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 a culinary cucumber idea, 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?
A. Cucumbers and squash are by nature monoecious—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).
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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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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A. There are varying opinions on what causes bitterness in otherwise-healthy cucumbers. It could be caused by cool temperatures, Oregon State University says in a 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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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. How to grow cucumbers and other cucurbits like a pro.
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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 or Jamaican 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 hand-me-down pickle recipe
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. Prefer bread-and-butter pickle chips? Try this 1952 recipe from Viola Whitacre, via her friend Nancy Schaefer, to me, and now to you.