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 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?

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

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).

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, 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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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. How to grow cucumbers and other cucurbits like a pro.
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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 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.

  1. Good luck on your cukes. They are one of my favorite veggies…just had one for lunch. We had a hail storm in Denver a week ago that obliterated all of my vines and broad leafed plants knocking off every yellow flower and budding vegetable not to mention the fruit from the trees. I will celebrate even a bitter cucumber.
    I think that they turn bitter if you wait too long to pick them. Could that be possible? If they start turning yellow it’s too late.
    Good luck!

  2. Rachelle says:

    When I was growing up, my dad raised 40+ acres of cucumbers every year. Excessive heat over 90 degrees means little or no pollination regardless ofyour bee population. It just doesn’t take. You also start geting a higher percentage of bitter ones and malformed or nubbins. Low nitrogen seems to contribute to nubbins, too. When night time temps drop down below 60 degrees, provided there is adequate moisture and nitrogen, the cukes will straighten out again and start setting more blossoms.

    Just what I saw and heard among the cuke growers when I was growing up.

  3. David says:

    my wife and I have used the recipe of Dan’s that you were kind enough to post several years ago for a couple years now, and they are great. Crisp, garlic flavored and almost phlorescent in color, they are loved by all who taste them.

    Truly a pickle for hard core pickle lovers…

    Thanks Margaret for sharing this great recipe!!!

  4. linda says:

    Ha! I just grabbed an 18″ Japanese cuke I put in the fridge to chill this morning, and a knife, and sat down for a watering break (it was 102 in the shade here today.) My 2 cents, as you recommend Margaret, definitely check the seed catalog descriptions for cukes that don’t tend towards bitterness. These Japanese ones are fantastic – haven’t had a bitter one yet, seeds are small, and (unless you’re me – I can eat a whole one at a time,) you could feed a family of 4-6 on one of these enormously long cucumbers.

  5. Nora says:

    Your refrigerator pickles are AWESOME. My guys (husband and son) can’t get enough of them–neither can I! Instead of hot pepper flakes, I sliced a hot pepper in quarters and tossed half in each jar. YUM! Thanks for a terrific recipe.

    1. Margaret says:

      Thank you, Nora — and always nice to see you! Beautiful with the peppers in the jars I bet — especially if they are red!

  6. norine says:

    My cukes taste great however after i pick them they seem to lose their crispness. I am a new gardener. Should I refridgerate them or leave them out?

  7. Janeen says:

    So nice to see a recipe for tzaziki here — a wonderful, and refreshing dip and good use for the summer dill, which is also coming on gangbusters in my neck of the woods.

    Thanks for all the ideas and recipes — you gave me the courage to cold pack and freeze a whole lug of peaches last week and it worked like a charm!

  8. Theresa Mitchell says:

    Here I am in “HOT” Marietta Georgia, just like the rest of the country. This year I decided to challenge myself in purchasing vegetable seeds from a local Supercenter at .20 cents a packet. I have great soil and just knew the seeds would do well. It’s mid summer and so far I have pulled at least 125-140 cucumbers from one packet of seeds. None bitter. Family and friends thanked me for sharing. The plants are still going strong. I have to say this year is the first time I produced just a few nubbins. The taste is still as good as the regular size. My husband calls them personal sized cucumbers. The plants are a little crowded and some cucumbers can become hidden by the leaves. When I finally spot some they are hugh.

    Life is Gardening Great!

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Theresa. I love hearing that despite the brutal temps that you are having such a good harvest. Congratulations! I know what you mean about them hiding (like pole beans). :)

  9. Laura K. says:

    Thank you for sharing the cucumber recipes – especially the refrigerator pickles! Our CSA provided us with some picklers this week, and we’ll have to try that recipe- YUM!

  10. Kyle says:

    I have to agree with Laura; these pickle recipe looks simply delicious. In all the blogs I been perusing I had yet to find any tasty looking pickle recipe ideas, let alone methods of which to grow the cucumbers.

    The cucumbers are coming in quite nicely in my garden almost ready to be harvested. I obviously have yet to make any pickles this season but when I do rest assured that I’ll be using your recipe to craft the perfect pickle.

    Thanks again for the wonderful article, Margaret. I’ll be sharing this one with my friends and family for sure!

    1. Margaret says:

      Thanks, Kyle, for the kind words. They are good pickles, I promise — and some of the recipe links here from various food bloggers look pretty good, too. Today it’s too hot to boil water for brine, but soon…

  11. Liz S says:

    I dream about making pickles, even grow the dill which is growing great. Every year some thing goes wrong with my cucumbers. Last year my flowers were never pollinated and then my vines wilted. This year I have cucumbers but they are misshapen, taste OK, but not enough to make pickles. Some of the cucumber vines that wilted I have pulled out. It’s nice to know about the pollination of the flowers and I thought the wilted vines might be cucumber beetles. I might have to cover them next year to see if I have better luck.

  12. Sandy says:

    I would like to add a cucumber plant problem. Go to bed at night and then wake up to find several plants with many of their leaves gone……yep, stems only left! I am certain that it is an animal (ground hog??), but not sure what kind. I live in the city, so ruled out deer. Ideas about how to handle this problem?

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Sandy. Depends what the bites look like, because different pests have different tooth arrangements and bite/chew differently. Rabbits make perfect cuts at a 45-degree angle, for instance. So tidy! Deer actually pull upward on plants and strip off the leaves that way, as they have no front upper teeth so they cannot make the perfect cut that rabbits can. Woodchucks (as we call groundhogs here) love to eat the way you are describing, and they seem to take more than rabbits (less than deer) and are not as tidy in their aftermath.

      Do you have woodchuck there? Or are the nipped stems perfectly cut at a 45-degree angle?

  13. Dee says:

    What a great post with lots of knowledge on cucumber plants. I plant cucumber every year and I bottle them as dill pickles. Once I open then I can eat the whole bottle.

  14. norine says:

    I am a new gardener. I love this site. I am not sure the best way to store my cukes until I can make pickles. Please help. They seem to go limp after a few days

  15. Broken Barn Industries says:

    Very old-school/ 50s housewife (my ex’s grandmother used to make these):

    Slice a cucumber lengthwise. Scrape out all the seeds, then fill with cottage cheese and sprinkle with paprika. Then slice them into finger-food sized bites. Healthy, simple, wicked refreshing appetizer on a hot day. (Can you tell I don’t do much cooking? Now off to find that jello mold…)

  16. dave says:

    My cucumbers are not growing well this year. I have a lot of them growing in and turning yellow very early during their growth. What does this mean?

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Dave. I can’t see the plants from here (bet you knew that!) but misshapen fruit as mentioned in the story can result from poor pollination…or from something as serious as cucumber mosiac virus (though you would see issues on the foliage and other plant parts, not just the fruit I think).

  17. Sandy says:

    Greetings Margaret,
    Thanks for your comments! Yes, it is a groundhog/woodchuck. My garden is fence is enclosed with iron fencing, which obviously is not keeping the groundhog out. Any suggestions about further steps? Is there anything I can spray on the remaining leaves that would make them “not so tasty” for the groundhog?
    Best regards, Sandy

  18. Our cucumbers were great this year – at first! Now, due to the extreme heat we’ve been experiencing, we have to taste them before we can do anything with them. I have gotten to can a great deal of them though – and just last night made an amazing cucumber salad!

    BTW, I’m in Northeast Louisiana and we’ve had 21 straight days of 100+ degree heat. It’s amazing that anything besides okra is still growing at all!

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