Stephen Ausmus, USDA/ARS
Plant Common Name
Fresh or pickled, cucumbers are a favorite garden vegetable that are as easy to grow as they are tasty. They grow on vines that can be trellised if space is limited and there are literally hundreds of cultivars and types to choose from.
Native to South Asia and cultivated since ancient times, cucumbers are frost-tender annual vines that thrive in warmth and sunshine. They have large, broadly lobed leaves that are green and scratchy to the touch. When mature they produce yellow flowers that are either male or female. Pollen-bearing male flowers are produced first, followed by the fruit-bearing female flowers. The female flowers are easily recognizable by the elongated, bulbous ovaries at their bases.
Mature cucumbers are elongated or rounded, can be various shades of green and have small prickles on their skins. Some cucumbers are bred to be harvested young for pickles while others are raised to be harvested when more mature and used for slicing. Overripe specimens turn yellow and have softer flesh and large, firm and inedible seeds, so it’s best to harvest them when they are young and crisp.
Grow cucumbers in full sun and fertile, evenly moist, perfectly drained garden loam. After threat of frost is past, sow cucumber seeds directly in the ground. If transplanting container-grown plants take care to not damage their tender white roots unless they are root-bound. Root-bound plants can be saved only if their roots are gently teased apart before planting. Cucumbers are usually harvested after 60 to 80 days, depending on the cultivar. Be sure to harvest fruits regularly, so they will continue to flower and produce fruit.
Cucumbers may be trained on a trellis or cage or allowed to ramble freely across the ground. There are many selections, so choose a variety best suited to your climate, soils and regional insect-pest expectations. Dwarf varieties can be container-grown and are great for urban gardens.
There are many regional cucumber types that vary in size, shape, color and cultural tolerances. Americans are most familiar with slicing cucumbers, which tend to be broad, thick skinned when mature and have tougher, more prominent seeds. Thin skinned cucumber types include long, straight Asian and English cucumber. Pickling cucumbers have a pleasing shape and dense flesh and are picked immature. Lemon, or dosakai, cucumbers are almost completely round, yellow-skinned and originate from India. Middle Eastern types, like the nearly seedless Persian and sweet beit alpha cucumbers, are well-adapted to dry climates and small fruited. Oddly enough, some favorite “cucumbers” are actually in the same species as cantaloupes (Cucumis melo). The best known of these is the curved, thin-skinned Armenian cucumber (Cucumis melo var. flexuosus).