Growing cucumbers is among the most popular activities in backyard vegetable gardens across the country. In fact, almost half of the nation’s home vegetable growers – 47 percent according to Susan Littlefield, horticultural editor at the National Gardening Association – plant cucumbers. That makes cukes America’s No. 2 most popular homegrown vegetable. (Tomatoes, which should surprise no one, are the runaway favorite at 86 percent.)

There are two forms of cucumber plants, bush and vining. Bush selections form compact plants and are ideally suited for small gardens and containers. Vining plants, however, may be the better choice. They clamber up trellises and produce fruit that is straighter with less disease and insect problems than cukes grown on bushing plants.

Cucumber plants make two basic types of fruit, those for slicing and those for pickling. There are many varieties of each. Pickling varieties seem to reach their peak faster than slicing varieties.

Growing cucumbers is easy if you have a garden space that gets maximum sunshine. If you follow the few simple directions below from the National Gardening Association and don’t have unexpected late spring freezes, you should begin harvesting cucumbers in 65 to 105 days.

Planning and preparation

1. Select disease-resistant varieties.

2. Choose a sunny and fertile site with well-drained soil.

3. For an earlier harvest and to reduce the threat of insect damage to seedlings, start a few plants indoors in individual pots (or trays with separate compartments) about a month before your last spring frost date.

4. Set up trellises or a fence if you plant the vining form.

Planting

Cucumber sprouts growing

Photo: Logan Ingalls/Flickr

5. Sow seeds in the garden only after danger of frost has passed and you are sure the soil will remain reliably warm. Cucumber plants are extremely susceptible to frost.

6. Make a second sowing 4 to 5 weeks later for a late summer or early fall harvest.

7.  To seed in rows, plant seeds 1 inch deep and about 6 inches apart.

8. To seed in hills, plant four or five seeds in 1-foot-diameter circles set 5 to 6 feet apart.

Care

9. Thin cucumber plants in rows to 1 or 2 feet apart, depending on the type (slicing or pickling), when 3 to 4 inches tall.

10. Thin cucumber plants in hills to the healthiest two plants when plants have two or three leaves.

11. Keep soil evenly moist to prevent the fruit from becoming bitter.

12. Side-dress cucumber plants about 4 weeks after planting. Apply two handfuls of good compost or a tablespoon of 5-10-10 or similar fertilizer per plant in a narrow band along each plant.

13. Apply a thick layer of mulch after applying the fertilizer.

Controlling pests

Cucumber beetle on a growing cucumber plant

Photo: Anne Warner/Flickr

14. Monitor cucumbers and other vegetables for the buildup of insect pests.

15. Perhaps the best way for home gardeners to control insects, especially the destructive cucumber beetle, Littlefield advised, involve strategies to disrupt the insect's life cycle and habits. These include covering young plants with lightweight row covers until they begin flowering and crop rotation, she said.

16. If you decide to use insecticides, consider trying natural, less-toxic pesticides first. The problem with this approach, said Littlefield, is that there are not many effective "natural insecticide" choices in the case of cucumber beetles.

17. The most effective of the "natural insecticides" choices, she added, is kaolin clay applied preventatively. It acts as a repellent.

18. There’s also a problem with using broad-spectrum contact insecticides such as malathion, bifenthrin, cyhalothrin, cyfluthrin, permethrin, carbaryl and pyrethrin. These kill beneficial predators and parasites of insect pests.

19. In the case of all insecticides, read package labels to be aware of whether you must wait several days before harvesting cucumbers after applying the insecticide.

20. Consider capturing the pest, placing it in a sealed plastic bag and taking it to your local garden center and asking the staff there what control method would work best in your area.

Harvesting

21. Once cucumbers reach pickling or slicing size, harvest every couple of days to prevent cukes from getting excessively large or yellow and to keep plants productive.

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