If on a warm summer day you have ever reached in and pulled a ripe cucumber out of the shelter of vines, you know there is something to that old saying: “cool as a cucumber.”

Those cukes are curiously cool even on the hottest of days. They are also cunning, masquerading as anything but a cucumber so that if you overlook one of them, the next day they are the size of baseball bats.

But sneaky as they are, there is nothing quite as refreshing as a fresh homegrown cucumber. Chances are pretty good that if you grow any vegetables this summer — cucumbers will be among their numbers. That’s because cucumbers are one of the top five most popular garden vegetables, according to the National Garden Bureau.

They are also very adaptable, and have been grown in space, as well as a mile underground in a nickel mine. I prefer to grow them where they can climb supports and free up space for other things to grow in my tiny garden plot.

Interesting tidbit: Physicians of the 17th Century prescribed placing fever patients on a bed of cucumbers so they would become “cool as a cucumber.”

Cucumbers are native to India, where they have been grown for almost 3,000 years. Although the first wild cucumbers have never been fully identified, the evidence seems to point to C. hardwickii, an unappetizing small and very bitter native of the Himalayas.

Bitterness, a plague to cucumber lovers throughout the ages, seems to be a natural protective device derived from its wild ancestors. That bitterness comes from cucurbitacins, a terpene derivative, that repels certain insects as well as some humans. Burpless cucumbers are cucumbers bred with no or reduced levels of cucurbitacin, according to the bureau.

The most famous pickled cucumber of the 19th Century was the one first preserved by H.J. Heinz of Pittsburgh. Heinz began bottling pickles in 1870 as a tasty addition to the monotonous diet of meat and potatoes eaten by most Americans. His idea was not only an instant success, it also spurred interest in cucumber hybridization.

Nomenclature

Home gardeners refer to “cukes,” but botanists term this crunchy vegetable Cucumis sativus, a branch of the family Cucurbitaceae. There are over 500 cousins in this extended family, all characterized by trailing vines with rough, hairy leaves. Cucumbers have yellow flowers that bear fruit that may be globular, oblong, or cylindrical.

Most cucumbers are a dark green color and have prickly skin when immature but white, yellow and brown varieties exist also.

Classification

Cucumbers are placed in two major categories, either slicing or pickling, based on use. They can be further classified by plant habit, either bush or vining. Using this knowledge, gardeners can choose the best type of cuke for their gardens, according to All-America Selections.

Slicing cucumbers

The majority of cucumbers fit into this category. They are eaten fresh from the garden, are elongated and slightly tapered on the ends. Depending upon variety, the mature length can be from 4 to 12 inches. These are the best choice for making that delightful, savory Asian noodle salad. (gardeningonthego.wordpress.com/2015/09/10/asian-noodle-salad-features-cucumbers)

Pickling Cucumbers– This class is used for preserving as pickles. Most pickling varieties are versatile, usable at all stages of growth. Pick cukes at one inch or up to five inches for a large dill pickle. Some varieties can be used fresh as a slicing type. Gherkin pickles are immature pickling cucumbers. They are small, usually only an inch or two in length. They are also known for their numerous spines and warty skin. Refrigerator pickles are one of the ways I like to use my harvest. (gardeningonthego.wordpress.com/2011/09/13/making-fresh-refrigerator-dill-pickles)

How to grow

Cucumbers like to bask in the sun, so choose a site in full sun. Soil should be light, fertile, and well-drained. Amending the soil with plenty of compost or well-rotted manure will ensure good yields.

How much space is allotted to the cucumber patch depends on the variety chosen so check seed packets or plant labels. I like to get a jump on the season by starting cucumbers indoors. Plant seeds in individual peat pots or a similar container about two or three weeks before the last frost. Harden the seedlings off for several days before planting them out in the garden when the soil warms to 70 degrees Farenheit. When the plants are two inches high, plant them one foot apart. An alternative method is to plant in a series of hills four to five feet apart. A hill is simply a mound of soil one foot in diameter. Start by sowing four or five seeds, then thin to three per hill.

Cucumbers are among the thirstiest of vegetables and prefer long, deep watering rather than frequent sprinklings. Mulching will repay the gardener’s efforts threefold. Once the seedlings have grown a few inches, put down a three to four-inch layer of organic mulch or cover.

Cucumbers are heavy feeders. A side dressing of 5-10-10 fertilizer at the time of planting and once a month thereafter is sufficient.

Vertical culture

It’s true that cucumbers are greedy for space, but they adapt well to vertical growing. A lattice, trellis, or “A” frame with netting is simple to construct and easy to incorporate into a garden design. Use a structure at least six feet high and place it a few inches off the ground to allow for air movement.

Help the young cucumber plants find the structure by placing their tendrils around the support and tying them. Continue training vines up the support as needed. Growing cucumbers vertically produces straight, blue-ribbon quality cucumbers.

Container growing

Cucumbers can easily be grown in containers on a patio, deck, or in hanging baskets. The bush slicing varieties produce full-size fruits and are ideal for container gardening. Wooden tubs, half wine barrels, or any large container with drainage holes can be used.

The standard cultural advice still applies lightweight soil mix, fertilizer and plenty of water.

Harvest

There are three rules for harvesting cucumbers-pick, pick and pick! If mature fruit is left on the vine, the plant figures it has finished production and will stop setting new fruit. Most cucumbers reach maturity in 50 to 65 days, when they are firm to the touch and the skin has a uniform dark green color.

To avoid damage to the vine, cut or clip the cuke from the plant rather than twisting or pulling it. Refrigerate as soon as possible for the freshest flavor.

No matter how you slice them, cucumbers are good-tasting as well as good for you. No foolin.'

Lynette L. Walther is the GardenComm Gold medal winner for writing and a five-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Medal of Achievement, the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award. She is a member of GardenComm and the National Garden Bureau. Her gardens are in Camden.