How to grow cucumbers

Val Bourne / 20 May 2014

Gardening expert Val Bourne on why home-grown cucumbers taste so much better than watery supermarket ones. Plus, the best varieties to grow and how to get the best from them.

It’s easy to dismiss the cucumber and tell yourself it’s not worth growing, for supermarket cucumbers tend to be full of water and rather tasteless. However home-grown cucumbers are a nutty delicacy not to be missed, and one or two plants will supply a summer’s worth of sheer delight. 

All you have to do is pick them regularly and slice them thinly for cucumber sandwiches. 

Don’t allow you cucumbers to become old and develop a thick, bitter skins because the green skins contain antioxidants. The darker the skin, the more they contain. Never remove the skin, it’s the best bit nutritionally.  

Indoor or outdoor cucumbers?

Outdoor varieties tend to be short, plump and slightly spiny, measuring roughly six inches (15cm) in length. Picked young, they have a lovely nutty flavour and their compact size means that one can be consumed easily in one sitting.  

Given plenty of water it’s possible to harvest one every other day in the second half of summer - so they are well worth growing. 

The indoor varieties produce the long slender cucumbers and they are better to eat. One can be slotted into the back of  a greenhouse, where it’s a bit shadier, sharing the space with the tomatoes. 

When to plant

April is a good month to sow cucumber seeds under glass.

Cucumbers are one of the most frost-tender plants in the vegetable garden so they shouldn’t go outside until the first week of June because the slightest frost will turn them to mush. 

Cold nights will also check their growth so severely that they will never recover. 

You can also sow seeds of outdoor varieties straight into the ground in late May. Create a fertile mound and sow the seeds straight into it. 

Cloching them at night (with a sturdy plastic belle cloche or similar) produces plants that double in size very quickly.

Where to plant 

Plant cucumbers somewhere sheltered, ideally where afternoon suns falls, because midday sun is too much for them. All cucumbers are soft-leaved and resent windy conditions.

Outdoor varieties can be trained up and over a compost heap or fitted into small niches in the vegetable garden, somewhere sheltered that can accommodate a three-foot high (1m)  trellis. All cucumbers like moist air. 

How to plant

F1 cucumber seeds are eye-wateringly expensive. When sowing, insert them into compost vertically to lessen the chance of them rotting in the compost. 

Place two seeds in a three-inch pot almost full of seed compost.

Label clearly as they all look very similar when young. Water thoroughly and then leave the pots until the seeds have germinated.

Gently weed out the weaker seedling.

Repot the plant when needed so that you have a sizeable pot-grown plant to plant out.

Cucumbers need lots of water, but their stems can rot in wet soil. Sinking a flower pot into the ground a little distance away from the main stem is a good system.

Support indoor cucumbers with canes and string.

Fertilising cucumbers

Feed every two weeks with liquid tomato food or home-made comfrey tea. 

Water little and often. Stressed cucumbers succumb to mildew, but don’t panic if it happens.

Should I pick the flowers off my cucumber plant?

There are now self-fertile, all-female varieties so you don’t pick off any flowers. These never produce bitter cucumbers.

Outdoor varieties have male and female flowers. Never ever pick off the male flowers on outdoor varieties as they are needed for cross pollination.


Slugs target cucumbers, so train the plants upwards - away from the ground.

Indoor varieties of cucumber

‘Tiffany’ F1 AGM

An all-female, vigorous F1 hybrid for the greenhouse, producing lots of dark-skinned foot long fruits (30 cm). Good powdery mildew resistance.

‘Carmen’ F1 AGM

An all-female, very disease resistant variety that crops abundantly - producing over fifty fruits in a season.  Easy to train and day-length sensitive, which means most flowers are produced when there are eleven hours of day length. Sow after March 1. 

‘Euphya’ F1 AGM

All-female variety with long straight fruit, very productive and resistant to just about everything you can name. Tolerates cooler conditions more than most. Highly recommended.

‘Cucino’  AGM

Greenhouse or Outdoors. Perfect for the lunchbox, this variety produces lots of small cucumbers.

‘Socrates’ FI AGM

An improved 'Petita' type, the vigorous, strong plants produce numerous mini, bitter-free cucumbers.

Outdoor varieties of cucumber

‘Masterpiece’ AGM 

Short, straight outdoor cucumber with tasty dark-green fruits about eight inches in length. widely available

‘Marketmore’ AGM           

Stalwart outdoor variety producing a good yield of dark-green fruits. Disease-resistant, prolific and probably the best small cucumber for outdoor use. Spiny, tasty fruits and lots of them. Widely available

Cucumber ‘Iznik’ F1

A small cocktail cucumber for outdoors, producing up to 40 five-inch long fruits with a good flavour. Could be grown in a container. 

Did you know…?

Emperor Tiberius (42 BC - AD 37) had a passion for cucumbers. His gardeners strived to grow them all year long using portable cold frames. Henry VIII felt just the same and Columbus even took seeds to the New World. The Victorians adored them but the straight cucumber was more desirable so long glass jars were used to stop the fruit from curving.

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