Written by Angelina Bernardini - Winner of the 2016 Demetrios Agathangelides Scholarship!
Cucumbers come from the gourd family, Cucurbitaceae, and have been consumed by humans since growing wild in India around 3000 BCE. Soon after domestication, they spread across Asia, the Mediterranean, and thanks to the Spanish, the Americas, cucumbers have become a staple to the cuisines of so many countries. They Egyptians even found a way to make a light alcoholic beverage from fermenting cucumbers. It seemed that everyone was in love with cucumbers but this delicious vegetable did fall out of favor in the 1700’s when they were thought to spread disease due to uncooked consumption. Back in vogue, the modern slicing cucumber has been bred to have a high water content and delicate flavor, the cucumber has earned a reputation for being a “diet food” at 8 calories per half cup. Cucumbers tend to be a staple for most gardeners because they grow so easily. They require full sun and a lot of water, but are very prolific in their ideal environment.
A pH between 6 and 7 is preferred for cucumber growth, but they can adjust to slightly acidic or lightly alkaline soil as long as there is ample drainage. The biggest caveat, regardless of soil perfection, is full sun and warm temperatures for optimal growth. Cucumbers will grow indoors, but it is vital to be sure of the variety. Some varieties of cucumbers are specifically bred to fare well indoors with self-pollinating flowers and better disease resistance. A lot of space, and the correct kind of space, is still needed so the cucumber can vine properly. In addition to space, ample lighting is required. This can also mean light supplements such as LED systems or other kinds of grow lights. More water is required than an average indoor plant, so that should also be taken in hand and adjusted for when growing indoors or a greenhouse.
One problem with curcubits in greenhouses that doesn’t necessarily happen in the field is powdery mildew. Powdery mildew is a fungus that tends to attack leaves and fruits and can decimate a yield if left unchecked. Powdery mildew has a high infectivity rate where there is 95% humidity, 25 C temperature, a good amount of shade and cramped plants. These conditions mean the proliferation of spores and constant infection. Fungicides are one way to combat this pathogen, however many people don’t like the idea of consuming extra chemicals that may be harmful in large amounts. Cultural practices such as red light supplement (600-700 nm) during periods of darkness, spacing plants evenly, keeping a close eye on plant tissue and pruning away any leaves with signs of powdery mildew (milky, feathery spots on the top sides of leaves) and ample light can help alleviate the onset of powdery mildew. Spider mites can also be a total headache for anyone who has grown anything in greenhouse. These pests are “sap-suckers”, they feed on the phloem inside a leaf and their webbing can contribute to cosmetic damage on fruits. A large infestation of spider mites can take down crops by destroying leaves on a plant, which will cause sunburn and reduce fruit yield. As invasive as the spider mite sounds, predatory mites will put a spider mite population in check without damaging the plant. This is possible due to the voracious appetite the predatory mite has for flesh, not vegetation.
The biggest difference between the types of cucumbers grown both indoors and in the field can be down to Heirloom and Hybrid. Heirloom has a linage of uncrossed seed, and this can mean natural adaptability to an area’s pests. Hybrid varieties can lack flavor but make up for that in yield and all over resistance. These differences, subjectively, may come down to quality versus quantity for the home or small scale grower. For cucumbers, Heirloom means a plethora of shapes, sizes, texture, flavor, color and mouthfeel from which to choose. It could be argued that the average consumer may not even recognize an Heirloom variety cucumber if compared to the mass-marketed Hybrid types.
One way that Heirloom varieties of cucumbers are making a resurgence is through urban gardening. This term describes a movement that helps introduce people that live in cities to the pleasure of planting and cultivating their own produce. Urban gardening is an umbrella term that encompasses vertical gardens, reclaiming disused urban plots of land, rooftop growing, gardens in city parks, and even container gardening on balconies in apartment buildings or small homes that don’t have access to a yard. Along with farmer’s markets, urban gardening focuses on small scale operations bringing the people to help bring awareness to people about what kind of fruits and vegetables may be best grown in their area. One of the most remarkable phenomenon about urban gardening is the reaction of people when they taste a real home grown cucumber for the first time. The taste is almost explosive, it is nothing like they have tasted or remember tasting before, so different from what they may get from the grocery store. There is pleasure and pride in planting seeds and caring for the growth of their plants that can bring everyone closer to nature and responsible for what they eat. Cucumbers can be a wonderful choice for any type of urban garden as they are a vining plant. This mean aesthetic advantage to balconies and fences in addition to nutritional benefits and money saved.