacterial wilt-resistant varieties like Country Fair or Little Leaf.
- Powdery mildew is another common garden scourge. When this fungus infects cucumbers, their leaves turn dull gray and soon die, preventing the plant from growing. Once mildew spreads to your plants it can be hard to control, so your best bet is keeping your cucumber vines warm and dry and to grow resistant varieties like Little leaf and Marketmore. If you have badly infected plants in an area near healthy ones, pull up the infected ones and take them far away to prevent fungal spread.
Harvesting and Storing Cucumbers
The size that you harvest your cucumbers depends on the particular variety you are growing, so be sure to look carefully at the instructions on your seed packets.
Cucumbers self-regulate how many fruits they grow at a time, and allowing fruits to over-ripen on the vine tells the plant that it has achieved success in creating offspring and that it doesn’t need to produce more fruit. To prevent this from happening, pick your cucumbers daily and as soon as the fruit reaches a harvestable size.
Use scissors to separate the fruit from the vine and leave a small amount of stem in place. Refrain from washing the fruit until you eat it, and put it in the refrigerator right away.
Because of their high water content, cucumbers don’t store well. They will keep for about a week in the refrigerator, but the best way to store them for the long term is to pickle or Lacto-ferment your surplus so that you can enjoy your bounty until the next harvest season.
Saving Cucumber Seeds
To save the seeds from your open-pollinated cucumbers, let a few fruits stay on the vine until they over ripen to the point of developing a thick, leathery skin. Cut away this skin (being careful not to cut into the seeds) and place the seeded core in water, mashing it with your hands until the seeds are loosened. Take the non-floating seeds out of the bucket after two days and spread them on newspapers to dry. Let them stay at room temperature for two weeks before storing the best ones in a cool dry place. Your seeds should be good for the next few years.
Choosing the Best Cucumber Seeds for You
There are dozens of cucumber varieties from around the world that produce delicious crops. Here is a short list of some of the common types that you can try your hand at growing.
- American slicing cucumbers: the classic grocery store cucumber, this variety is grown to be straight, uniform in size and resistant to common diseases.
- Pickling cucumbers: tend to produce smaller, bumpier fruits that are extra crisp, allowing them to last the canning process better than other varieties.
- Asian cucumbers: these are usually longer and thinner than American varieties, and they have a less bitter taste. Cucumber beetles tend to leave them alone.
- Greenhouse cucumbers: this variety is known for having self-fertilizing female flowers, meaning that you can grow it out of reach of insect pollinators.
Additional Growing Tips for Organic Cucumbers
Growing the perfect crop of cucumbers will take plenty of experimenting and likely several growing seasons before you get your method down. To help you speed up the process, here are some extra growing tips to get you to produce your best crop sooner.
- Tomato cage trellises are an easy way to stake up cucumber plants, and they help to increase the yields of your fruit.
- Stagger your cucumber plantings by two weeks each so that you’ll always have another batch ready when one finishes for the season.
- A liquid organic spray used every couple weeks on the leaves of your cucumbers can help your plants to produce more sugar, which leads to improved production while making the cucumber fruit taste sweeter.