Gardening Articles: Care :: Plant Care Techniques

Growing Cukes in Containers

by Charlie Nardozzi

In many ways, containers and cucumbers are a perfect match. Cucumbers love the warm soil a container provides, so you can plant earlier in spring and harvest longer into the fall. It's easier to keep an eye on the demanding water needs of cucumbers when they're grown in pots on a deck or patio close to the house. And the space-efficient varieties now available are quick maturing and high yielding, so you can plant successive crops through the summer and enjoy a steady supply of fresh cukes all season long.

Plant Bush Varieties

Almost any cucumber variety can be grown in a container, but bush varieties offer good disease resistance and yield high-quality crops in much less space."These plants have a bushy, round shape, as opposed to a more viney growth habit," says Al Burkett, a cucumber breeder with Peto Sluis Seed Company in Woodland, California. "With shorter spaces between the leaves, they branch quicker and tend to set the fruit sooner and closer to the base of the plant," he explains. And even though pickling quarts of cucumbers isn't the goal of most container gardeners, some bush varieties like 'Pickalot Hybrid' will even produce yields comparable to standard-sized vines.

To get the best yield from your container crop, it's important to understand the flowering characteristic of the variety you choose. The most foolproof method is to pick a cucumber that sets fruit "parthenocarpically," meaning without pollination. One of the best varieties of this type for containers is 'Arkansas Little Leaf' (also called 'H-19 Little Leaf'). It has very attractive, small, triangle-shaped leaves and produces an abundant crop of two- to three-inch-long picklers throughout the season. "It tends to start slowly, but it's strongly branched, can grow to more than three feet in diameter and really pumps out fruit," says Rob Johnston of Johnny's Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine.

If you want to plant a mix of varieties, some of which will require pollination, make sure to choose at least one monoecious type, which bears both male and female flowers. 'Fanfare' is an excellent choice for a bush-type slicer. "This monoecious plant can get large--up to four feet in diameter--but is worth growing in a container because of its increased disease resistance and the better shape and quality of its fruits," notes Ken Owens, a breeder of slicing cucumbers at Peto Sluis.

Some cucumber varieties are "gynoecious," which means they bear only female flowers. Seeds of a male pollinator plant are included in the seed packet. Gynoecious plants can be more productive because every blossom has the potential to fruit. "You need to grow at least seven plants of a gynoecious variety, however, to insure the male pollinator is present," Burkett notes. "Without a pollinator (or a monoecious variety), you run the risk of having only female flowers on your plants--and no cukes," he explains.

For a really small-vined (two to three feet in diameter) gynoecious variety, try 'Bush Baby'. "It's similar in appearance to 'Arkansas Little Leaf', but the plant has a more compact habit and the pickles are more uniform," says John Gale, president of Stokes Seed Company in Buffalo, New York.

Even with plenty of male and female flowers on your plants, you'll need one more thing to insure a good fruit set: bees. Cucumbers grown close to a house or in an urban setting may have limited bee activity. One solution is to play Cupid with a cotton swab and pollinate the blossoms yourself, transferring pollen from the male blossoms to the females (those with the tiny, immature fruit at the base).

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