GARDENING: Keep your summer cool by growing cucumbers
Cucumbers are an excellent warm season crop that will be showing up in gardens and farmers’ markets in summer. Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus), part of the Cucurbitaceae family that includes melons and squashes, are a refreshing vegetable to grow in the summer because they contain more than 95 percent water.
They originated from Asia, likely from India, and they have been cultivated for more than 3,000 years. In fact, the legend of King Gilgamesh references the tasty vegetable around 2500 BC in the Middle East.
Cucumbers eventually made their way into gardens in Europe and were referred to as “cowcumbers” by English writers. They also spread to Africa and the Americas during several centuries and are now grown in tropical and temperate climates alike.
Cucumbers come in all shapes and sizes. They are typically categorized in two ways: “pickling” cucumbers, which are small, have thin skins and are made into pickles by brining with salt, and “slicing” cucumbers, which are longer, have thicker skins, and are great for slicing and eating fresh. Slicing varieties to grow in Texas include Poinsett, Straight Eight and Market More. Popular Texas pickling varieties are Carolina, Fancypak and National Pickling.
In Central Texas, cucumbers are planted two weeks after the last frost of the New Year, from March to April, or August through early November well before the first frost of winter. Cucumbers prefer full sun in larger garden areas or contained with cages or trellises; their vines tend to creep several feet and take over garden spaces. If you planted cucumbers, here are some tips on how to take care of the plants to ensure a healthy crop.
Once seedlings emerge, thin out the small plants and let the healthy plants grow. Guide the vines vertically along a fence, trellis or cage, or along the ground if you have sufficient space. Water the cucumbers on a weekly basis once established, and weed around the beds. Grow plants and flowers that attract bees near your cucumbers to improve pollination and to produce tastier fruit.
Monitor regularly for insects and diseases, such as banded or spotted cucumber beetles and squash bugs, and use organic deterrents such as neem oil to control them. Harvest cucumbers when they are firm and green. Pickling cucumber should be 3 inches to 4 inches long, and slicing cucumbers should be 6 inches to 8 inches long. The seeds of cucumbers develop a bitter taste as they mature, so remove the seeds of older cucumbers before eating them. To make them last, store harvested cucumbers in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.
Cucumbers are a good source of Vitamin C and K, manganese, copper and potassium. They also have anti-inflammatory qualities and contain antioxidants and polyphenols that might reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and some types of cancer. Cucumbers are typically eaten raw in refreshing salads, cold soups such as gazpacho, and sauces such as Indian raita and Greek tzatziki. They also can be pickled in salt brine to become tasty pickles.
Bulgur Salad with Mint, Tomatoes and Cucumber
1½ cup bulgur (cracked wheat)
2 cups boiling water
1 tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. ground coriander
1 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1 cup chopped fresh mint
1 cup diced tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes
2 small cucumbers, peeled, seeded and diced
Zest of 1 lemon
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
3 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. sea salt
2 green onions, green parts only, finely chopped, for garnish
Place bulgur in large bowl and cover with boiling hot water. Cover with a plate or plastic wrap and let stand 20-30 minutes, until water is absorbed.
Stir in the cumin and coriander, fluff with a fork and then spread onto a sheet pan to cool.
In a large bowl, combine parsley, mint, cucumbers, tomatoes, lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Add the grains and mix with a fork.
Chill for at least 2 hours. Taste and adjust lemon and salt as needed. Serve garnished with chopped green onions.
Note: Cooked quinoa can be substituted for bulgur wheat, just omit the soaking step.
— Adapted from “One Bite at a Time” by Rebecca Katz