cucumber-growing q&a, and the best pickles ever

pickling cucumbers
IT TOOK THE LONGEST TIME, watching generations of flowers that seemed to come and then go nowhere, but last week it finally happened: I got my first cucumber. Too bad the beautiful-looking thing turned out to be so bitter.  I’m hoping to pack some big jars of my famous refrigerator pickles before long (yes, I’ll share the recipe), so I’d better get this straightened out fast. What’s up with my recalcitrant cukes? Ever had no fruit, misshapen fruit, bitter fruit in your garden—or worst of all, Cucumis sativus vines that suddenly wilted?  The reasons why, and lots of culinary cucumber ideas, too.

Skip right to the bottom of the page if you just want recipes, or start with these cucumber FAQ’s:

Q. I have many flowers but no fruit forming on my cucumbers (or squash). Why?
Q. Some cucumbers finally started to form, but they are misshapen and stunted looking. What should I do?
Q. I finally got fruit! Except it’s bitter. What did I do wrong with my cucumbers?
Q. My cucumber vines were looking great—and then the vines started to wilt, though the soil wasn’t dry. Why?
Q. Are those gherkins in the top photo? Is a gherkin just any small cucumber?

Q. I have many flowers but no fruit forming on my cucumbers (or squash). Why?

A. Cucumbers and squash are by nature dioecious—that is, they have both male and female flowers on the same plant. Typically, there will be more male blooms than females, with the males developing earlier. Until there are also female flowers present, and until conditions favor proper pollination once the boys and girls are both around, you don’t get fruit (which would form right behind the female flower, below, with the male flowers dropping off after providing pollen).

cucumber fruit forming
So when we start thinking we’re not getting any fruit despite all the flowers it’s usually either that all the blooms are still male, or that weather conditions are preventing pollination. Unfavorable factors that prevent bees from doing their job include wet or cold weather, or anything (like chemical use) that would eliminate bees, of course.

An exception: Some hybrids have been bred to be gynoecious, or bearing all-female flowers. These require a nearby plant with male flowers to provide pollen, so seed packets of gynoecious cukes typically have some traditional monoecious seeds in them, too (they are usually dyed to tell them apart).
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Q. Some cucumbers finally started to form, but they are misshapen and stunted looking. What should I do?

A. If you see disfigured fruit beginning to form, remove it from the plant. This is a sign that incomplete pollination occurred because of some stressor: any extreme of weather, for example, and also low soil fertility can contribute. Feed the plants, and water well. I use an organic liquid feed of seaweed and fish emulsion.

Note: The above assumes the plant looks healthy. If the plant itself, not just the fruit, is also stunted or disfigured (blotches on the fruit, foliage yellowed in a mosaic pattern, for example) disfigured fruit could be a result of cucumber mosaic virus, which is often spread by aphids and affects many other crops beyond cucumbers. Again, this would be a distinctive-looking phenomenon, not just a stray misshapen young fruit on a healthy plant.
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Q. I finally got fruit! Except it’s bitter. What did I do wrong with my cucumbers?

A. There are varying opinions on what causes bitterness in otherwise-healthy cucumbers. It could be caused by cool temperatures, Washington State University says in an extensive discussion of bitterness. Purdue’s extension says soil moisture is a factor, and to water well, and mulch to get the plant back on track.  That certainly can’t hurt; cucumbers are mostly water, so they need regular moisture to do well on all fronts.

All the experts agree that growing varieties known to have a low rate of bitterness is a good idea to minimize this problem. Read catalog descriptions carefully to select one next year.

By the way, subsequent fruit on the same plant in my case tasted great, another of the many unexplained miracles and magic of gardening.
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Q. My cucumber vines were looking great—and then the vines started to wilt, though the soil wasn’t dry. Why?

A. Bacterial wilt, which causes leaves and then entire vines to go limp, is spread by cucumber beetles (who also chew holes in leaves).

The key is prevention—there is no remedy for infected vines. Use floating row covers to keep beetles off young plants (opening them at pollination time), and handpick beetles aggressively if they emerge. Rotate where cucurbits are grown.

Sowing more cucumber seeds every couple of weeks until three months before first frost for multiple generations of plants may help, as some are bound not to coincide with beetles.
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Q. Are those gherkins in the top photo? Is a gherkin just any small cucumber?

A. I always thought “gherkin” was a pickling cucumber, or any other small variety like the ones up top, but in fact it’s a particular species of plant that’s a cucumber relative but not Cucumis sativus, our common cucumber. The West Indian gherkin or burr gherkin (so-called because its surface is covered in burrs) is Cucumis anguria. Seed Saver’s Exchange has a description and photo of this little, rounder beauty. Puts me in the mood for pickles…
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My Pickle Recipe, and More Cuke Dishes

MY BEST CUCUMBER RECIPE is a vintage hand-me-down I call Dan Koshansky’s Refrigerator Pickles in honor of the Long Island Railroad conductor who shared his family secret with me more than 20 years ago—it’s here (and it’s the most popular thing I ever posted on this website, my “greatest hit”—or Dan’s, really). Dan was not just a great pickle-maker, but also an organic gardener for many years, long before most people (particularly suburban gardeners like himself, who were more likely to dust and spray everything) had ever heard of the concept.

Or what about one of these other cucumber ideas? Today is cucumber week of Summer Fest, a big online recipe swap with some foodie friends. If you have one to add, or a cucumber-growing secret, put it here in the comments and be sure to share it on the other participating blogs, too. Here are the links to what they’ve cooked up (some recipes will not be “live” until after noon EDT Wednesday):

July 20, 2011


    • says

      Hi, Laura. I think if you are hot-packing you should use a recipe geared to that — not just for safety, but for flavor, too.

      Hi, Jen. I know what you mean: Some are perfectly delicious, some bitter. Wacky! Impossible to know which without tasting.

  1. Daisy Marshall says

    Hi Margaret! As usual, enjoying your informative and witty blog, of course you know I have no garden but do love cucumbers and I come here to water and refresh the garden of my soul. On the other hand my cousin’s avocado tree is giving us the best harvest ever. Just finished reading Gift of an Ordinary Day, I so enjoyed! Thank you for continuing to enrich my life. Stay cool! My best, Daisy Marshall

  2. Meg says

    I have an abundance of Japanese cucumbers, some are over 12 inches long and 4 inches across. There some smaller and am wondering if I can pickle them the same as regular cukes. I need to do something with them as I can only give so many of them away. This is an unfamilar cuke to me, my husband planted them because they were burpless and I’m amazed at the size of them. Thanks for any info.

    • says

      Hi, Meg. Yes, you can pickle them — I think you will have to do them in slices or chunks of course (or have VERY large jars, tee hee). I even saw some recipes online searching for pickles Japanese cucumber. This one made me laugh (the whole cuke on a stick thing).

  3. Jason Brown says

    Hello Margaret, great post. I live in San Antonio and grow cucumbers in the garden 2x per year one early spring crop and one late summer crop. I also grow in the greenhouse in winter but have the worst luck with pickles. I always get a white slimy type of growth inside the jars. I have no clue what I am doing wrong but would love any suggestions. I am an avid gardener and run a lawn and landscaping business so I should be a little better at this if you ask me. None the less great site, and keep up the good work. I may have to pick up a copy of your book.

    • says

      Hi, Jason. Lucky you, two growing seasons (though I know it must be a challenge with the current weather trends in the SW). I don’t know if you are doing fermented pickles and then refrigerating them or hot-packing to store or ???? While things are fermenting (such as on the counter before they are refrigerated, or before they are hot packed) a small amount of scum may form (as it would with fermenting sauerkraut, etc.) but you skim it off if so to stay ahead of it, and be alert that if the pickles do get slimy or soft or have a bad odor they are not suitable for eating. I expect that more scum will form in too-warm temps — I have read that over 80 degrees is too warm, for instance, and that 70ish is ideal.

      Again, not sure if you are hot-packing or fermenting out on the counter or ???? This UGa factsheet may explain some details.

  4. Linda Potempa says

    I’ve made sun pickles from the recipe posted on here…my question is …Do you keep them refrigerated or can you store them on the shelf

    • says

      Hi, Linda. They are definitely refrigerator pickles — after they sour to the approximate desired degree, they must be put in the fridge. They will last a month or two or so, not indefinitey like hot-packed pickle recipes.

  5. Astheart says

    Try this Czech-Polish recipe:
    Ingredients: small cucumbers
    some slices of carrot
    small onions
    fresh dill
    mustard seeds
    bay leaves
    black pepper
    all spice
    For a 1-litter jar: 30 dkg water
    1.5 dkg salt
    3 dkg sugar
    8 dkg 8% vinegar

    Clean jars in hot water. Put some slices of carrots, some fresh dill, some onions (cut in pieces if you have bigger ones), mustard seeds, and a bay leaf to the bottom of each jar. Then put cleaned cucumbers into to fulfill the jar tightly. Add 1clove, 2 pcs all spice, and 3 pcs black pepper into each jar. Combine water, vinegar, salt, and sugar in the quantity according to the number of jars and bring it to boil. Then pour the hot liquid over cucumbers to the very top of jars. Close with lids tightly. Sterilize in water till all the cucumbers change their color (they look like sterilized). Not longer as they could be overcooked then and not crispy. Remove carefully (it’s hot! ) and let it cool upside down on a kitchen towel. It’s because when you turn it the remaining air inside goes up through the liquid and sterilizes as well. When cold, cucumbers are ready to be eaten, but you can store them as long as you want. Opened jars are recommended to be kept in the fridge. (When any lid is loosened during sterilizing, you can close it better and put it back to sterilize for several mins more.Or you can put it into the fridge and use it as the first.)
    Sorry for my English, not a native speaker. :)

  6. Suze says

    If you think your cucumber my be bitter, cut of 1/2 inches on the stem end, rub the two cuts together, the white foam that comes out, is the bitterness. Never have another bitter cucumber.

  7. Susan says

    Yes, Suze, so nice to hear I am not the only one who knows the eliminate-the-cucumber-bitterness-trick, which I learned in Italy years ago. It included the instruction to rub the cuts together in a circular motion. My dad, the scientist, was skeptical that there was anything sound about this method, but he never ate a bitter cuke at our table.

  8. Joan says

    Can cucumbers that turn yellow be pickled? We live in Copake and were away on vacation. Picked a 5 gallon bucketful of yellow cucumbers. Is it too late to do anything with them??

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