Vertical Gardening: Growing Cucumbers

Growing cucumbers with vertical gardening techniques helps maximize small spaces.

Jar of Pickles Illustration

There’s nothing like a few jars of your own homemade pickles to brighten up the winter months.

Illustration courtesy Storey Publishing

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In a very small footprint, you can take advantage of vertical gardening by planting vegetables that climb, ramble and twine toward the sun. Small, contained spaces also minimize weeding and pest control and maximize your harvest. Vertical Vegetables & Fruit (Storey Publishing, 2011), by Rhonda Massingham Hart, features gardening techniques that make efficient use of the space available, especially in a small yard. This excerpt gives you tips and tricks for growing cucumbers vertically.

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: Vertical Vegetables & Fruit.

Why do we say “cool as a cucumber” when cucumbers adore warm, sunny summer days? Cool weather puts them in a slump: They will not grow, they will not set fruit, and they often succumb to disease. If you respect their sensitive nature, however, they are not that finicky to grow. Just give them good weather, plenty of water, and a stress-free life, and they will produce more, crispy, green picklers and slicers than you will know what to do with!

Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) are generally divided into two types: picklers and slicers. (Some are touted as “dual-purpose,” meaning they are good either pickled or fresh.) Excellent cultivars, many resistant to disease, are available in both categories. Plus, there are a few oddball, or novelty, varieties grown for their unusual looks as much as for eating quality. As with other vining crops, hybrids tend to grow shorter vines than open-pollinated varieties.

Pickling cukes

Pickling varieties have flavorful, crunchy flesh and thin skin covered with small spines or bumps. They are also known for producing bumper crops of small fruit — from 2 to 6 inches (15 cm) long.

National Pickling (F1 hybrid, 50–55 days, MO) is an old favorite for good reasons. It starts early and produces prolifically throughout the season. Best pickled while fruit is still small and blocky, with tender skin and crisp flesh, it is also popular as a slicer for its mild flavor when grown to full size. Vines are vigorous and disease resistant.

Calypso (hybrid, 50 days, GY) is another heavily productive, disease-resistant variety, also valued as a dual-purpose cuke. It has long, straggling vines.

Royal (F1 hybrid, 60 days, GY) is a favorite pickler, with high yields that keep coming all season. It grows well in most regions.

Wisconsin SMR (OP, 55–58 days, MO) is considered the top open-pollinated cucumber for dill pickles, producing heavy yields of small, exceptionally crisp, sweet fruit. The vines can reach 8 feet (2.5 m) long, do well in the North, and are resistant to scab and cucumber mosaic virus.

Slicing cukes

Slicing cucumbers are eaten fresh and prized for their mild flavor in sandwiches and salads. They generally produce fruits 8 inches (20 cm) to over a foot (30 cm) long that may curl or twist unless trained up a trellis or other vertical support. There are several types and scores of varieties.

One of the most popular types of slicing cucumber is the burpless variety. There are so many varieties that the following sampling barely scratches the surface.

Burpless (hybrid, 62 days) was the original burpless variety. Its vigorous climbing vines produce sweet, long, mild-tasting, Oriental-type fruit.

Sweet Success (hybrid, PAT, 54–58 days, 1983 AAS) produces seedless, 12-inch (30 cm) cukes that are sweet, crisp, and burpless. Vines grow to 6 feet (2 m) long and are resistant to cucumber mosaic virus, scab, and target leaf spot. If grown in a greenhouse or otherwise not allowed to pollinate, fruit will be seedless.

Diva (hybrid, GY, 58 days, 2002 AAS) offers dark green cucumbers, which at their peak of 6 to 8 inches (15–20 cm) long are crisp, sweet, and burpless. Vines grow to 6 feet (2 m) and are strongly resistant to powdery mildew, scab, downy mildew, and cucumber mosaic virus.

Straight 8 (OP, 58–65 days, AAS, MO) is another long-time favorite with its excellent flavor and consistently dark green, 8-inch-long (20 cm) fruit. Vines are vigorous and produce continuously. A newer version, Straight 9, is similar, with improved disease resistance.

Novelty cucumbers

Novelty cucumbers can add an exotic gourmet touch to your table as well as the garden. Though most are best eaten fresh, some make excellent, if unusual-looking, picklers.

Lemon, also called Crystal Apple (OP, 65 days), produces oval, lemon-sized, pale yellow fruit with mild, white flesh. Vines grow to 7 feet (2.5 m) long and produce abundant yields. Harvest at 1 1/2-half inches (4 cm) across for pickling and at about 2 inches (5 cm) for fresh eating. A lack of cucurbitacins ensures that they are never bitter.

Pearl (hybrid, 57 days, GY) is most noticed for its striking greenish white color, yet is superbly adaptable to different growing conditions. It has outstanding flavor and crispness, and is best when harvested at about 6 inches (15 cm) long.

Orient Express II (hybrid, 64 days, GY) is an Oriental-type cucumber, meaning it produces 10- to 14-inch-long (25–36 cm), slender, dark green, mild-flavored, tender-skinned, burpless fruit. This variety is especially disease resistant and productive, and has a longer than normal shelf life.

Birgit (hybrid, 64 days, GY) is a European type, with dark green, 14-inch-long (36 cm), narrow, burpless fruit with slightly ribbed skin.

Armenian Cucumbers (Cucumis melo var. flexuosus), or Snake Cucumbers, technically aren’t cucumbers at all, but rather a variety of melon. Some grow 2 to 3 feet (61–91 cm) long but are best harvested at 12 to 18 inches (30–46 cm) in length. Untrellised, they produce S-shaped fruit. Burpless and mild flavored, they have ribbed or ridged skin. Some varieties are striped dark and light green, others a ghostly pale green.

Site and soil requirements

Cucumbers like full sun and lots of it. It is also important not to plant them where previous cucumbers, or related plants such as squash, pumpkins, and melons, have grown within the last three years. Diseases common to all can hide out in the soil for at least a year.

Cucumbers flourish in soils high in organic matter and nutrients. They prefer a well-worked, slightly acid (pH 5.5 to 7), well-drained soil. The best way to provide all this pampering is to work in generous amounts of compost or well-rotted manure prior to planting.

Planting guidelines

Cucumber vines may be either started indoors or directly seeded into the garden. Be forewarned, however: Cucumbers and their relatives do not like to be transplanted.

Once the soil is well warmed (70 degrees Fahrenheit [21 degrees Celsius]), dig 2 inches (5 cm) of compost into the soil or add a weak, well-balanced fertilizer (5-10-5 or 10-10-10) to get them off to a climbing start. Mound the soil into a hill or plant in raised beds. The raised soil warms faster and drains well, which are two things cucumbers really appreciate.

To seed directly, sow seeds 1/2 to 1 inch (1.5–2.5 cm) deep, 4 to 6 inches (10–15 cm) apart. Lightly press down the soil and water it well. The seeds will germinate in 7 to 14 days. After three sets of true leaves have developed, cut out all but the best plants every 12 inches (30 cm) or so at the base of the supports.

To start cucumbers indoors, wait until three to four weeks before the last frost. If you start them any earlier, the plants will grow too large by transplant time. To minimize stress and get the best results, transplants should have no more than three sets of true leaves when they go in the ground. Although cucumbers resent any sort of disruption, especially transplanting, you can minimize the aggravation by using peat pots, disks, or other biodegradable containers.

Grow the seedlings on a sunny windowsill or under lights until they are ready to set out into the garden. Be sure to harden them off first then set the plants, pots and all, into the ground so that the containers are well covered with soil. A transplant solution, such as a weak fish emulsion, will give the seedlings a boost. Water them in well, and keep the seedlings covered at first to protect them against any unanticipated drops in nighttime temperatures.

Shallow roots mean cucumbers are thirsty plants. A thorough watering once a week with adequate time for the soil to drain — not dry out — in between is ideal. Mulching them helps keep the soil from drying, as it shades and cools the roots and prevents weeds, all vastly appreciated by these voracious vines. Remember that cucumber roots feed near the soil surface, so avoid disrupting them by hand pulling or hoeing too deeply. As the vines begin to flower, apply a top dressing of organic fertilizer to give them a fruit-setting boost.

Training cucumbers to grow up

Cucumbers really benefit from trellising. Even “dwarf” varieties produce superior fruit when levitated aboveground, whether climbing a support or cascading down the sides of a container or hanging basket. Most are extremely susceptible to diseases brought on by the high humidity and poor air circulation so typical of grounded vines. Misshapen fruit is also a common product of grounded vines. Those same plants, however, will develop straight fruit when hanging from a support.

Cucumbers climb by tightly coiling tendrils, whose slow-motion grasp is ever reaching upward. A soft tie here and there helps train them in the right place, especially on a vertical or angled trellis. Fence-type trellises with wire mesh for plant support work well for cucumbers.

A-frames, pipe, and wooden-lattice designs can also be used with good results. Some gardeners caution that wire or metal may overheat and burn the tendrils or leaves, but the leaves should shade the frame well enough to prevent this. Wire and pipe can be wrapped with florists’ tape or cloth strips to prevent it from burning the vines.

The zigzag design of an A-frame trellis is very popular for cucumbers. It is easily relocated year after year to facilitate crop rotation, and cucumbers find the sloping sides easy to scale.

Read more: Learn more from Vertical Vegetables & Fruit in Vertical Gardening: Growing Beans.

Reprinted with permission from Vertical Vegetables & Fruit: Creative Gardening Techniques for Growing Up in Small Spaces by Rhonda Massingham Hart and published by Storey Publishing, 2011. Buy this book from our store: Vertical Vegetables & Fruit