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Understanding Cucumbers

Understanding Cucumbers

A number of different terms are used to describe cucumber appearance and flowering habit. Understanding these terms helps gardeners make the best choice when selecting a variety.

Cucumber Types

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  • Pickling cucumbers generally are fast-growing and produce most of their fruit within a short period, so they're ideal for canning and pickling. Their skin is generally thinner and paler green than slicing types. Harvest picklers when they are 2" to 6" long.
  • Gherkins are an extra small type of pickling cucumber.
  • Slicing cucumbers have dark green skin, usually begin bearing about a week later than picklers and continue producing for 4 to 6 weeks. Most varieties should be picked when they are 6" to 8" long.
  • Oriental cucumbers are slicing types with thin, dark green skin with small bumps and an elongated size. They can reach 10 to 12 inches long, and fruit grows straighter when plants are trellised. 
  • Beit Alpha cucumbers were originally developed in Israel. They feature thin and tender skin and are often harvested small as a "snacking" cucumber.
  • Armenian cucumbers are actually a type of melon that is eaten immature like a cucumber. It is sometimes called yard-long cucumber or snake melon. Fruit is usually harvested at 12 to 15 inches long or shorter, though the fruit may reach up to 3 feet long when mature.
  • Bush cucumbers have a much more compact, bushy habit than vining types. Bush varieties are ideal choices for small gardens and containers.
  • Burpless cucumbers were developed to have reduced bitterness.

Flowering-Related Terminology

As a general rule, older cucumber varieties bear separate male and female flowers. Bees and other pollinators are needed to carry pollen from one flower to the other to produce fruit. Plant breeders have developed new types of cucumbers that offer increased options.

  • Monoecious varieties - Monoecious cucumbers produce separate male and female flowers on the same vine. Male flowers are usually produced first. Female flowers have a  small elongated swelling at their base, which develops into the cucumbers that are harvested. This is the most common type of flowering in cucumbers.
  • Gynoecious varieties - Gynoecious varieties produce only female flowers, which gives the potential to be more productive than monoecious types. Their flowers require pollination to set fruit, so at least one monoecious cultivar needs to be grown with them to provide pollen. When seeds of standard gynoecious varieties are packaged, 10 to 15% of the seeds in the package will be a monoecious cultivar to ensure the gynoecious type can be pollinated.\
  • Parthenocarpic varieties - Parthenocarpic varieties will produce seedless fruit from female flowers without pollination. If female flowers are pollinated, they will produce seeded fruit. Parthenocarpic varieties can be grown in enclosed areas that exclude pollinators, like greenhouses, and still produce well. Note that parthenocarpic varieties can be either monoecious or gynoecious, and not all gynoecious varieties are parthenocarpic.

Heirloom vs. Hybrid

If you prefer heritage or heirloom cultivars, there are still good varieties to choose from, beginning with the dependable Straight Eight, a slicing type, and Chicago Pickling, a pickling variety. The newer hybrid cultivars generally have improved disease resistance compared to heirloom varieties. Yields will be usually greater and cultivation techniques somewhat easier with the newer cultivars.

Growing Tips

Cucumbers generally yield well and produce well-shaped fruit when soil is kept evenly moist but not wet. For best results, water deeply when the top few inches of soil are dry. Instead of watering every day, water deeply a couple times a week to encourage deep roots. Moisture stress can cause misshapen fruit and bitterness. If your soil is in good shape, you shouldn't need to fertilize cucumbers. And always watch for cucumber beetles that can spread a bacterial disease that causes plants to wilt and die. Have a botanical pesticide containing pyrethrins on hand to rid plants of beetles if they appear.

Planting for Continuous Supply

Cucumbers begin bearing quickly - usually in 50 to 65 days - so plan on planting several crops for a steady supply throughout the growing season. You'll want plenty of cukes for delicious fresh salads and pickles you can enjoy all winter. And remember to keep picking your cukes regularly to promote more flowering and fruit production.


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