Cucumber ‘Sweet Crunch’
I had a bit of a departure on the cucumber front this year. Normally I grow the supermarket variety: long, slender, elegant, smooth skin – you know the kind of thing. They’re horribly expensive, though; you shell out your three or four quid and all you get is five seeds in the packet.
That’s because these greenhouse cucumbers are all female: they’ve been bred to produce only female flowers, and that kind of breeding work takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money. And that ends up in the prices on the seed packets.
Mind you, I do think we gardeners have got it a bit out of proportion on the money front. So you grumpily fork out nearly £4 for a measly four or five seeds of ‘Tiffany’ or maybe ‘Femspot’: both excellent varieties, I grant you, but nearly a quid a seed?! Better hope the slugs don’t find that pot, then.
But hang on: just think for a moment. A cucumber in the supermarket costs about 80p (we won’t mention the environmental cost of wrapping the wretched thing in plastic film, though we should). The plant growing in my greenhouse produces, in the average year, somewhere between 20-25 cucumbers. And assuming a very conservative 80% germination rate – so three or four plants from your four or five seeds – that’s around 60 top-quality, organic, zero-food-miles-and-no-plastic cucumbers.
I make that around 6p a cucumber, or to put it another way, you’ve saved over £38. Not much to gripe about there, really.
Anyway, to get back to the subject, I’ve grown that sort of cucumber all my gardening life. Then last year I had a little rebellion by way of a few plants of ‘Crystal Lemon’. So successful was it that I began to wonder what else I was missing.
Hence this year’s experiment: a foray into the world of snack-sized cucumbers. These are just like the big supermarket ones but about half the length, so you don’t suffer from half-cucumberitis: that’s the syndrome whereby there is at any point during the latter half of the summer a half-cucumber lying in a slightly dried-out if not actually mouldy state in the bottom of the salad drawer in the fridge. Nobody wants to eat it, so they go out to the greenhouse and pick another one. Which you eat only half of and then put the remainder in the salad drawer in the fridge… you see the problem.
Not snack-sized ones. ‘Sweet Crunch’ grows to around 20cm long before it starts to go over: around enough for a couple of sandwiches, an 11-year-old’s after-school snack and a salad - an average day’s consumption in our family. No odds and ends required.
But – and it has turned out to be a fairly major but – my foray outside the world of F1 female-only cucumbers has brought me for the first time into close quarters with the Male Cucumber Flower. It has not been a happy encounter.
The thing is, each variety of cucumber has its own requirements on the pollinating front. Some are open-pollinated: mostly ridge, or outdoor cucumbers, though some indoor ones too. Others are self-pollinating and don’t need male flowers at all: in fact if you leave males where they are the females go all bitter and twisted (well, not the twisted bit, I made that up, but the anthropormorphism is getting hard to resist).
Turns out ‘Sweet Crunch’ is one of the latter – despite the label on the packet saying it’s fine to leave the male flowers on, this is clearly not true as I’ve had several fruits which have packed a really unpleasant punch in the aftertaste.
It’s easy to identify male flowers: they have just a stalk behind the flower, no swelling cucumber, and to avoid self-pollinating varieties producing bitter cucumbers you just pick off the male flowers as soon as they appear. But regular readers will know I am not the most attentive of gardeners: after the first bitter cucumber I went on a search for male flowers, picked off the few I found, but then forgot until the next bitter cucumber turned up. This kind of work needs the sort of consistency and application to a level I simply can’t aspire to.
Anyway, so if the attractions of your £38 saving on cucumbers still won’t persuade you to part with the extra cash required for all-female cucumbers, brace yourself for a round of Russian roulette.
As I discovered, you often can’t rely on the seed packet for guidance, and some types are quite happy to get down and pollinating yet still produce sweet fruits – so removing the male flowers whatever kind you’ve got isn’t an option either. You’re only really going to find out what kind you’ve got when you have a nasty surprise in your salad one day, and then you’re in for a long summer of inspecting cucumber plants.
That £3.99 a packet starts to look a whole lot more attractive now…