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MASTER GARDENERS: Vegetable of the Year: Cucumbers!

Cucumbers are the featured vegetable this year from the One Vegetable, One Community initiative of our local Extension Nutrition Program.

Here are some growing tips and information for taking advantage of this great vegetable.

The cucumber is in the gourd family and originated in India. Today, they are separated into three main categories: slicing, pickling and seedless. There is a wide variety of shapes, sizes and flavors to suit many tastes and recipes.

Most of the seed catalogs have about two dozen varieties with increasing numbers of Asian and Armenian selections as well as some heirloom varieties. One of the heirloom catalogs has 36 different varieties to try.

Cucumbers are a summer vine crop and need warm temperatures to germinate and grow. Wait until the soil temperature is at least 70 degrees before direct seeding and do not transplant until the weather is equally warm. A full sun site is necessary.

Sow seeds one-half inch deep, 2 inches apart for vining types. Planting in black plastic mulch warms the soil and reduces weeding later. Thin to 8-12 inches after they are up.

Diligent watering and weeding are essential when growing cukes; they need about an inch of rain a week. Weeding too close to the roots can damage the shallow, spreading roots. That is a good argument for black plastic mulch.

Most varieties of cucumbers have separate male and female flowers on the same plant.

Pollinators, such as bumblebees, must pollinate the female flowers to set fruit. Some varieties, however, are parthenocarpic and produce seedless fruit without pollination.

Many of the cucumber varieties produce vines that greatly benefit from trellising. Cukes can be grown on a wooden trellis or on a fence that is at least 3- to 4-feet high. You may need to assist the vining by tying the vines to the fence or trellis.

A common disease to watch for, especially in cool wet years, is powdery mildew. You can recognize powdery mildew by powdery white spots on leaves and fruit. Good air movement, proper spacing of the plants, and controlling weeds is the best prevention.

The primary insect pest of cucumbers is the striped cucumber beetle. They can devastate a vine quickly by eating the leaves, flowers and fruit. Identify them by their brown or black head, bright yellow pro-thorax with three longitudinal black stripes running along their entire length the rest of the body. Pick them off as soon as you see them. Where the beetles are persistent, you may need to use a floating row cover to exclude the pests.

Harvesting cucumbers depends upon how you like to eat or use them. If you pickle them, wait until they are the size you need for pickling. The pickling varieties are very prolific and will keep producing as long as you are careful when you pick not to damage the vine. There are always a few you miss and will grow up to be a suitable boat anchor.

One of my favorite jobs in the fall is to pull up the vines and clear off the trellis. Invariably you find one of the boat anchor cukes when you step on it. Cleaning up is very important to keeping disease and insect pests at bay for the following year. I do not compost late season vines as the compost will not get hot enough to kill the disease organisms and insect eggs.

Click on "Yard and Garden at the University of Minnesota Extension website at www.extension.umn.edu for gardening information. Local Master Gardeners will respond to your questions via voicemail; call (218) 444-7916, leaving your name, number and question.