Cucumbers (Cucumis Sativus) are very fast growing and very easy to grow from seed. You can grow them indoors or outdoors. Outdoor varieties called ridge cucumbers tend to be shorter with a rougher skin. These cucumbers produce male and female flowers, and need to be pollinated (I’ll explain later).
If you own a greenhouse then it’s well worth growing them indoors. The plants produce long and smooth fruits. What’s more, you don’t need pollinating. In fact, you have to remove male flowers to prevent pollination which can cause your fruits to have a bitter taste. You can even purchase ‘all female’ varieties like Cucumber ‘Flamingo’ which only produces female flowers.
Zambian cucumbers varieties
They are a lot of cucumber varieties but the most popular in Zambia are:
Pickling cucumbers – They grow to about 7-9 cm, and are crisp and firm. If you want to venture into agro processing, this is what you should plant.
The English cucumber used in salads grows to a size of between 25 and 30 centimetres in length.
Beit Alpha cucumber– This one is a deliciously sweet and crunchy cucumber. There is no need to peel this cucumber as its skin is tender and isn’t bitter like other cucumber varieties. Beit Alpha is extremely easy to grow and is ideal for a production in a greenhouse.
Preparing the soil
You have to plant your cucumbers under full sun for them to grow well. So, select with at least for 6 hours of full sun. Cucumbers also need rich good quality free-draining soil. Mix compost or cow manure and some sand with the soil. Try to remove rocks, stones or clods of clay from the soil.
Planting your Cucumbers
You can buy cucumber seedlings or grow them from seeds. It’s easier to plant seeds directly into the ground. However, if the weather is not warm enough, you can plant them indoors in biodegradable seedling pots or even the cardboard egg containers you buy eggs in. Using biodegradable material helps you ensure that the seedling’s roots are not damaged when you plant them out.
If you’re growing directly from seeds, plant the cucumber seeds in rows about 40 cm apart. Create mounds where you’ll plant your seeds about 2.5 cm deep. Depending on the temperature, the seeds sprout in 1 to 3 weeks. If you’re first growing indoors, when the cucumber seedlings grow at least one leaf, then you can transfer the seedling in the ground.
Caring for cucumber plants
Cucumber vines can sprawl on ground. But, it’s best to grow them vertically on trellis(tree branches) to not only keep the cucumbers straight but also prevent damage from the soil. Once the plant has formed about 7-8 leaves, pinch out the growing tips to encourage better growth. You can also pinch out the side shoots if they are not producing female flowers. If you can, mulch around the plant to hold moisture and prevent weeds. Keep the plant damp, but do not over-water it. And when you water try to avoid the leaves. Just remember that water stressed plants produce bitter fruits.
Cucumber plants need heavy feeding, so add well composted cow manure to the soil. Also, feed your plants with 2.3.2 fertiliser every third week after the first flower. If the leaves are becoming yellow, the plants need more nitrogen.
Pollination of Cucumber Flowers
The plants have both female and male flowers(like chibwabwa). The female flower has a small cucumber at its base and the male doesn’t. Bees transfer pollen from the male flower to the female flower. If there are few bees to aid pollination in your area, you may notice that the small cucumbers on the female don’t grow and fall off after some days. Try spraying the vines with sugar water to attract bees.
You can also try hand pollination. When the flowers open in the morning, use a cotton bud to pick pollen on the male flower and transfer it to the centre of the female flower.
Common cucumber problems
Cucumbers plants are susceptible to fungal and viral infections like any other plant. The cucumber plant leaves may turn yellow or white with spots. Powdery mildew and downy mildew are fungal diseases that cause leaves to wither and drop prematurely. The fungal diseases cause leaf spot diseases such as Anthracnose, Alternaria and Cercospora leaf on the leaves of the cucumber plant.
To avoid these problems, water early in the morning and do not water on the foliage. Furthermore, put mulch around the plant and avoid overgrowth. Also,
use a trellis so that the leaves don’t touch the ground. Lastly, avoid planting your cucumbers with potatoes and tomatoes.
Harvesting your cucumbers
Harvesting of cucumbers is a continuous process. Your first batch is usually ready for harvest 50 to 60 days after planting. You have to harvest when they are green and firm, just before they start turning yellow. If your cucumber turns yellow, it’s doesn’t taste great. So, rather dry the seed and use for your next crop. The more frequently you pick cucumbers , the longer they will produce.