Besides lettuce and tomatoes, cucumbers are one of our most favorite vegetables both for fresh eating in salads and on sandwiches, as well as for pickles. Come to think of it, my inordinate fondness of pickles was the other chief and major reason for getting into the gardening scene.
We used to go to the Kensington Market in Toronto every Saturday. It was an outdoors affair, under colourfull canopies with trestle tables set up in the tiny front yards of these old houses. One could buy almost everything under the sun there - live chickens, fish, crabs and eels (dead ones in the latter case), bolts of cloth, carpets, sandals and cheap jewellery, all manner of exotic cheeses, and my weakness, kosher pickles by the barrel.
A six-inch pickle was a nickel, and a 10 inch one was a dime. We always bought a gallon jar of kosher pickles and I would buy one fresh from the barrel to munch on as we ambled from stall to stall. It was never long before I had to go back for a 10-cent one, and a little later for two more. As we drifted further from the pickle barrel it was always a bit of a challenge to find my wife again, but I did not mind because I had a couple of kosher pickles to sustain me while I searched among the stalls for her.
Later in the afternoon I would spend a lot of time in solitary confinement in the bathroom with ample time to wonder why plenty of past experience still failed to deter my gustatory enthusiasm for those delicious kosher pickles. Go figure. This then, my adoration of the pickle, if the truth be known, is one of the chief reasons why I embarked upon my gardening career.
Usually, we grow about a dozen hills of cucumbers which amounts to a 50-foot row; this is ample for our family of four but must not be construed as a recommendation for the average family, as I my weakness for pickles is not a good yardstick for normal families. Cucumbers make a lot of green growth upon which they will produce a lot of cucumbers. To be able to do this, they need a lot of manure and bone meal, and a constant supply of moisture. Chicken manure is about the best, with a handful of bone meal and wood ashes for potash and hardiness.
The most critical stage is in their beginning as they need a lot of heat, which we usually do not have in June. To help them get started it is best to germinate the seed in moist paper towel on top of the hot water tank. Once the little root appears from the seed, usually in a couple of days, these may be planted out, or into individual four-inch plastic pots which should be nice and warm as well. Cucumber seedlings hate to be transplanted so much that they just sulk or give up altogether when their roots are disturbed. That's why I use smooth plastic pots, so the whole thing - soil, seedling, roots and all - can be slid out undisturbed and all in one piece.
After trying all kinds of ways of growing cucumbers, we came up with our all-time best and and super productive way of growing them. We grow them in old tires on top of the ground - instead of a 'hill'. It works wonderfully well, especially in our cool summers, since the black tires soak up the heat like nobody's business and warm up the soil in them very, very nicely. And since they release their heat slowly, they keep the soil a lot warmer at night as well. And the cucumber plants - tropical natives all of them - just love it.
We fill each tire with about 4 shovels of manure, a shovel full of seaweed for those crucially vital 72+ trace elements, and a couple of shovels of compost, well mixed with soil to fill the tire level with the top. Half a dozen germinated seeds are then planted about one inch deep into a finely sifted soil and compost mix in each tire, and out of these we retain the four most vigorous seedlings. Only the surface of the soil in the tire is kept free of weeds; the remainder of the bed is left to grow weeds. These we shear down to two inches periodically, and lay over in place as a mulch - to retain vital moisture, to provide a haven for our little black hunting spiders, to enrich the soil with their decay, and for a very nice dry cushion for the cucumbers. It is very, very little work - weeding the inside of the tire is only necessary until the cucumber plants cover it, which they do rather quickly with all the rich soil under them - and the occasional shearing of the weeds between the tires was quick and easy.
What we ended up with was a picture perfect cucumber bed which delighted my heart every time I saw it, and with a super abundant crop of cucumbers. Here and there we planted a dozen dill seedlings among them to deter harmful insects, to attract beneficial predatory insects, and for the dill so essential for pickling. Initially, these required a bit of attention when shearing the weeds, but this ended quickly as the cucumber plants covered everything except the tall dill.
Do not rush things; June 15. is about right for us here and earlier seeding or seedlings, more often than not, either rot or fall prey to languor and critters.
We now come to the raging controversy over which is the better method - wether to start cucumber seedlings indoors and transplant them, or wether to sow directly outdoors. It has now been established by the agricultural authorities that transplants make large, shallow root systems. This results in larger plants and more fruit, as the larger root system can forage farther for water and food. Direct-seeded plants develop a deep tap root which results in smaller plants with less fruit, but has the advantage of better drought resistance. If there is ample moisture for plants with a shallow root system, transplanting is best. If constant moisture is a problem, direct seeding will yield better results. Hence the controversy, and why one gardener will swear by one method, while another swears by the other.
And while we are concerned with constant moisture, there is a good system, proven, tried and true, for providing both constant moisture and food. A tin can, with a tiny hole punched into the bottom to leak a drip a minute, can be sunk into the ground, either in the center, or several around the perimeter. Filled to one third with manure and two thirds water, it will serve both food and drink to these hearty eaters, without let-up and without waste. Keep picking cucumbers as soon as they show a bit of yellow to keep them coming, and pinch new blossoms at the end of the season to concentrate all growth energy to the growing fruit.
Invariably we have found that once the plants get under way there will be an abundance of cucumbers no matter what, and consequently lots of pickles to last until the next harvest starts coming in, so I won't have to suffer from pickle withdrawal symptoms. And if anyone knows of the fabulous, and I suspect secret, recipe for those kosher Kensington Market pickles, please let me know. Next, we'll get into the beans.
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