Cucumber is an ancient crop, originating in the foothills of the Himalayas. Cucumis sativus was being cultivated at least 4000 years ago in India, reaching the Mediterranean around 1000BC. They were later brought here by the Romans.

Cucumbers always need to grow in rich soil with heat, light, and a plentiful supply of water.

Like New World tomatoes and peppers they are not frost hardy and need warm conditions to thrive.

In Scotland, when growing in containers, we provide home compost or, when that’s not available, quality peat-free growing media.

Once plants start flowering they require a weekly comfrey or tomato liquid feed.

No such easy options were available to the indefatigable 18th century East Lothian gardener, James Justice.

When preparing his cucumber beds, he, or rather his squad of workers, tipped cartloads of well composted cow manure in pits and covered with a further 30cm of good soil.

As the plants threw out vines, he created 60cm high ridges of horse muck mixed with soil wherever they spread.

This gave the roots ‘full liberty to play at pleasure’.

Cucumber growers have always fully appreciated the need for heat and light.

Our modern greenhouses may be almost too much for cucumbers. In fact, I reckon my plants perform better in the less bright polytunnel.

A hot greenhouse can make the large leaves transpire excessively so they need copious amounts of water. If growing outdoors, a sheltered sunny spot is fine during the day, but cooler overnight temperatures in most of Scotland are more challenging.

Outdoor temperatures work well further south, as Roman gardeners found 2000 years ago.

The emperor Tiberius insisted on a daily supply of cucumbers throughout the year, so his gardeners devised mobile beds to follow the sun through the garden over the course of a day.

Many centuries later, James Justice used an 18th century version of glass bell cloches.

When combined with his wonderfully muck-enriched soil, he reckoned it was ‘in good temper’ for sowing after 3 or 4 days. No modern propagator leaping into life at the flip of a switch.

As the plants grew, Justice kept the bell cloches in place as long as possible, by hoisting them off the soil to let the vines grow freely.

But Justice also recognised the fungal disorders humid conditions could bring.

He wiped away any moisture accumulating on the glass as water dripping on a plant would encourage damaging fungal growth.

This is still important. Wet cucumber stems all too readily rot at ground level, so I keep it relatively dry by growing cucumbers in tomato rings.

These units have a central planting space surrounded by a ‘moat’. You keep roots moist by adding water to the moat, thereby keeping the soil dry immediately round the plant. Every generation has its solutions.

Plant of the week

Geum ‘East of Eden’ has pretty creamy white flowers flushed with pink that are like the colours of apple blossom. The long flower stalks rise from a neat mound of glossy green foliage. Geums grow best in well drained soil in sun or partial shade.

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