One of the oldest vegetables in cultivation today, cucumbers have been grown in India for at least 5000 years. Preserved cucumber pickles were invented around 2400 BC, and ancient Egyptians enjoyed cucumbers in many drinks. Cucumbers are 95 percent water, so they have long been valued for their cooling qualities. Heading into a hot summer, every gardener must have cukes!
Fortunately, cucumbers are easy to grow, as Ben Vanheems explains in our video. I like to have fresh cucumbers for the table all summer, plus enough to make stored pickles and relishes. For the last couple of years I have also frozen a few cucumbers to use in yogurt sauces and drinks. Here’s my quick guide to filling up summer with cucumbers, and then what to do with them.
Make Purposeful Plantings
I make at least two cucumber plantings each year, or sometimes three. If spring is unusually warm, I will make a small planting of a salad variety to grow under row cover, but I’ve learned not to get carried away with early plantings.
Pollinators are often scarce early on, but more importantly, cucumber plants that struggle in cold soil also develop early problems with powdery mildew, which will even infect resistant varieties when the plants are stressed.
My main crop of a productive pickling variety like ‘Little Leaf’ goes in after the soil warms in late May, from which I make pickles and dozens of fresh cucumber salads. In early July, I start seeds for a fall crop of salad cucumbers to enjoy with late tomatoes, and to keep fresh cucumbers on the table as long as possible. Conditions often are not seeding friendly in midsummer, so I start the seeds indoors and set them out under shade covers during a period of cloudy weather.
Cucumber Pollination Frustration
To set excellent fruit, a female cucumber blossom needs about 10 visits from pollinating insects, all in one day. Like many gardeners, I have felt frustrated watching dozens of early cucumber blossoms come and go from lack of pollination. My attempts at hand pollination have been inadequate, often resulting in misshapen fruits, whereas being patient, growing lots of flowers, and waiting for the pollinators to show up is more successful.
Honeybees are good pollinators of cucumbers, but they are not present in many gardens. A study from Indiana University identified 30 native pollinators visiting cucumber blossoms at organic farms in the Midwestern US, including eight species of sweat bees. Most of these little bees lead solitary lives, so it’s not like they chatter among themselves about the latest new food source. But once wild bees discover a new food source, like your cucumbers, they are likely to return again and again.
Save Big on Pickles
If you have not discovered the fun of making pickles with your homegrown cucumbers, we have guides on canning pickles, making super-easy refrigerator and freezer pickles, or fermenting whole dills. Pickles at the store are quite costly, as they should be. In addition to the ingredients, you must pay for the jar and lid, processing, and transportation. Once you get into the habit of making your own pickles, you will reuse jars many times over, minimize processing costs, eliminate transportation’s environmental burden, and save a ton of money.
Cooling Soups and Sauces
Many gardeners celebrate late summer’s bounty by making gazpacho, a cold pureed soup of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and onions. You can just as easily make a lemony yogurt soup with cucumbers and herbs, or try the Polish version made with buttermilk and chives. Last summer I discovered Bulgarian tarator, a cold cucumber yogurt soup rich with garlic, walnuts and purslane, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Rather than go without these delights, I froze a few peeled cucumbers in vacuum-sealed bags to use in cold yogurt sauces in winter, and they worked just fine.
In Egypt, Mexico and other semi-tropical climates, cucumbers are often combined with limes to make cucumber limeade, with or without an accent of mint. In more modern times, cucumber water has gained a reputation as a healthful detox drink, but no studies have been done that validate its benefits.
It’s still a great naturally-flavored water that requires no packaging! To make cucumber water, simply steep sliced cucumbers in water for a few hours or overnight, strain, and enjoy. I like to add fresh, crushed herbs like mint, lemon balm or basil, for their flavor and their phytonutrients.
Last but not least, cucumber water, cucumber spears or salted slices also are welcome at the bar, where they pair well with gin or tequila.