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Picked at the peak of ripeness – before the skin toughens up and seeds become pithy – a cucumber is rarely bitter and more likely is sweet like its melon cousins. Sadly, preserving cucumbers for later use isn’t as easy as storing many other seasonal vegetables. Yes, they can be pickled. But, a pickle is nothing like a summery cuke sliced fresh into a crisp, refreshing salad. Perhaps the fresh cucumber’s fleeting nature is why their sweet, watery crunch is likened to taking a bite of summer.
To grow fresh cucumbers in your own garden, begin by selecting a variety known to produce in your area and in the space you’re able to allot to your plants. If you are gardening in smaller spaces or even in containers, consider planting varieties like ‘Baby Fingers’, ‘Bush Slicers’ or ‘Spacemaster’. These smaller plants produce lots of little cucumbers rapidly. If you have larger spaces where the plants can cover the ground or grow up a trellis, experiment with plants that produce larger, longer fruits, like English or Armenian varieties. Looking for a unique shape or color? Try growing lemon cucumbers. Want a generous plant to grow in rows? Try a traditional green variety like ‘Marketmore’. And, if pickling is your game, choose a variety known to hold up to heavier processing.
Ideally, begin your cucumbers from seed rather than starts. Like most plants in the cucurbit group, cucumbers form delicate root systems. If those roots are damaged during transplant, the plant may never thrive. Fortunately, cucumbers are easy to start rapidly from seed directly in the ground or a container. Simply direct-seed them according to the seed packet directions after temperatures have warmed for the season. Protect new sprouts from curious, hungry birds and slugs. Keep the plants well watered and the soil fertilized for best performance. Additionally, keep in mind that most cucumber plants require warmer temperatures; yet, they do appreciate a bit of protection from the hottest, direct sunlight. Planting large sunflowers or corn to help shade them a bit makes for a pretty view and a delicious meal.
While most fruit-forming seasonal veggie plants benefit from pollinator visits, many – but not all – cucumber cultivars are self-pollinating. This means they will easily form fruit even if a bee never lands on their flowers. Still, combining cucumber plants with seasonal flowers like Cosmos or herbs like Borage can make for a stunning garden combination.
Regardless of what variety you grow, be sure to harvest the fruits early and often. If you allow them to rest on the vine, not only will they toughen up, fill out with spines, and become bitter as seeds mature, but the plants will also reduce production of new fruit. Rather than create new fruits, the plant will focus energy on fully developing the seed within an aging fruit on the vine. As that happens, the vine itself will lose productivity and wither having created progeny for future generations in a tough pithy cucumber nobody wants to eat.
Mom’s Vinegar Cukes & Sweet Onion
Growing up on the farm, this salad was the one snack we would always find in the fridge all summer long. It’s simple to make, and the longer it rests, the better it tastes. As a stand-alone, it is tasty. Tossed with leafy greens, it provides a light dressing as well as extra crunch.
2-4 fresh cucumbers1 fresh sweet onion (Walla-Walla, Red or whatever’s in the garden)
1 cup vinegar (I prefer sweeter apple cider; my husband prefers more tart red wine)
pinch sea salt
½-1 teaspoon sugar
(optional)several grinds pepper
Mix salt, sugar and pepper with vinegar in a large bowl.
Peel and dice onion. Stir into vinegar mixture and set aside.
Rub off any spines on the cucumber with a clean, dry towel. Trim off the stem ends of the cucumbers & discard; this end contains bitter compounds.
If the cucumbers are older or store-bought and waxed, remove all of the skin.* Cut in half length-wise. Spoon out the interior portion with seeds and discard.
If the cucumbers are garden-fresh and young, leave all of the skin intact or remove a portion of the skin in length-wise stripes. Retain the interior. Cut into ¼” round slices.
Stir sliced cucumber into onion-vinegar mixture. Cover and refrigerate for at least a few hours or up to several days.
*If the cucumbers are particularly bitter, sprinkle with some additional salt (coarse if available) and place in a colander to drain for about 30 minutes. Then squeeze the cucumbers to press out excess bitter juices. Rinse briefly in water & then proceed to the next step.