Myths About Growing Cucumbers

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Robert Pavlis

Cucumbers are grown by many gardeners but they are still a mystery shrouded in myths. Learn more about cucumbers as I debunk some common myths.

Cucumber myths
Cucumber myths, source: Amusing Planet

Cucumber – Is It a Fruit, or a Vegetable?

It really depends on “how you identify”. If you identify as a cook, you will regard the cucumber as a vegetable. It is green, lacks sweetness and is a bit bitter in its flavor profile. It’s mostly added to salads.

If you identify as a botanist then they are a fruit. Fruit is the botanical term given to the plant part that produces seed.

What about a seedless cucumber – is it a fruit or a vegetable?

Do Cucumbers Poison Children?

“The English word “cucumber” derives from the name cowcumber, which relates to an early 17th century English belief that the vegetable was fit only for consumption by cows. At the time, it was widely reported that the cucumber was especially harmful to children and could even be fatal”.

Garden Fundamentals Facebook Group

Are cucumbers toxic? Yes they are, as are all the plants we eat. Cucumbers contain the toxin, cucurbitacin, the chemical that makes them taste bitter. Even if they don’t taste bitter, they contain some of this toxin. Thankfully, the amount is low enough that it does not cause health issues, but it does keep some pests from eating the fruit. Your children are safe.

Plant Cucumbers on a Hill

For many years I followed the instructions on a pack of seeds; create a hill 8 inches high and place 3 to 6 seeds in the hill. It never made any sense to me, but how can the package be wrong?

What does “hill” mean? I think of it as a mound of soil, but historically it can also mean “a group.” In this case, we have a group of seeds planted in one place. I suspect that somewhere along the way, the recommendation for planting in a hill, i.e., in a group, got interpreted to mean a mound of soil.

Cucumbers do better if they are not planted together, but there are some situations where a hill works.

People with a lot of space can plant seeds together and let the vines roam out from there, like spokes on a wheel.

Cucumbers need warmth to germinate and don’t want wet roots. A hill (mound of soil) will drain sooner and warm up faster in spring, so it might be a good way to grow cucumbers in cold or wet conditions. The problem here is that to make this work you need to make the hill in fall so it can drain and warm up in early spring. Making the hill just before you plant offers fewer benefits.

Growing seedlings close together will result in competition and slower growth, in most cases.

Do Cucumbers Help With Puffy Eyes?

No doubt you have seen pictures of ladies in salons, sitting with their head back and cucumber slices on their eyes. You might even have tried it yourself, but does it work? Do cucumbers reduce buffy eyes?

Soil Science for Gardeners book by Robert Pavlis

Maybe. There can be several causes for puffiness and some of these may respond to cucumbers. There is some science to explain why this might work, but apparently there are no clinical studies to test it. Any benefit you do get might simply be due to the cold and wet, and have little to do with the actual cucumber.

Do Cucumbers Help With Puffy Eyes?
Do Cucumbers Help With Puffy Eyes?, source: Evoke

Cucumber Peels Repel Ants

Place some cucumber peels near an ant nest and bang – they all leave – how good is that?

The explanation as to why this works is bizarre; “cucumber peels contain chemicals that eliminate fungi that ants are attracted to”. How do ants know this?

What does the testing show?

Testing of the Argentine ant, a major household pest in Georgia, found that it was not repelled by cucumber peels. Another study tested peel extracts of cucumber and the related bitter melon as olfactory (repelled by smell) and gustatory (repelled by taste) repellents against ants. “Extracts of fruit peels in water, methanol, or hexane were statistically significant but effectively weak gustatory repellents. Aqueous cucumber peel extract has a significant but mild olfactory repellent effect: about half of the ants were repelled relative to none in a control”. They went on to say that cucumbers have a mild repellency, as an extract, in a controlled environment, but that it would not be very effective or long lived in a natural environment.

This may vary depending on the type of ant.

Here is an example of how well cucumbers deter ants.

YouTube video

Cucumbers Control Slugs and Snails

Control may be a bit of an overstatement but slugs and snails are attracted to fresh chopped cucumbers. You can set up traps at night and collect the slugs in the morning. Place cucumber under boards and you should have lots of slugs in the morning.

Control slugs with cucumbers or beer
Control slugs with cucumbers or beer, original source: Thrifty Fun

What about cucumbers on aluminum? That is also claimed to work as a slug deterrent.

YouTube video

Does Pruning Produce a Higher Yield?

I have discussed this in more detail in Pruning Cucumbers – Will It Produce a Higher Yield?

Pruning may have some advantage when grown to a single stem on a trellis, but it reduces yield compared to growing on the ground as a sprawling vine. Pruning also delayed the first harvest.

Are Burpless Cucumbers Really Burpless?

This is discussed in detail in my post, Are Burpless Cucumbers Really Burpless?

  • American cucumbers are probably not burp free, but some cultivars are bitter free.
  • English cucumbers may not taste bitter, but they do carry the genes for bitterness and they do produce cucurbitacins. They are not burpless but they do cause less burping than American types.
  • In cucumbers, bitter-free does not mean burpless.
  • Nobody knows why some people burp after eating cucumbers.

Does Culture Affect Bitterness?

I did an informal survey on a Facebook Group to see if gardeners produce bitter cucumbers; 77 people responded and 84% did not have bitter cucumbers.

That is good news – do nothing and your cucs will probably be bitter-free. Here are some other things that reduce bitterness.

  • Cucumbers “grow best in temperatures from 65 to 75F (18-24C) with a minimum temperature of 60F (16C) and a maximum of 90F (32C).” High fluctuations of temperature in excess of 20 °F (11C) will cause more bitterness as will growing at cool or hot temperatures.
  • Pick smaller – older fruit becomes more bitter.
  • Cut the stem end off  – it is the most bitter.
  • Peel the cucumber to remove more bitterness.  A thick peel removes more bitterness than a thin peel.
  • Try a newer hybrid – they tend to be less bitter.

Will Soil Amendments Affect Bitterness?

A healthy soil will grow good fruit that is normally not bitter. Keep the plants well watered during the growing season.

Once a fruit starts to form, there is nothing you can add to soil to reduce the bitterness.

Remove Bitterness by “Milking” the Cucumber

This is a trick I found on the internet, and many people swear it works.

Cut a piece off each end. Take the cut piece and rub it on the end of the cucumber in a circular motion. Some people add a bit of salt – others don’t. As you rub, you will notice that foam is produced. It is claimed that this foam is taking the bitterness out of the cucumber. Discard the ends, wash the cucumber and you are ready to eat.

I can’t find any scientific testing for this, but I doubt it works. The bitterness is caused by compounds found in the whole cucumber, especially the skin. Every cell in the cucumber contains some bitterness. How would rubbing the ends cause these compounds to migrate from a cell located in the middle of the cucumber all the way to the cut end? What kind of force would be drawing it?  If you know anything about chemistry or biology, this makes no sense.

I think people believe this works for two reasons. As noted above, most cucumbers are not bitter, so milking them works – they are not bitter. The second reason is that if a cucumber is bitter, simply removing the end removes most of the bitterness. The rubbing does nothing.

I’d give it a try, but my cucumbers are not bitter.

Cross Pollination in Cucurbits

Can cucumbers, squash, muskmelons and watermelons be grown near each other? There is a concern that these will all cross-pollinate, resulting in hybrid fruit that is half way between the parents.

There are two concerns here; deformed fruit and hybrid seeds.

Deformed Fruit

The shape, texture, and flavor of all of these fruits comes from the mother’s genes. Suitable pollen from any cucurbit could be used to pollinate the flower, and the look and eating quality of the fruit would not change. Such cross-pollination does not cause deformed fruit.

Hybrid Seeds

For seed collectors, there is a concern that cross-pollination will result in hybrid seeds and this is a valid concern. However, not all cucurbits can cross-pollinate each other.

From Myth #61, Garden Myths Book 1, “It is true that all of these plants are cucurbits, but they are not all the same species, which reduces the chance that they will cross-pollinate. Summer squash, pumpkins, gourds, zucchinis and some types of winter squash belong to the same species, Cucurbita pepo, and these will cross-pollinate with each other. Muskmelons (Cucumis melo) and cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) are different species and don’t cross with each other or the genus Cucurbita.”

Cucumber seed will not be the result of a cross with these other cucurbits. Two different cucumber cultivars will cross-pollinate.

Cucumber Seedlings Don’t Transplant Well

See for your self.

YouTube video

Cucumber + Aluminum = Pest Control

The claim: Adding cucumber peels to an aluminum pan sets off a chemical reaction that emits a scent that is undetectable to humans but drives garden pests crazy and makes them flee the area.

Debunking such claims. Note that it creates a “chemical”. The writer knows so little about this that they have no idea which chemical is produced. Humans can’t smell it, but all garden pests can – that is possible but very unlikely. If they had said “some pests”, then it becomes believable.

Sorry – no testing on this one – I doubt scientists take it seriously.

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

5 thoughts on “Myths About Growing Cucumbers”

  1. You mention cukes being a cousin of bitter melon. With a Filipina wife I’ve had to live with bitter melon as a kitchen staple for the past 50 years. There is a real reason why it got the name bitter melon. To a Southeast Asian the taste of bitterness in vegetables is a feature, not a problem to resolve. 😊

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  2. I also lost 96% of my cucumber starters this spring. They just shrivelled up and died. Here on the southwest coast of Canada we had an abysmal spring. Things didn’t finally warm up and dry up until the end of May. I had 2 Sweet Success survive and they are just now producing cucumbers.

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  3. Cucumbers transplant just fine, however, I find that pumpkins and other winter squash vines break at the least little movement making transplanting all but impossible.

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  4. I’ve been growing cucumbers in pots, then transplanting them since I first grew them back in the 1970’s.
    I have to say I’ve never heard the claim it doesn’t work, which is probably because it does.
    What I CAN’T work out is why I’ve lost several juvenile cucumbers this year (yellowed & shrivelled), though it might be the heat, as it’s been significantly warmer than usual for a couple of weeks here in NW England (mid 80’s, rather than the usual mid 60’s).

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  5. Now I know why North Americans BURP more than their oh so well mannered English cousins across the pond, its all to do with their burp-less cucumber sandwiches, which are a great favourite of the Queen, alas Harry & Meg will continue to BURP at any given opportunity 🙂

    On a more serious note I heard on TV that the Dutch have bred a cucumber that gives of less moisture / water when cut, which is being sold to large manufactures of sandwiches to prevent them going limp & soggy in storage / transit.

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