Gardening: From Roman import to a staple of our sandwiches

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The somewhat pleasant sunshine we have experienced in the past few weeks has had me reminiscing about summer times in Italy, when I would go to the allotment and pick succulent sun-ripened tomatoes and fresh crisp salad leaves for a delightful salad. And, an addition to salad that I absolutely love is cucumber.

Cucumbers are believed to have originated in India and cultivation records date back around 4,000 years. It was the Romans who introduced them to Europe following their expanding empire. During the 1600s many people in England developed a dislike of fresh, uncooked vegetables which were considered only good for animal feed and the cucumber gained the nickname of “Cowcumber”.

Cucumbers have been cultivated for thousands of years, however it wasn’t until the 1800s that they were improved through hybridisation. Cucumbers belong to the Curcubitaceae family; a family which includes pumpkins and courgettes. Originating from hot climates, plants in this family thrive in well-drained, humus rich soil. Cucumbers, once established, put on rapid growth, providing that they are well watered and they benefit from supports. Supporting the cucumbers will raise the plants off the ground minimising the risk of rotting, and will aid in all-important ventilation.

There are two main types of cucumbers; outdoor varieties and indoor varieties. The indoor glasshouse varieties are often smooth skinned, growing to sizes exceeding 30cm. The flowers are often all female which do not need pollinating. If male flowers do occur on indoor varieties, they should be taken off, as they will produce bitter fruits. To tell the difference, female flowers have a mini-fruit behind the flower, whereas male flowers grow on a thin stem. F1 hybrid varieties such as ‘Flamingo’ only produce female flowers.

The glasshouse varieties thrive in humid conditions and do well if grown separately inside an additional plastic enclosure inside the glasshouse. This will significantly increase the humidity for the cucumbers and allow you to grow other crops in the glasshouse that do not like it humid, such as tomatoes. The humidity requirements for glasshouse cucumbers provide ideal conditions for pests and disease to take hold, making them harder to grow than outdoor varieties.

Outdoor cucumbers, known as ridge varieties, are shorter and rougher skinned, however are hardy enough to crop outdoors. Male and female flowers are produced on outdoor varieties, however insects will pollinate these for you. Some varieties of outdoor cucumbers can be grown in a greenhouse, although greenhouse space is often too valuable to use on something that can be grown outdoors. Good outdoor varieties to try are ‘Vega’ and ‘Burpless Tasty Green’.

Cucumber seeds are planted on their sides to reduce the risk of rotting, at a depth of 1cm. Often cucumber seeds are sown indoors in 7.5cm pots from March and placed inside a sealed polythene bag, helping to create a humid, warm environment for the seed to germinate. If you haven’t already done this, then do not despair as it is not too late. Outdoor varieties can still be sown directly outdoors during June. Alternatively, young plants may be purchased from garden centres, though do take care when transplanting, as cucumbers resent having their roots disturbed. When planting out cucumbers, courgettes or squashes, a good tip to aid in drainage and water collection is to create a raised mound in which the plant is planted on top. Around the raised mound, carve out a shallow circular trench. The raised mound will ensure that drainage is improved and the trench will collect water, which is essential to the plant during flowering.

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