By Bonnie Kirn Donahue
Extension Master Gardener
University of Vermont
Is there anything better than a fresh, home-grown cucumber? Warmed by the sun, the crisp and juicy just-picked cucumber just doesn't compare to store-bought ones.
Although cucumbers are relatively easy to grow, getting a nice crop can take some strategizing at the beginning of the growing season.
Cucumbers can be grown easily from seed or from starts, which can be purchased at your local greenhouse or garden center. They need full sun and nutrient-rich, well-drained soil and are sensitive to dry conditions, especially while the fruit is growing.
Dry conditions can make cucumbers taste bitter and unpleasant. If you want the best flavor, water them when the soil begins to dry, about 1-2 inches of water per week.
Cucumbers also need plenty of space to grow. Depending on the type that you plant (vining or bush), you may need up to 6 feet around each plant (vining varieties). A simple wire trellis is helpful if you don't have a lot of space.
Growing cucumbers on a trellis also makes picking a little easier and allows the fruit to ripen more evenly. The fruit is easier to clean because it hasn't been resting on the soil or decaying leaves.
The most difficult aspect of growing cucumbers may be their attractiveness to the zealous striped or spotted cucumber beetle. A striped cucumber beetle adult can be identified by its yellow and black stripes, while the spotted cucumber beetle adult is yellow-green in color with black spots.
Cucumber beetles feed on leaves, flowers and fruit. On top of this physical damage, they also carry bacterial wilt, a major disease of this crop. For this reason, if possible, pick disease-resistant varieties when making your initial plant selection.
There are some other low-cost ways to tackle pests. The general idea is to practice Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which uses chemical interventions as a last resort, after trying other methods such as cultural, mechanical and biological controls.
While garden chemicals can kill invasive insects, they also can kill good insects that help pollinate crops. Some even act as natural predators to help protect crops instinctively.
If you have a small, manageable cucumber crop, a mechanical solution would be to visually inspect your plants daily, and pick off any cucumber beetles or eggs you find. If you don't enjoy crushing them, drop them into a solution of soapy water.
A creative cultural control that I learned from the University of Vermont Extension Master Gardener course is to wait to plant your cucumbers until late June. This late planting avoids the early summer rush of beetles searching for young cucurbit plants for food and space to lay eggs.
If planting starts, you might try a trick many commercial growers use, which is to dip the entire plant in a kaolin clay slurry before planting. This material acts as an antifeedant, an organic compound that inhibit insect attacks, buying the plants a little more time to grow before the material washes off in a couple of weeks.
Or experiment with lightweight floating row covers (available at most garden centers or hardware stores) to prevent beetle infestation. Cucumbers need to be pollinated to produce fruit, so make sure to remove row covers just before flowering.
Always consider the extent of damage before determining your course of action. For example, if you have more than five beetles per plant, it might be time to try an IPM measure. Alternatively, if the damage on the leaves is less than 25 percent of the total plant area, your young plants should be able to tolerate the injury and bounce back.
This year, a little planning and IPM experimentation can help you get that exceptional cucumber crop.