It would be a shame if the only cucumbers one ever tasted came solely from the supermarket; there really is an amazing difference between home-grown cucumbers and others.
And it's not so much the freshness factor--it's that many of the tastier cucumber varieties aren't commercially practical because they look different or they don't ship well. The best-flavored varieties belong to the realm of the home gardener.
For flavor and texture, the top cucumber has to be the old-fashioned lemon cucumber. This cucumber resembles its namesake, in shape and color. The flavor is marvelous; it is far more pronounced and tart than standard cucumbers, and it is never bitter--and always burpless.
Years ago, lemon cucumbers were grown extensively by Southern California gardeners, and local farmers featured them at their produce stands. Alas, most produce stands are now long gone, and last summer I noticed that lemon cucumbers were offered by a local gourmet specialty produce market for $3.85 a pound. Needless to say, lemon cucumbers always rate a prominent position in my spring garden.
Armenian Is Mild
The Armenian cucumber would rank second among my flavor favorites. It was first grown in the Fresno area by Armenian settlers who brought the seeds with them. It is a beautiful vegetable, long and pale green, with a small seed cavity. The flavor is mild, with no bitterness, and it doesn't need to be peeled. It should be picked for table use when about 18 inches long. If left on the vine, it will grow to 3 feet. In addition to fresh table use, try making bread-and-butter pickles from slices.
Armenian cucumbers grow best on a trellis, where the fruit will be straight; if allowed to sprawl on the ground, the fruit will curve. Besides its excellent flavor, the Armenian is extremely prolific.
Ranking third on the flavor list is an Oriental cucumber called Soo Yoo. It is widely available as a bedding plant in local nurseries. I grow Soo Yoo in a rather unusual manner.
The south side of our house, where the chimney is located, forms the northern boundary of my garden. In front of the chimney I installed an old racing tire full of compost and potting soil, inserted a redwood trellis inside the tire and leaned the trellis against the chimney for support.
A Spring Soo Yoo
Each spring I purchase a pony pack of Soo Yoo cucumbers and plant them in the tire. They show amazing growth as the sun's warmth is absorbed by the tire and the chimney and transferred to the cucumber plants trained upon the trellis.
If you've never grown Soo Yoo cucumbers, you've missed a culinary treat. The cucumbers are long and slender, about 12 to 15 inches, and have a dark-green, rough, ribbed skin. The flavor and texture are delightful. The flesh is never bitter; it is always mild, refreshing and crisp. The fruit is small-seeded and produced in huge quantities.
Pick up a pony pack of Soo Yoo plants at your local nursery and sample this fine cucumber in your garden. If you grow it once, I bet you'll find a spot for it in your garden every year.
Cucumbers are warm-season vegetables, but they don't require as much warmth as vegetables such as peppers or eggplant. They may be planted from seed or transplants from late March through May. Although cucumbers may be planted later than May and still produce an acceptable crop. I have always experienced the best quality fruit from earlier plantings.
Cucumbers must be planted in a sunny area. Many seed packets recommend that you plant cucumbers in "hills." This is misleading. In all climatic areas, except those receiving heavy spring and summer rains, the soil should not be mounded, as this impedes irrigation. Plant seeds 1 inch deep in groups or in rows. If planting in groups, plant eight seeds in an area about 18 inches in diameter. Space the groups 3 feet apart. When the plants are 3 inches high, thin them to 4 plants per group. If planting in rows, plant 4 seeds per 1 foot of row, and then thin them to 12 inches between plants. If using transplants, refer to the distance between plants after thinning.
Use a Trellis
Save space and get cleaner fruit by training the vines up a trellis. Chicken wire is excellent for this purpose. Cucumbers are not natural climbers, however, and you will have to tie them to the trellis initially until they start to cling.
The more compost or other organic material you can add when preparing the soil, the better. Also add a multipurpose vegetable fertilizer. Feed again when the vines are 6 inches long.
Because cucumbers are composed of 94% water, the plants need ample irrigation, at least weekly. But avoid overhead watering, as this promotes mildew.
Lemon and Armenian cucumbers will have to be planted from seed, as the plants are seldom available. Seeds for both varieties should be available at most local nurseries. Plants for Soo Yoo can almost always be located in Southland nurseries and garden centers.