Cucumber and friends
1 Feb 2022
Cucumbers are super easy to grow here and kindly prolific with fruit. In fact, the Coffs Harbour area is a commercial growing hub for cucumbers, though usually in greenhouses to meet the perfectionist requirements of supermarkets year round. For backyard gardeners, cucumbers are grown “in the field” and do very well at providing more than enough cucumber for a household and neighbours. There are a number of cucumber-like plants to explore as well who are similarly prolific. For most of these the leaves are edible too (details in the Why grow spinach article).
All of these plants are warm season friends with no tolerance for frost. None will cross with each other (or anything else, as far as I can tell).
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Crisp and juicy and refreshing. Fresh slices or juice. Winter pickles or summer soup. Fairly quick to grow for such a large fruit. Climber that doesn’t take much soil space and can be useful to give gentle dappled shade to smaller plants such as ginger or lettuces who need a bit of protection from the blaze of summer. Edible leaves.
The biggest issue with cucumber growing here is (Jaws theme…) powdery mildew. Some varieties are far more resistant than others. Ensuring good airflow around your cucumber plant and having excellent soil health will both help keep this plant killer at bay.
Make gardening easier for you. Look for varieties that are adapted to humid conditions. Some varieties known to have good resistance to powdery mildew, and that grow well here include:
Crystal Apple – a round apple shaped cucumber. Mild flavour.
Giant Russian Cucumber – a large and mild tasting variety that grows well in this climate.
Lebanese cucumbers – many backyard growers in this area are very happy with their Lebanese cucumber plants. There seems to be some variation in susceptibility to powdery mildew though.
Lemon Cucumber – an apple type, or round cucumber with a slightly citrusy flavour. Recommended for humid areas and has good resistance to powdery mildew.
Marketmore – Local farmers market recommendation and grown happily in a number of backyards too. Prolific, hardy, very uniform fruit.
National Pickling Gherkin – this can be enjoyed as a cucumber when small. Allegedly this variety is more suited to cooler areas than other varieties but I can attest it does just fine here and I didn’t know cucumbers were subject to powdery mildew as this one is so resistant.
Poinsett – Local farmers market recommendation. No powdery mildew. Lots of healthy plants and fruit.
Richmond cucumbers – there are a number of varieties that have come from the Richmond River valley area in the Northern Rivers area of NSW and all bear the place name Richmond. This is a valley hotter, wetter, and more humid than here and any cucumber that thrives in these conditions is immune to powdery mildew. There is the Richmond Yellow, Richmond Green and Richmond River White, known for powering through the wet season at the end of summer.
Suyo Long – Local farmers market recommendation. Adaptable variety from China.
White Spine – Local farmers market recommendation. Soft fleshed, thin skinned, subtle flavoured cucumber.
Not so good varieties for here include:
Straight Eight – Local farmers market intel. A very tasty, very crisp variety that is just not that vigorous or prolific.
Muncher Burpless Lebanese – Local farmers market intel. Much weaker plants than some of the preferred varieties and prone to powdery mildew. On the plus side they are exactly like the perfectly cylindrical shop bought Lebanese cuces.
Burpless means the cucumbers contain little to no cucurbitacin, which is mostly in the skin and which results in bitterness and can cause indigestion. This was common in ancient cucumbers and is being bred out.
Some varieties of cucumber have much thinner skins than others. Generally, Continental and Lebanese cucumbers have thinner skins than others and pickling cucumbers have the thickest skins of all. For every variety, the skin will become thicker and more bitter as the fruit grows larger and older. Many heirloom varieties also have spikes that need to be brushed off. Just run a gloved hand or a dishcloth over the cucumber, that’s all that’s needed to remove them.
Seedless cucumbers grown commercially are hybrids with only female flowers that will grow into full cucumbers without pollination, which means seeds won’t develop.
You can plant cucumbers August through to March in these parts. Obviously they will need to be in a frost free spot when you are trying to grow them at the very beginning and end of the warm season. The temperature needs to be at least 15°C for germination, but they sprout better when the weather is more like 21 – 29°C. Sow 1 – 2cm deep. They take 2 – 4 weeks to be ready to transplant out. Plant 30 – 60cm apart, rows over a metre wide. Plant density affects airflow and humidity around them so space them further apart if this is likely to be an issue.
Cucumbers do best in soil rich in compost and manures. They can be grown in containers of at least 20L. They love a continuous even supply of water and nutrients. Locally they most need an eye on calcium, boron and manganese. pH level of 5.5 to 6.5. They like lots of light. Their happy place for warmth is between 22 – 34°C and for humidity 75 – 85%. It’s best to water them in the morning. Make sure they have good drainage. When young they can get a root rot. They will appreciate regular seaweed or fertiliser drinks throughout their life. Avoid wetting the leaves as this encourages the dreaded powdery mildew. They have a medium tolerance for salt.
Cucumbers are better grown on a trellis than being allowed to sprawl over the ground, but don’t put them in a windy spot. Their vines are brittle. A trellis makes for good airflow and they are much easier to pick. Also a trellis can be handy summer shade for other plants. Cuces that sit on the ground get a white stripe underbelly from lack of sun.
Once vines have reached over a meter in height, you can tip prune the plant to encourage branching and more fruit. If you can bear even more cucumbers! In greenhouses the first fruits at the bottom of the main vine are removed to prevent them sitting on the ground and allow the plant to grow a bit more to ensure the plant stays healthy when full cucumber-making kicks in.
Depending on variety, you need to wait 50 – 84 days / 7 – 12 weeks to pick fruit. They are pollinated by bees. The height of cucumber picking season is December – February. Once the cucumbers are mature enough to pick, this may become a daily task. If you dare – the more you pick, the more cuces the plant will create. Do your picking in the early morning. Cut, don’t pull, them off the vine. Pulling tends to tear the fruit and this means it will start to rot.
Cucumbers are ready for seed saving when they are huge and yellow and thoroughly unappealing, many weeks past when you would consider eating them.
Cucamelon / mouse melon / Mexican sour gherkin
The cherry tomato of the cucumber world. These small stripey green oval shaped fruits have a sour cucumber taste rather similar to gherkin. Most people really enjoy their flavour. Eat them as a snack, in salads, or pickle them. This plant is supremely generous and can be perennial if planted in a frost free position.
The cucamelon vine can create hundreds of fruits per plant. It’s vigorous! It should be grown on a trellis 2 – 3m high. It can be a lightweight string trellis though. The plant isn’t heavy. It’s also happy to grow in a container (10L+) on a verandah and has a reputation for drought tolerance.
Growing care is very similar to cucumber. Cucamelon has fewer pests and diseases and likes very similar fertile and full sun conditions. It’s easy to grow. Sow seeds when the soil has warmed to 22 – 24°C in late spring or early summer and the vines should be fruiting 75 days / 10 – 11 weeks later. Space plants 50cm apart and prune off dying leaves. It makes too many leaves and some can’t get any sun. There is no information that I could find on the edibility of it’s leaves. This plant is pollinated by insects.
Kiwano / African horned cucumber / jelly melon
The puffer fish of the vegetable world. Looking terrifying, like a mutant apple covered in horns, this is a sweetish cucumber-like fruit with flavours of cucumber, lemon and banana. Pick with gloves on. This rampant vine is as hardy as a tank and can be weedy. It evolved in Africa and is drought tolerant. The varieties that have been domesticated and developed in Australia and particularly New Zealand are sweeter than its wild ancestor who is known as being quite bitter. Kiwano is renowned for being prolific, creating up to 20 fruits per vine.
Eat the gelatinous coated seeds like passionfruit when the skin is green to yellow. The seeds are the bulk of the fruit. The fruit can be picked green and will ripen off the vine. The fruit will keep for months! Kiwano has irritating prickly leaves which were traditionally eaten roasted.
This plant will grow in poor soil but obviously will do better in well fed soil. Germination is best around 25°C, so plant in late spring or early summer. Although it does not tend to suffer from pests or diseases, powdery mildew can be a problem at times so avoid watering the leaves. Grow up a trellis if you can and space plants about 50cm apart. Full sun is best. They can take a while to start fruiting and are pollinated by insects but once they get going they take off. 119 – 133 days / 17 – 19 weeks from sowing to fruiting. This is an annual plant.
Caigua / achocha / korila / achoa / slipper gourd / Bolivian cucumber / stuffing cucumber
A “lost” vegetable star of the Incan world. This is a vigorous though lightweight clambering vine. Very prolific and easy to grow. Very few pests or diseases, if any. A hundred small fruits per plant is considered normal.
Caigua can be eaten raw when young before the seeds become large and hard. Once mature it is said to be better stuffed and baked after removing the seeds. It can also be stirfried or pickled. The fruits are just 6 – 15cm long and hollow, especially when older. The flavour is described as similar to cucumber or capsicum or even artichoke. Leaves and tips are mild and neutral flavoured greens, definitely edible when cooked. There’s a lack of information (in English) about eating these raw.
This is an annual plant with zero tolerance for frost. It is best germinated at day temperatures between 20 – 30°C, so late spring / early summer. Plant the seeds an inch deep. It is a speedy climber (trellis!!) and will race to 12m or so. It will make your friends and neighbours do a double-take with it’s palm shaped leaves that look suspiciously like dope leaves at a quick glance.
There is little to be said about looking after it. Caigua is not commercially grown but is common on small farms in South America, where it has been cultivated for a very very long time. It has a reputation for needing “little agronomic management,” translation, it grows without needing care. Apparently it prefers cool, moist and fertile soil and likes compost and regular water. It will grow in shade or sun and likes cool summers but will grow happily in subtropical conditions too.
The main point to note is that although the advice says caigua fruit will be ready 100 days / 14 weeks after sowing, this is a day length sensitive plant who should not be expected to flower (and therefore fruit) before summer solstice. There is no reward in planting it early. It fruits as the days are shortening and will continue to do so until killed by frost. It is insect pollinated and saved seed will store for at least 5 years.
Big thanks to:
Nicole & Matt from Dolly’s Run, Nidya from The Patch Organics, Camilla from Autarky Farm, Paul from Barefoot Fruit & Veg, The Mandarin Bend.
Jeff Alcott, John Vernon, Pete Bufo, Tim Hill, Joy Foley, Nick Radford, John Hodgkinson, Carole & Phil Helman, Julie Morgan, Angelle Hughes, Moana N Chuck Ngaira, Alica Cook, Ruth Maitland, Corinne Sanford, Shekhinah Morgan, Waveney Ayscough, Jen Tredinnick
Supported by Bellingen Shire Council via the Bellingen Shire Disaster Recovery and Resilience Grant Program Funding
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