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Marigold – the miracle plant

I love this flower. It will flourish on poor soil, needs little fertilizer, feeds your pollinators, repels pests, all the while beautifying your homestead. This is dwarf French marigold, Tagetes patula. Our homestead is practically overrun with these. Our bees and butterflies love them.

(If you plant them, be careful never to contaminate the blossoms with pesticides that will kill off your pollinators.)

Bumblebee on marigold

Marigolds are much loved by bumble bees, Melissodes bees, and honey bees, and occasionally visited by other species as well.

DFMs are a non-chemical way to control root knot nematodes, which are the bane of many a gardener with sandy soil, especially in the South. Commercial vegetable growers have powerful fumigants for root knot suppression. These are unavailable to gardeners, and dangerous to use, as well.

One can use a cover crop of DFMs in a fallow year, to nearly completely suppress these nasty pests, or one can interplant with the veggies to partly suppress them.

Root knot nematode symptom on tomato plant

A heavy infestation of root knot nematode on tomato roots will result in many nodes on the roots, and the plant will be severely stunted and unproductive. This pest also affects many other vegetable crops.

 

Normal tomato roots - free of root knot nematodes

Normal tomato roots - free of root knot nematodes

 

Another nemesis of many gardeners is the squash bug. A heavy infestation can kill your squash plants.

Adult squash bug

Adult squash bug

 

Squash bug nymphs - the immature form of the bug

Squash bug nymphs - the immature form of the bug

 

Squash bug eggs, usually on the bottom of the leaves

Squash bug eggs, usually on the bottom of the leaves. You can see also a tiny parasitic wasp, which is your friend. It will lay eggs that will hatch and be parasites of the squash bugs.

 

The first year I had a border of dwarf French marigolds around one of my squash beds, I noticed that I had no squash bugs in that bed whatsoever. Yet within a hundred feet, I had another squash planting that was heavily infested. Since then I have surrounded or interplanted DFMs with my squash. And, in the past three years, I’ve never seen another squash bug in my garden – although my neighbors have them.

(To get photos of squash bugs, I had to visit other gardens that had them.)

DFMs seem to work with cucumber beetles as well. These have vanished from any spot near the marigolds, although there are usually a few on my sunflowers in the front yard. I think they help with other insects as well. But they have failed to be any help with squash borers or pickleworm.

While they repel many harmful insects, they seem to be good hosts for some beneficial insects. I see a lot of assassin bugs on mine, and I am careful to let them alone. They may eat a bee now and then, but they’ll also eat aphids, flea beetles, caterpillars, Japanese beetles and many other pests.

 

Hints for growing your own

T. patula will do fine in the North, but is especially suited for southern USA, because extreme heat doesn’t bother it a bit. It will continue to produce masses of bloom when other flowers have faded out. Of course sweltering heat is often accompanied by drought – and I would advise watering as needed in times of drought.
In the South, you can plant these seeds in beds outside in the fall, winter or spring, and they will grow when the soil warms in the spring. To start them blooming earlier, begin them inside as you would tomatoes. I find good results by sowing them thickly in trays in a sterile seed starting medium. Don’t overwater, as this encourages damping off. When they are in their second leaf, transplant into individual containers.
Here in South Carolina, I’ll be planting about January 20 to February 10 in the trays. They are set out in the ground about the same time tomatoes go out. Do not put in deep shade or boggy areas. Mine bloom from early May through early December. It takes a hard frost to kill them.
I use fertilizer VERY sparingly. I have tried deadheading flowers, but find it’s really unnecessary, and very time consuming, due to the large quantity of blooms. About mid-season, the plants begin to get a bit rank, so I prune them severely, removing about half the plants. This stimulates regrowth and dense clusters of new bloom.

Saving seeds

To save seeds cut off dead flowers when they are mostly dry, but not shedding seeds. If you wait too long, they will spill all the seeds from the capsules. Put them in a warm dry place with plenty of air circulation (flat trays or hung up). Protect from mice if necessary. When they are crunchy dry, and the seeds are starting to fall out, hold each seed capsule tightly, and pinch off the dried blossom petals. Then roll the capsule in your fingers over a tray or container and the seeds will fall out.
Flowers are produced by the thousands, but you’ll only need a dozen or so to supply plenty of seed for yourself for next year. Just be sure it’s dry before you put it into closed containers or it may mold.

I have not tried other types of marigolds, but others who have, indicate to me that these do not work for pest suppression or repelling.


Why are my cucumbers falling off, or becoming deformed?

It’s time for a short course in cucumber pollination. On Internet gardening groups and mailing lists, this question keeps coming up, over and over: “Why are my cucumbers falling off, or becoming deformed?”

To answer the question, we have to go back to some basics, because many new gardeners don’t understand them.

Male (lower) and female (upper) cucumber blossoms

Male (lower) and female (upper) cucumber blossoms

First off, cucumbers have separate male and female flowers. They are produced on the same plant – and the plants are basically self-fertile, although there is evidence that pollination is improved when there is cross pollination between separate plants.

Pollen must be transferred from the male blossoms to the female blossoms. It’s amazing to me that many people assume that this heavy, sticky pollen will just jump from one to another all by itself.  Believe me, it does not jump – it would take a gale wind to move pollen from the male – and that kind of wind would destroy the plant.

Bombus impatiens (bumblebee) on a cucumber blossom

Bombus impatiens (bumblebee) on a cucumber blossom

Some plants are wind pollinated – corn, grasses, pecan and hickory trees, ragweed – but these make light, fluffy pollen grains that are produced by the billions.

Bees are the workhorse pollinators for cukes - basically honey bees and bumble bees; with occasional minor help from other bee species. Some will also say some beetles, ants, and other insects can tranfer pollen – but these are negligible.

A brawny and fuzzy bee is the best possible pollinator. They are totally equipped with branched hairs and strong electrostatic charges to carry pollen. A bee pushes its way through the flower structures and picks up large quantities of pollen on its body.

Honey bee on a female cucumber blossom

Honey bee on a female cucumber blossom

Now a bumble bee has been shown by studies, to transfer about three times as much pollen per flower visit than a honey bee. But honey bees make up in numbers what they cannot do in comparison to bumble bees. A typical bumble bee colony is about 100 workers, while a honey bee colony may have 20,000 to 30,000 workers.

Many gardeners assume that when a bee goes to a flower, that it is instantly pollinated. While this can be true for a fruit with a single seed (like a peach), it is not true of multi-seeded fruits like cucumbers. Many grains of pollen have to be delivered – and this takes numerous visits by bees.

If no or very little pollen is delvered, the fruit simply aborts. There may well be spoilage, starting from the blossom end. This is due to an opportunistic fungus, but no fungicide will fix poor pollination.

Cucumber aborting due to very poor pollination

This cucumber is aborting due to very poor pollination

Well suppose then, that a few more grains get delivered to the flower – and some seeds get fertilized by those pollen grains.

Extremely poorly pollinated cukes are badly deformed and very slow to grow

Extremely poorly pollinated cukes are badly deformed and very slow to grow

The fruit may grow, instead of abort, but it will be slow growing and can be highly deformed.

A poorly pollinated cucumber sliced to show seeds

Note that there are no seeds on the deeply curved part in the center, and few seeds on the top end. The development of the flesh of the fruit is governed by the fertilized seeds

The only portion of the cuke that developed was the portion where the seeds were – which is on the outer curve of the cucumber. On the inner curve there are NO seeds, so the flesh didn’t develop in this area at all. Also note that on the top end, there were very few seeds that formed, so the top end is also undersized.

Compare pickle cucumber pollination

The upper pickle cucumber is well pollinated; the lower has missing seeds on the right side

When a full complement of pollen is delivered and evenly distributed across the stickly stigma of the female flower, the finished cucumber will look like the top one. It will grow rapidly, and be crisp and good flavord.

If some pollen is missing – and some seeds do not get fertilized the deformation of the fruit in the area of the missing seeds will show up in the shape of the fruit, as in the lower example in the photo above. The fruit forms a “neck” on the right side, due to missing fertilized seeds.

Cucumbers need to grow fast to be of good quality. Lack of water, excessive heat or cold, fertility, or plant disease can slow down growth. This makes the flesh tougher and dryer – and it can be bitter as well.

Anything that slows growth can cause bitterness – and this includes inadequate pollination. A poorly pollinated cucumber of the same size as a well pollinated one will usually be a day or two older. It will be tougher, and is more apt to be bitter.

Comparison of slicer cucumber pollination

The upper slicer cucumber is poorly pollinated; the lower has good pollination

Another problem with poor pollination is that the deformed area is the first place that spoilage will occur, if the grower tries to store, or send to market his or her cukes.

All in all, we see that good bee populations are critical to obtaining the perfect cuke.

A perfectly pollinated pickle cucumber

A perfectly pollinated pickle cucumber

Now, it is possible to hand pollinate cukes – yes, we can do the bee’s job, and we’ll talk about that in future articles. But, if you have more than a few plants that you are trying to hand pollinate, you’ll quickly come to appreciate the tremendous service the bees do for us!

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