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Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2007 03:11 pm

Have a great cucumber crop

Ample moisture, at the right time, is critical

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Untitled Document Imagine my surprise during the first week of July, when my son and I harvested 40 cucumbers from our three cucumber plants. Since then we have been blessed with about 20 cucumbers per week. In addition to being abundant, this is the tastiest crop of cucumbers we have ever grown. So what does it take to have a great crop of cucumbers? Simple: lots of water. Cucumber plants have shallow roots and require ample soil moisture at all stages of growth. Adequate moisture is most critical when fruit begins to set and mature. This year’s crop received about 2 inches of rainfall when the plants were setting their first fruit and another inch about 10 days later. Cucumber plants need plenty of space in the garden. Rows should be 5 to 6 feet apart. In small gardens, cucumber plants can be trained on a trellis or a fence. Fertile soils will produce the best yields. Incorporate compost or well-rotted manure before planting. Side-dress with nitrogen fertilizer when the plants begin to vine. A cucumber is of best quality when it is uniformly green, firm and crisp. Harvest cucumbers before the seeds fully develop. The best size depends on the use and variety. Pick slicing varieties when they are 6 to 8 inches long and pickling cucumbers when they are 3 to 4 inches long. Be diligent and inspect plants at least every morning for fruits. Be sure to remove all mature cucumbers from a plant — overmature cucumbers left on the vine will halt the growth of new cucumbers. Refrigerate fruits after harvest. So far our cucumbers have tasted great; some years, the cucumbers have a bitter taste. So what causes bitterness? Most cucumber plants contain bitter compounds, cucurbitacins B and C, which can be present in the foliage and sometimes spread to the fruit. Bitterness tends to result from such stresses as lack of moisture, high temperatures, wide temperature swings, and poor plant nutrition. Be sure to water plants during dry periods. A layer of organic mulch will also help conserve soil moisture. Cucumber cultivars differ in their tendency toward bitterness, so be sure to select “bitter-free” cultivars.
For more information about growing and harvesting cucumbers, visit the University of Illinois Extension’s “Watch Your Garden Grow” Web site, www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/veggies/. So what does a family of four do with bushels of cucumbers? Our neighbors and co-workers have benefited from the bountiful harvest. Gardeners with an overabundance of produce may also donate it to the Central Illinois Foodbank or a local food pantry. Although my family enjoys sliced cucumbers with a little salt, cucumbers also add snap to salads and sandwiches. Cucumbers, being mostly water, have little nutritional value. They have a small amount of beta-carotene, which is found in the green peel, so, if at all possible, leave the peel on. Here’s a recipe for a tasty, healthy cucumber snack: 
The only practical way to preserve cucumbers is pickling. The National Center for Home Food Preservation is your source for current research-based recommendations for home food preservation. Pickling information can be found on the Web site of the University of Georgia’s National Center for Home Food Preservation: www.uga.edu/nchfp/.
  
Jennifer Fishburn is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension Sangamon Menard Unit. Contact her at www.extension.uiuc.edu/Sangamon. 

Dilled Cucumbers
Two medium cucumbers 1/2 cup sour cream or yogurt, reduced fat 1/4 cup chopped fresh dill Salt or freshly ground pepper Sliced onions (optional)
Thinly slice the cucumbers. Combine yogurt and dill with sliced cucumbers. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve chilled. Store for as long as four days in the refrigerator. Nutrition facts: 40 calories, 2.5 grams fat, 10 mg sodium, 4g carbohydrates.
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