Growing Cucumbers: The Ultimate Guide To Cucumis Sativus
Once the warmth of summer comes on, cucumbers are a favorite addition to summer salads and sandwiches. Growing cucumbers at home is surprisingly easy, and you’ll find that the ones you grow are far superior to anything you can buy at the store.
Whether used to make pickles, eaten fresh from the vegetable garden, or used for their juice, cucumber is a great source of vitamins and micronutrients. They’re packed with water and fiber, two things essential to our health. And they’re low-calorie, making them a favorite food of the diet-conscious.
Let’s not forget that the plants themselves are a bright green and will enliven your vegetable garden space with a mat of dense, fat leaves. Hiding within those vines or bushes can be an abundance of delicious food if you just follow this guide!
Cucumbers: Quick Care Guide
|Common Name||Cucumbers, pickling cucumbers, slicing cucumbers, plus a number of variety names|
|Scientific Name||Cucumis sativus|
|Days to Harvest||40-85 days depending on variety|
|Water||Consistent and even watering, 1”/week min.|
|Soil||Well-draining, fertile soil, pH of 7.0|
|Fertilizer||Balanced fertilizer or compost|
|Pests||Cucumber beetle, aphids, whiteflies, spider mites, thrips, squash bugs, squash vine borer, picklebugs|
|Diseases||Powdery mildew, downy mildew, bacterial wilt, cucurbit scab, fusarium wilt, phytophthora crown/root rot, cucumber mosaic virus (CMV)|
Types of Cucumbers
Cucumis sativus, the cucumber, has a wide number of varieties, but these are mostly separated into two categories: how it grows, and what it’s used for.
Cucumbers By Use
Generally, there are two, sometimes three, categories that cucumbers fall under in terms of how they’re used.
Slicing cucumbers or fresh-eating cucumbers are those which are used in salads. These tend to be crisp, juicy, and tasty in most fresh-use situations. Many slicing cucumbers also have thinner skins.
Pickling cucumbers have thicker skins and slightly denser, drier flesh which takes well to absorbing pickle brine. These are a common storage cucumber. While pickling cucumbers can still be eaten fresh, they’re most popular for pickling use.
Sometimes there’s a third category, the snacking cucumbers. These are used both for fresh eating and for pickling, but tend to be much smaller in size than either pickling or slicing cucumbers. Sometimes these are referred to as cocktail cucumbers. However, snacking cucumbers can easily be categorized in one or both of the other categories.
Cucumbers By Growth
All cucumbers are a form of vine, but not all cucumbers are bush types.
Bush cucumbers tend to be more compact and good for small-space growing. These are considered great greenhouse plants, hydroponic plants, or container plants. The best containers for cucumbers are right in our store. Try the 5-gallon Air Pot the next time you grow bush cucumbers.
Some form of support or trellis may be needed, but bush cucumbers usually only take up 2-3 square feet of space. In addition, some greenhouse or hydroponic types are self-fruitful, meaning that they don’t need outside pollination.
Vining cucumbers are those which splay out long vines from a central plant base. These are often grown on a trellis if space is limited, but may also be grown flat on the ground. These can take up a lot more real estate than a bush cucumber might, but they make up the vast majority of cucumber varieties.
Recommended Cucumber Varieties
We have a much more extensive piece on cucumber varieties than what we cover here. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to break this list up into slicing, pickling, or unusual cucumber types.
Bush varieties will be noted next to the cucumber name with a (B). All others are vining types.
- Bush Champion (B): 55 days. 8-12″ cucumbers that grow well in small spaces. CMV resistant, great producers.
- Arkansas Little Leaf (B): 55 days. Highly resistant to bacterial wilt, CMV, mildews, scab, leaf spots. Small plant, large harvest.
- Mini Munch (B): 55 days. Self-fruitful with 3-4″ small fruits. Good in small spaces. Mildew-resistant.
- Marketmore: 58 days. Very common market variety. Resistant to scab, CMV, powdery and downy mildew.
- Telegraph: 60 days. 18″ long dark green fruit, great flavor and high yields. English heirloom.
- Yamato Sanjaku: 65 days. Extremely long Japanese variety. Mildew-resistant. Harvest up to 2 feet long. Can grow longer.
- Harmonie: 47 days. Early European pickler, 3-5 inches long. High resistance to mildew & scab, also resistant to CMV.
- Bush Pickle (B): 48 days. 4-5″ cucumbers that grow in compact spaces. Performs surprisingly well in hot climates.
- Picklebush (B): 52 days. 2-ft vines that produce white-spined 4″ fruit. Productive, tolerant to mildew & CMV.
- Double Yield: 52 days. Extremely heavy yielder. 1920’s heirloom variety, forms 4-6 inches long pickling cucumbers.
- Supremo (B): 56 days. 3-4 inches long fruit on a compact vine, heavy producer. Great disease resistance.
- Boston: 57 days. One of the oldest available heirlooms (1880) with lots of smooth, green fruit. Very crisp, great for pickling.
- Salt And Pepper: 49 days. White-skinned 3-5 inches long pickling cucumber with powdery mildew and leaf spot resistance.
- Dragon’s Egg: 60 days. Cream-colored fruit that are shaped like and about the size of a large egg. Fun to grow.
- Brown Russian: 61 days. Brown cucumbers? Sure! 6-8″ fruits, best harvested at 5-7 inches long. Ukranian heirloom.
- Solly Beiler: 62 days. Amish heirloom. Super-productive, makes great thumb-sized pickles but can be grown larger.
- Lemon: 65 days. 1894 heirloom, round yellow cucumbers about the size of tennis balls. Lemon cucumber plants are prolific. Looks like a lemon!
- Mexican Sour Gherkin: 75 days. Sometimes called mouse melon, these look like 1″ mini-watermelons. Slight citrusy taste.
How To Plant Cucumbers
Cucumbers are extremely frost-sensitive, so you don’t want to plant cucumbers too early. At the very earliest, plant your cucumber seeds at least two weeks after the last possible frost date. You should only plant in warm soil, at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit is needed for seeds to germinate.
Those of us who like planting cucumbers indoors ahead of time can use a seedling heat mat set to 70 degrees. Sow seeds 3-4 weeks before you want to transplant your young seedling plants. This should get them off to a great start.
Cucumbers are a full-sun plant, so no matter where they’re placed, you’ll want at least eight hours of sunlight a day to keep them happy. Bush cucumbers are quite happy as container plants. When space is limited, these are perfect options for planting cucumbers.
By comparison, vining cucumbers can take up quite a lot of space, so plan ahead for these. You can also train and grow cucumbers up a trellis to reduce space.
Or grow cucumbers upside-down using a modified five-gallon bucket or an upside-down tomato plant container. Just be careful to regularly pick your produce so that you don’t put stress on the plant’s roots!
These plants can be susceptible to various fungal plant diseases if they’re too tightly packed together. This is especially true if their leaves are regularly wet and don’t dry out quickly.
Container-grown cucumbers are growing in popularity, and we’ve got a fantastic video with tips for keeping them producing throughout the season!
Transplanted cucumber plants grown up a trellis can be spaced about a foot apart, where bush plants prefer about 36″ apart. Vining types that aren’t grown upward should have at least 60″ spacing to enable them to spread.
Directly-sown cucumbers should be handled in a similar spacing pattern as transplanted cucumber seedlings. Place 3-4 cucumber seeds in each 1″ deep hole, and once they’ve germinated, thin down to the strongest plant or two. Find more cucumber spacing info in our piece on the topic.
Often, people will plant their vining cucumbers in hills. Make a mound of soil, 3-4″ tall, and plant your seeds in the center of the hill. The vines will then grow downward and around the mound.
And, to set you and your plants up for success, plant some cucumber companion plants nearby.
Caring For Cucumber Plants
Growing cucumbers is actually quite easy. Read through the following tips to find the best way to treat your plants!
Light and Temperature
Sunlight is absolutely essential for quick cucumber growth. These plants have large leaves to shade their precious fruit, but they need full sunlight to do their thing.
Plant cucumbers in one of the sunniest parts of your vegetable garden for best production, and be sure they receive at least eight hours of sunlight per day.
Cucumbers like it warm – between 60-90 degrees!
They’ll germinate at soil temperatures of 80-90 as well, but at anything below 68 degrees, it’ll be slow or not at all. For the best conditions for cucumbers, ensure your soil is at least 70 degrees consistently before direct-sowing your seed.
Once your plants are established, hot conditions are just fine. They can handle even extremely hot (over 90 degree) weather for short periods of time, as long as they have enough water.
However, as the weather starts to turn colder in the fall, you will find your cucumbers drooping once the temperature regularly drops to the 50’s. At that point it’s time to remove the plants and get your fall cover crops in place.
Water and Humidity
Consistent heavy watering is essential to develop good fruit. After all, a cucumber is made up of mostly water!
A good rule to follow is to finger-test. If you poke your finger into the soil and it’s dry past your first knuckle, it’s time to water. Keeping the soil evenly moist is usually best, especially when there’s fruit on the vine.
An inch of water per week is recommended for most cucumbers, but they’ll need more once the weather gets hot. During the summer, check them regularly. You do not want your cucumber plants to get thirsty, because a lack of water makes your plants produce bitter fruit.
Bottom-watering is preferred. Try not to wet the leaves too much, as this can create problems such as powdery mildew. If you have a drip watering system or soaker hoses, these are ideal.
Cucumbers require a lot of nutrients, because they’re heavy feeders. Before planting, it’s recommended to mix in compost or aged manure to a depth of about eight inches.
The pH range should be neutral or slightly alkaline, as cucumbers prefer something close to 7.0 pH.
It’s essential to have well-draining soil. If your soil is too moisture-retentive, it can cause fungal diseases which will destroy your plants.
Similarly, clay-type soils are not ideal for cucumbers as the roots will find it too difficult to penetrate. Your soil should be soft and organic-rich. Slightly sandy soils will work well as long as they have plenty of nutrients.
For people planning on container gardening, a good soil blend is made up of one part rich compost, one part perlite, and one part peat moss or coconut coir. This blend holds water without turning to mud or getting overly soggy, but will drain off excess easily. If you’d like to know more about growing cucumbers in a pot, we have a piece that details that process.
Heavy feeders like cucumbers need a rich soil to begin with. They can survive without supplemental fertilizing if the soil is nutrient-packed from the beginning. However, applying a balanced fertilizer in the early summer and early fall provides soil replenishment.
Nitrogen is most important for plant growth. Potassium can help the plants withstand disease. Phosphorous is essential for flowering, which is necessary for fruit set.
Try to ensure whatever you use is well-balanced. If it’s nutrient-heavy on one of these, aim for it being higher in nitrogen than the other two.
A good, rich compost spread at the base of the vines during the season can act in lieu of the fertilizer. Slow-release granules are also good, as is the use of compost tea.
Pruning and Training Cucumber Plants
We have an in-depth piece on pruning cucumbers that we’ve summarized here for you convenience. While bush-type cucumbers rarely need pruning, a cucumber vine can rapidly fork out and expand out of control. If you feel you need to prune your vine to keep it under control, start near the very base of the stem.
To prune, snip off secondary vines as close to the main vine as you can without damaging the main vine. A good pair of bypass pruners helps to avoid crushing damage. Similarly, you can prune off fruit that forms in that first 5-7 leaf nodes, as this will encourage further development of the vine.
Remove the first 4-6 lateral runners that appear near the base of your plant as well. Anything beyond those, allow to develop as they will fruit.
If you’re wondering how growing cucumbers vertically works, we’ve touched on that topic in a separate piece. To summarize,
A 5-6 foot tall trellis is plenty for cucumbers. Ensure it’s able to handle weight, as cucumber fruit can become heavy. Start by planting hills of cucumber plants spaced about 12″ apart at the base of the trellis. Once the vines have gotten a few inches long, mulch the hills lightly to help keep the soil moist.
Then secure the vines in place with a soft tie of some sort. Leave plenty of room for the vine to thicken as it grows.
As we’ve covered propagating cucumbers from seed elsewhere in this piece, let’s discuss cuttings. The cuttings should be selected from green, healthy plants. Take your cuttings in the early mornings when the stems are well hydrated.
Cut 1/8″ behind the second set of leaves and their leaf node at the end of the stem, making your cut straight across the stem. Gently remove the second set of leaves, keeping the first intact.
Dip the cut end of the stem into rooting hormone, and then plant 1/2 inch deep in a pot of potting soil, pointing straight upward. Water your cutting daily with a misting bottle, being sure to moisten all the soil thoroughly. Don’t overwater, but make sure that the soil always remains moist. Roots should form within three weeks.
Before you decide to save the seeds you’ve gotten from growing cucumbers, ensure your plants are not hybrids. Hybrid plants often produce sterile seed and should be propagated through cuttings.
Second, ensure your plants did not cross-pollinate with other varieties. Cross-pollination can cause the plants to not breed true. Provided that you have viable seeds, slice your cucumber down the center and use a spoon to scoop out the pulp with the seeds. Separate as many seeds from the pulp as you can, and place them in a bowl with some luke-warm water.
Cover the bowl and leave the seeds in the water for three days. After three days, strain out your seeds, removing as much of the gel particulate as you can, and spread them out on a tray to dry.
Check regularly to see if your seeds have dried, and once they have, place them in a paper envelope, marked with the date and variety. Store your seeds in a dark, dry, and cool location. Airtight storage tends to be best, but if you can’t provide an airtight container, try to reduce airflow as much as possible and keep them dry.
Harvesting & Storing Cucumbers
Deciding when to pick cucumbers is more difficult than the harvesting itself. Storing can also be a challenge. Here’s some helpful hints for both!
How To Harvest Cucumbers
Depending on what type you have, check your growing cucumbers every day or two as the fruits begin to expand in size to determine if it’s time to start harvesting cucumbers. For many varieties, it’ll be eight to ten days after the female flowers open, but that’s not always a good guarantee.
The long, “burpless” varieties of cucumber meant for fresh eating are best harvested when they’re an inch to an inch and a half in diameter. Take a clean pair of pruning shears and snip through the stem 1/4″ above the fruit. Avoid twisting the vine so as to not damage it.
Begin harvesting cucumbers of the pickling kind at around 6 inches long. They should be harvested the same way as fresh-eating cukes. The unusual varieties of cucumber, such as the “mouse melon” types, should be harvested when they’re the estimated size stated on the seed packet.
It’s important to harvest cucumbers when they’re ripe. Leaving them on the vine too long will cause them to begin to yellow, and that turns the fruit bitter. Harvest cucumbers when they’re green to dark green and the right size for their variety.
Cucumbers are considered perishables. They will rapidly deteriorate once harvested. Therefore, storing them is a challenge.
At supermarkets, cucumbers are typically coated with wax. This helps to keep moisture inside the fruit while in the refrigerator. You can wax your cucumbers if you wish, or wrap them loosely in plastic wrap if they’re not cut open.
Cucumbers which are wrapped can be stored in the crisper drawer in the fridge for about a week. Those which are waxed may last as long as two weeks. If you’ve used part of your cucumber, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and use the rest within a few days.
Other Preservation Methods
If you have an overabundance of fresh-eating cucumbers and don’t have time to eat them all before they spoil, consider making cucumber juice. Peel the skin off six cucumbers (you may also opt to remove the seeds if you prefer) and roughly chop them into chunks. Place them in a food processor and turn them into a puree.
For a less-pulpy juice, strain this mixture through cheesecloth or coffee filters. You can also run your cucumber flesh through a juicer. Juice can be frozen until needed, but should be thawed slowly in the refrigerator to preserve their flavor. Once thawed, use the juice up quickly so it does not spoil.
You can also add lime juice and other good-pairing flavors such as ginger and make a granita out of the juice if you’d like.
Unfortunately, cucumbers themselves can’t be frozen, as the flesh will turn mushy. However, they make phenomenal pickles, especially varieties grown for pickling. There are a million pickle recipes online, and both fresh-eating and pickling varieties can be used to produce them.
Pickling cucumbers are a bit denser and hold up better to dill treatments or canning. Fresh-eating cucumbers make great refrigerator pickles to be eaten within a few days’ time.
Finally, cucumbers can be dehydrated or freeze-dried to produce crunchy cucumber chips. Follow the instructions for your dehydrator or freeze-drier for best results. If you wish, sprinkle a seasoning blend on top of the cucumber slices before processing for added flavor. Store in an airtight container with a dessicant packet.
For the most part, if you take care of your plants and buy resistant species, you shouldn’t have problems. But if you do, here’s a list of the most common ones to encounter.
Cucumber flowers tend to be one of the least-noticed by pollinators. It may be because they’re hidden under a dense mat of leaves. But often, one of the most common problems is that the plant flowers just don’t produce fruit.
In reality, there are both male flowers and female flowers on the cucumber plant. It’s relatively easy to identify female flowers, as they have a much longer flower which looks like a tiny cucumber in shape. You may need to hand-pollinate your female flowers to encourage fruiting.
To do this, take a cotton swab or a fine paintbrush and brush some of the sticky pollen off of one of the male flowers. Then, dust the pollen from the male flowers just inside the female flowers. Repeat this until all female flowers have been pollinated. This should help them fruit more readily.
The cucumber beetle is the largest pest of cucumbers, as evidenced by its name. The larvae of cucumber beetles affect cucumber plants at the roots, while the adults will feast upon the wide leaves. A healthy population of beneficial insects will keep them at bay.
To defend your plants against this beetle, you’ll need to use a pyrethrin-based spray. I recommend Safer Brand Yard and Garden Spray, which tends to be quite effective. If necessary, move up to a stronger pyrethrin solution, but try not to spray pyrethrins right before harvesting whenever possible.
Aphids are an ever-present pest in most gardens. With millions of variations, these tiny sap-suckers are found in all parts of the world. Whiteflies, spider mites, and thrips are also known to go after the plant juices of your cucumbers. Again, many beneficial insects control aphids for you. Plant their host plants to draw them in.
You can protect your plants against these pests by spraying all leaf and vine surfaces with neem oil. This deters further infestation while slowly killing off any which are there.
If you grow cucumbers with pumpkins or other squash, you might have issues with the squash bug. Squash bugs will readily munch on cucumber plants, although their preferred food is other cucurbits like pumpkin.
You can use neem oil or pyrethrin-based sprays like Safer Brand Yard and Garden Spray against squash bugs as well.
The squash vine borer is another pest which can become a major issue. Its larvae tunnel into the vines of squash, melons, cucumbers, and other cucurbit plants.
Repelling this borer, which turns into a moth in its adult form, can be a challenge. Spinosad sprays such as Monterey Garden Insect Spray have been shown to be useful.
Once the larvae has dug into your cucumber stem, you may have to perform larva-removal surgery on the stem and cover it with dirt to promote rooting.
Finally, we have the pickleworm. This unassuming moth larvae will nibble at the leaves and stems of your cucumber plant, but what it’s really interested in is the fruit. Pickleworms will burrow deep into cucumber fruit, damaging the fruit and rendering it inedible.
Avoiding the pickleworm (and indeed all of these other insects) can be done by using floating row covers over your plants. Once those covers are removed for pollination, it’s more complex.
Preemptive spraying or powdering the plants and their fruit with bacillus thurigiensis (BT) tends to be the most effective way to prevent larvae from digging in. I recommend a spray formula such as Monterey BT. For a powdered option, I suggest Garden Dust.
Sphaerotheca fuliginea and Erysiphe cichoracearum are fungi which cause the dreaded powdery mildew. This white, powdery growth will form on the leaves of your cucumbers. Left untreated, your cucumber leaves will wilt, and the plants begin to die off from lack of chlorophyll.
Thankfully, mildew is readily treatable with a number of methods. I prefer using neem oil, which coats the leaves and protects them from mildew development. However, there’s a number of other organic methods which work just as well.
You can read more about powdery mildew preventatives here.
Downy mildew is caused by yet another fungal infection. This one causes yellowed patches on the top of cucumber leaves, with purplish or brownish patches on the underside of the leaves. Treatment for downy mildew requires a copper fungicide such as Bonide Copper Fungicide to kill off the fungal growth.
Bacterial wilt is caused by a bacteria (Erwinia tracheiphila) spread by both the spotted and striped cucumber beetles. Initially, it causes leaf wilting along the stem, but over time it will spread throughout the plant and die.
To avoid this wilt, eradicate cucumber beetles and their larvae as quickly as possible. If you find an infected plant, remove and destroy it to prevent further spread, and monitor your other cucurbits.
Cucurbit scab is an interesting plant disease, as it reacts differently to different types of cucurbits.
On cucumbers, it creates white to greyish leaf spotting, sometimes with a yellowish halo around it. Over time, these leaf spots will dry and fall out, creating ragged leaves.
It can also cause sunken spots on the cucumber fruits which become covered with a greenish-black fungal growth.
Treatment of scab requires coating all plant surfaces in a fungicide such as Dr. Earth Disease Control Fungicide. If necessary, stronger measures include the use of Bonide Fung-Onil, but the lighter method should eliminate the scab.
Fusarium wilt is a common problem in many a vegetable garden. In newly-germinating cucumber seeds, the soil pathogen Fusarium oxysporum will cause damping off. In older plants, it can slowly cause the plant to wilt and die off.
Unfortunately, this pathogen dwells in the soil, and anything which it can attack, it will. Plant resistant varieties for best protection. If a plant shows signs of fusarium wilt, it should be removed and destroyed to prevent further soil spread.
Phytophthora crown and root rot is also a risk to cucumbers. This is caused by overly-wet soil, and can almost be entirely eliminated in a vegetable garden setting if one provides well-draining soil for their plants.
If it develops in your soil, avoid planting more plants in that spot for a couple years. There are resistant plants for this soil infection as well.
Finally, we have the cucumber mosaic virus. Spread mostly by aphids, this virus will cause cucumber leaves to wrinkle and become patchy in color. Fruit may become bumpier than normal, create odd shapes, or look pale or greyish.
The best way to protect your plants from CMV infection is to wipe out aphids when they appear on the underside of your cucumber plant leaves. Infected plants should be removed and destroyed to prevent further spread.
Many varieties of cucumbers are resistant to CMV now, and planting those is encouraged.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Do cucumbers need to climb?
A: While technically they don’t have to, cucumbers grow best vertically. A support or trellis will not only promote healthier growth, it will prevent disease and make maintenancing vines easier.
Q: What is the best way to grow cucumbers?
A: Grow cucumbers in full sun, and fertile soil. Provide support to vining varieties, and give them adequate water and nutrition and you’re set.
Q: What month do you plant cucumbers?
A: Many gardeners start growing transplants in late spring. Most often initial transplants occur in May, and potentially a second crop is planted in July.
Q: How long do cucumbers take to fully grow?
A: From seed to harvest, cucumbers grow in about 50 to 80 days.
Q: Can I plant tomatoes and cucumbers next to each other?
A: Yes! In fact, they are great companions.
Q: What happens if you don’t trellis cucumbers?
A: They may not grow as readily and will be harder to access for maintenance and harvesting.
Q: How many cucumbers do you get from 1 plant?
A: Depending on variety, you’ll get 10 to 15 cukes from one plant.
Q: How often should cucumbers be watered?
A: Irrigate them once per week.