By Carol Williams, Mobile County Master Gardener | CoastalAlabamaGardening@gmail.com

Q: We enjoy fresh cucumbers from the local markets in spring. Is there a way to grow some in my own small yard?

A: Whenever your garden has limited square footage, go up! Cucumbers are members of the Cucurbitaceae family along with melons, pumpkins, squash and other gourds. The highest producers grow on vines, which can be grown in limited space on a trellis, wire or even a bit of old fence supported in your flower bed. If you are a patio gardener, a hybrid bush variety can fill a sunny pot for you.

Now is the time to browse our local seed and feed stores and the garden catalogues for varieties of cucumber that will please your tastes and uses. Three basic types are available, all providing great snacking and salads but also filling a particular purpose: pickling (my favorite for their extra crunchiness) — their lighter color, thin skins and compact length are ideal for pickles; slicing — darker in color and longer make lively additions to the salad plate; and seedless or “burpless” — longer and thinner but with very small seeds.

Also, when deciding which variety to choose, note the number of days until harvest. The shorter the season the better, because vegetable harvest must beat the summer heat and insects along the Gulf Coast. Transplants may be available but use caution because cucumbers don’t like their roots disturbed. We have such early spring here, there is usually plenty of time to successfully grow from seed in the garden.

With the warm February we’ve enjoyed, the soil will soon be the requisite 70 F., warm enough to plant cucumber seeds. In Mobile, plant as early as the second week in March and into April. Closer to the Gulf, you can plant even earlier.

You’ll need soil with lots of organic matter and a pH of 6.0-6.8. If you are not growing in a raised bed or container, get a soil testing kit from the local extension office to make sure you have the best outcomes. Test results with soil amendment recommendations can be emailed, so it won’t take long after you mail your soil sample to the lab at Auburn University. Enrich the soil as advised with organic matter or fertilizer before planting.

Plan a sunny space that’s at least 3 feet square, make a mound of soil in the middle and plant three seeds spaced evenly on that mound. Each seed should produce a vine that can then be guided up the trellis. Ideally, mulch with straw to protect the vines and fruit from insects and excess water.

Once the vines begin trailing, add a little soluble fertilizer around the plant. Read all labels carefully for proper fertilizer use. If you do have extra space, try succession planting several varieties a week or two apart.

Keep the seed bed moist until the plant begins to grow. Then add at least an inch of water a week. Drip irrigation is best for cucumbers because they need damp soil, but cucumber leaves don’t appreciate extra moisture left on them; it can encourage certain fungal diseases. Once they begin producing, be sure they are watered through any dry spells. Fruit bitterness can be caused by underwatering.

When they begin flowering, the cucumber will only have male flowers, but after a few days you will spot flowers that have a tiny “pickle” just behind them.  Those are the female flowers. Cucumbers must have pollinators transfer their pollen to the female flowers. The more bees, butterflies and moths that visit, the better. Encourage bees and others in your yard and garden by planting flowering annuals and perennials that attract pollinators. (Mobile Botanical Gardens will have some at their Spring Plant Sale in March.) If you’re very lucky, you or a neighbor may have a beehive whose work will result in more cucumbers than one family can eat from just a vine or two. 

Once those female flowers appear, check your vines often. In just a few days, the flower will wither and that tiny “pickle” will grow into an edible fruit. You should pick them early in the morning, if possible, when they appear the size you prefer, from 2 inches for pickles up to the 14-inch long “burpless.” Check every day or two and don’t wait if you think it’s ready. Early picking stimulates the plant to bloom, but if you forget and a fruit turns yellow, the plant may stop producing altogether. 

Cucumbers will keep in the refrigerator for about a week, but the plants are often so prolific you may be giving them to every neighbor and visitor. You can also cook the larger varieties, removing the seeds and slicing or dicing to add to soups and stir-fry. Hope you can enjoy your own cukes this year.

For more information, contact your local Alabama Cooperative Extension office or visit aces.com and search for ANR-0479 — “The Alabama Vegetable Gardener: Planning for the Home Garden,” available for free download.

YOU ARE INVITED TO THESE UPCOMING GARDENING EVENTS
What: Mobile Master Gardeners Monthly Meeting (free)
When: Thursday, March 1, 10-11:45 a.m.
Where: Jon Archer Ag Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Topic: Restoring Pollinator Habitat in Coastal Alabama, Dr. Judy Stout

What: MBG Plantasia Spring Plant Sale 2018 (free)
When: March 16, 17, 18; Friday and Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Mobile Botanical Gardens, 5151 Museum Drive, Mobile
Plant list posted March 3, 2018 at mobilebotanicalgardens.org.
Look for the Master Gardener Tent.
Look for workshops on proper planting with MBG Curator of Collections Amanda Wilkins.

What: Mobile Master Gardeners Lunch & Learn (free)
When: Monday, March 19, noon to 1 p.m.

Where: Jon Archer Ag Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Topic: Lighting the Garden, Dave Paton
What: Festival of Flowers
When: March 22-25

For more information visit FestivalofFlowers.com.

Master Gardener Helpline: 1-877-252-4769 or send your gardening questions to coastalalabamagardening@gmail.com.