Inch by inch, row by row, gonna let these mutants grow.
August 20, 2009 6:09 PM   Subscribe

So for the second year in a row, our cucumbers have grown spherical, small and nasty. We would prefer traditionally-shaped cucumbers that are not essentially bitter balls of seeds. No good cukes this year (I think we got a few normal ones last summer). Any ideas why this is happening?

I'm not sure what information to give. Ask me questions. The plants were all of the pickling cucumber variety. The garden is just outside Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
posted by Mayor Curley to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
How much growing area do they have? I'd guess that they don't have enough room to stretch out. Maybe trellis them a little? Not much... I've found that lifting them about six inches off the ground help encourage vertical growth.
posted by youcancallmeal at 6:16 PM on August 20, 2009

What do the leaves look like? What type of watering system do you use? Do you use insecticides or fertilizers?

You may find this website helpful: Cucumber Growing Tips (troubleshooting)
posted by skenfrith at 6:30 PM on August 20, 2009

What do the leaves look like? What type of watering system do you use? Do you use insecticides or fertilizers?

They look like healthy, three-lobed squash leaves; dark green, broad, etc.

We water daily with a hose on days when it doesn't rain. but we do worry that the garden doesn't get enough water.

We use an insecticidal soap to control aphids. The only fertilizers are cow manure and compost at the start of the season.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:38 PM on August 20, 2009

Let them climb. You can use a tomato cage or a little frame of chicken wire. We let our cucumbers climb last year and they were much more successul than this year when we didn't. Also, cucumbers need lots of water, but don't let the water sit next to the stems. Use some mulch to protect the stem area and then make a little moat to let water slowly sink into the ground around it.
posted by amyms at 7:20 PM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

"pickling cucumber variety" - can you be more specific as to the named variety? Some cukes really are designed to grow in a globular form - Russian cucumbers, West India Gherkins, blondes. The Straight 8 variety grows long and more grocery-store shaped. I would say to definitely start with the varietal. Also, are you saving your own seed? That might be causing you to preserve a mutation.
posted by Miko at 7:52 PM on August 20, 2009

Two years of increasing poor yield + bitter deformed fruit sounds like mosaic virus, although the virus usually also affects the appearance of the leaves. The virus overwinters in the soil as well as being spread by insects so the best way to get a edible crop next year is to a) plant seeds of a mosaic virus resistant strain, b) in a container containing fresh, sterilized commercial potting soil c) control aphids and ants (which herd aphids onto your plants) and d) position the containers well away from tomato, pepper and squash plants you have growing as those species have their own mosaic virus strains which can cross-infect.

Discard all parts of this year's plants. They aren't poisonous to you but they carry the virus and will retain it even in a compost heap.

Could you post a photo of your sad cukes and vines? Sometimes the visual symptoms of mosaic virus are subtle.
posted by jamaro at 8:09 PM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

My first thought was mosaic virus, like jamaro pointed out, but it generally affects leaves as well. Did you use the same strain of seeds both years?
posted by skenfrith at 9:16 PM on August 20, 2009

These are not Lemon cucumbers (spherical, yellow, tasty)?

The aphids you mention can wreak havoc on young flower buds, and particularly bad if you have ants in the area that are building their own little aphid farm. Are the plants flowering well, or do they drop early without fully developing?
posted by artdrectr at 12:26 AM on August 21, 2009

Small, round, bitter - but without the distorted & mottled leaves typical of mosaic virus - is also symptomatic of underwatering. Cucumbers, like many of their family, need a lot of water. Once or even twice a day wouldn't necessarily be overdoing it, depending on the prevailing wind, temperature, & humidity.

Know how some watermelons (the same family) are almost spherically round, while others are long, ovoid, and, well, watermelon-shaped? Often they're exactly the same species; the only difference is the timing and amount of water they get during fruit development.
posted by Pinback at 3:08 AM on August 21, 2009

Yeah, I'm going to chime in that they're not getting enough water. I've never had any luck with cucumbers until this year, when it has rained buckets almost every single day. The cucumbers are in heaven and I've been inundated with long, tasty, perfect specimens since the end of June with no end in sight. So now I feel that I know the secret: lots and lots of water every day which means that this is probably the last summer I'll ever have this many cukes.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:21 AM on August 21, 2009

Yep, water. Pickling cukes can get really mishapen -- and WILL get really bitter -- if they don't get enough water or aren't watered with fascist regularity. Some of mine this year have looked like golf balls with a stem attached.

Best thing you can do is give them lots of water, every day. Water them separately from other plants, or you'll kill the other plants with all that water.
posted by mudpuppie at 8:54 AM on August 21, 2009

I'm giving a faith-based best answer to the "you're underwatering" people because I feel fairly certain that my cukes don't have a virus. And we don't water the garden as much as we should.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:48 PM on August 23, 2009

Something of an update: I spoke to a farmer friend the other day who has, at various times, dabbled in cukes & melons commercially. He tells me they plant them out, run a dripline, water them twice a day until they start setting fruit, then water them four times a day @ roughly double the original flow rate.

In other words: when fruiting, they require about 4x as much water as they did before...
posted by Pinback at 4:48 PM on August 24, 2009

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