Fresh cucumber imparts a refreshingly crisp coolness to any dish.
SEASON: Cucumbers are available year-round but peak in summer.
CHOOSING: When it comes to cucumbers, bigger isn’t always better. The ideal size depends on the type. The long, so-called burpless cucumber grown in gardens and greenhouses has thin skin and no seeds. Its delicate flavor is good even when it is 12 to 18 inches long. Choose slicing cucumbers that are 6 to 8 inches long. Those for pickling are best when small, about 3 to 4 inches long. In general, avoid cucumbers that appear bloated and are turning from green to yellow (except lemon cucumbers, which are supposed to look that way). Yellowing is typically a sign that the seeds are maturing and the cucumber’s best days are over. If in doubt, select the smallest of the type for optimum flavor and quality.
STORING: Once picked, cucumbers lose moisture, which is why supermarket cukes are waxed or individually wrapped in plastic. Keep garden-fresh cucumbers crisp by placing them in a produce bag in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator. They’ll hold for about a week.
GROWING: Cucumbers are rambling vines that need a cage, tepee, or A-frame trellis to lift the developing plants off the ground. Good choices include Straight Eight, Diva, Suyo Long, and Lemon. Those who have small gardens or grow in containers will enjoy the more compact-growing Salad Bush hybrid, Bush Slicer, or the aptly named Spacemaster.
Plant cucumber seeds or transplants in spring no sooner than two weeks after the last frost. The air should be warm, but it is also a good idea to give the soil time to lose that winter chill.
Prepare the soil by adding organic materials such as bagged garden soil or compost. Create small mounds of loose, rich soil that measure 12 to 18 inches across. Plant four to five seeds or two to three transplants along the outer edge of each little hill. Allow about 4 feet between hills.
When seeds germinate, remove all but the strongest three plants. Guide the young vines onto their support, and then they’ll grab on as they grow. If you’re growing bush-type varieties, be sure to mulch the soil with pine needles or wheat straw to keep the developing cucumbers clean. Use clippers to harvest rather than pulling so as to avoid damaging vines.