A bee dives into a cucumber blossom. (F_A/Flickr)

Deer Gardener: Don’t laugh, milking cukes makes them sweeter

By Elaine Nyeholt

Cucumbers were the best thing growing in my greenhouse this August. Picking my own homegrown cukes takes me back to being a girl on the orchard in Osoyoos, where we had an acre of ground crops beside the apricot and cherry trees.

Patio Cucumbers, my seed of choice this year, are meant for containers. The greenhouse changes the game from “patio,” so I experimented by planting two young plants directly in the soil, two more in large pots buried halfway, and the last two in large pots on top of the soil in the greenhouse. All the plants were watered well.

The ones planted directly in the soil developed first and bloomed soonest, and the ones partly in the ground did better than the ones in containers. Still, I waited for actual fruit to come, watching to see if the ones in the ground were all growth and flowers, but no product. Now all the plants are directly in the soil because those first two out-produced the others and are climbing well with maturing fruit. The other four caught up fairly well now that they can develop bigger root systems. Had I planted my tomatoes like that, directly in soil, they they would be all leaves and little fruit.

Cucumbers are 95 per cent water, so they need copious amounts of water. But they don’t tolerate “wet feet.” The soil must drain well, with plenty of humus to hold water. If your fruit are deformed or the plant stops growing, the plants are thirsty. A tin with holes in the bottom between plants and filled daily will meter out water nicely.

Some form of support, a trellis or sting, will help your plant support the developing fruit, keep it clean, and help you watch the fruit develop. Plan your support before the plants are put in the ground to avoid damaging them as they grow. They can get pretty tall!

Trim away some of the bottom leaves for better air circulation to prevent mildew. Sometimes the leaves are too numerous to see the fruit, and some can be cut off also. Bees need to pollinate the flowers, or you can do it with a paintbrush. Removing the largest leaves can make pollinating easier. Un-pollinated flowers will still produce tiny fruit that have no seeds. I just learned that today! So, if you have undeveloped baby cukes, get out the paintbrush and give the bees a hand.

Aphids may attack the plants, so that is a matter for vigilance. Spider mites can weaken the plants and cause yellow stippling on the leaves’ surface. Both pests can be removed by water or Safers soap spray. It’s a messy business though, and the plants don’t like to have wet leaves touched. O dear… what to do? Do your best!

Pick the cukes before they are mature to keep the plant producing. Gently twist the fruit off without breaking the fragile vines. We should have fresh cucumbers until the temperature in the greenhouse gets cold at night.

Cucurbitacin is a chemical compound that causes bitterness in cucumbers. There are non-bitter types to buy that do not produce this nasty taste. We always cut the stem end off and rub it back and forth to draw out the milky bitter stuff before using a cucumber. It works and once you have been raised to do this ritual, it seems just wrong to not “milk” the fruit. I do get laughed at sometimes for doing it though. Try it and taste the milky stuff if you are not a believer in my old ways.

Many jars of mustard pickles, dill pickles, and relish have passed through my hands from my mom’s kitchen. I have no idea how to make them however, as I was just a minion involved in the process (third daughter syndrome) and only cleaned the veggies, washed the jars, and counted the “seals pop” after boiling. Eating pickles is a pleasure, and fortunately I have friends who don’t seem to realize that I only come and eat their pickles, and never bring some of my own!

I do, however, pickle sea asparagus and that in the very easiest of methods. I trim the tough bits away, wash and then blanche the stems, and plunge them in ice water. Packed in small clean jars, I pour dill pickle juice over them and screw on the top!

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