Cucumbers: crop of the week
Cucumbers have a reputation for being tricky to grow and I've been doing it the wrong way for years.
But by accident, last spring, I planted a cucumber where it got its preferred growing conditions. I've struggled to grow them in the past. Year after year, plants produced a handful of fruit before dying an ugly, lingering death from mildew, mould, whitefly or fungus.
I figured that cucumbers, being mainly water, should get thoroughly watered so I planted them right on top of the soaker hose at the start where the flow is strongest and the soil is soggiest.
This year I planted two 'Lebanese' cucumbers. The first one, planted in mid-November, in the premium soaker hose spot, produced three cucumbers, and is now sulking – alive, but there's no sign of more flowers.
I'd run out of room so popped a second plant in the corner of a wooden raised bed that dries out easily. I'd run out of time too and planted at the start of December – a good month later than I usually do. Plant number two was blasted by wind for weeks on end and the raised bed repeatedly dried out. Its wind-damaged leaves are not a pretty sight but so far it's produced over 30 cucumbers including five on one memorable Sunday night after a weekend away. It shows no sign of stopping – there are plenty more flowers and lots of new growth.
I eventually twigged that cucumbers don't need constant moisture after all. Cucumbers are true summer plants and need steady warmth to thrive.
Growing cucumbers up a frame or tepee reduces the amount of space they take up and there's less trouble with disease because of the increased air movement.
Powdery mildew is almost inevitable, especially in humid regions but you can delay the spread of the white fungal plague long enough to still get a decent number of fruit without resorting to heavy-duty chemical warfare. Keep an eye out and take action as soon as you spot ghostly white spots usually on the oldest and lowest leaves. Spray weekly with a mixture of 250ml whole milk (blue top), 750ml water, ½ teaspoon baking soda and a few drops of dishwashing detergent. Thoroughly cover all leaf and stem surfaces until they're dripping. The milk and baking soda form an alkaline barrier that isn't conducive to the acid-loving fungi. This method doesn't cure infections but does slow its progress.
Watch out for whitefly and mites under the leaves too. Spray regularly with Nature's Way Insect & Mite Spray from the first signs of infestation.
Now you've got a bumper crop here are some ideas to use them all up.
A favourite way of using up the cucumber glut is also the easiest. Thick slices with a tasty topping are cool and refreshing with a glass of wine after a long day in the garden.
- Smoked salmon. (The peppery hot smoked version from Ocean Blue is particularly good.)
- Cream cheese with freshly-ground black pepper by itself or with half a cherry tomato or a snip of chives
- Pesto plus - leave half a cup of pesto in the processor after mixing up a batch. Whiz in a cup of cashew nuts and half a pottle of cream cheese. Add a little more olive oil if needed for a spreadable consistency. This spread is great with crackers too.
They don't sound like much unless you've tried them, but they really are all that. Slice your cucumbers thinly and sprinkle sparingly with salt. Set aside to release excess water and then pat dry. Use soft, sandwich-slice bread, remove the crusts and butter the bread evenly with actual butter.
CUCUMBER JUICE OR PUREE
Combine with the likes of mint, coriander, ginger and basil (use the latter with care – it's a total show pony) for a fine palate-cleansing savoury sorbet or granita. Season and spice with a little Tabasco or, better still, local Kaitaia Fire, and a slug of Tequila never hurt either. For granita, simply partially freeze, then pulverise and serve. For sorbet, use an ice-cream machine, unless you have strong wrists.
JAPANESE PICKLED CUCUMBERS
Slice 2 or 3 cucumbers into thin discs. Sprinkle with 2 teaspoons salt, leave for five minutes, then rinse. Add to a bowl with ¼ cup rice vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar, pinch salt and 2 tablespoons sesame seeds. Cover and wait at least one day before eating. Serve with sushi and rice dishes.
CHILLED CUCUMBER SOUP
A refreshing starter for a summer dinner party. To a blender, add 3 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and diced into chunks, 1 cup plain yoghurt, clove of garlic, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 4 chopped spring onions, ¼ cup water, ½ cup chopped, fresh mint and ½ teaspoon salt. Puree until smooth and add salt to taste. Serve in bowls garnished with fresh dill leaves.
Combine thinly sliced red onion, chunks of cucumber and tomato (the sweeter the better), and Kalamata olives and crumble feta on top. Season with salt and fresh oregano and dress with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon if you wish.
This Mediterranean dish is delicious on grilled meats or as a dip. To 500g of strained Greek yoghurt, add 1 cucumber, seeded and grated with the skin on, a clove of garlic crushed with a ½ teaspoon of sea salt, ¼ cup roughly chopped mint leaves, the juice of a lemon and salt and pepper. Mix together, season and chill.
- NZ Gardener