When to Pick Cucumbers for Maximum Firmness and Flavor
When picked at the peak of perfection, cucumbers boast tender skins, crisp flesh and tight seed cavities filled with soft, small seeds. But when is the peak of perfection? Depending on the kinds of cukes you’re growing, it can vary by up to three weeks. Fortunately, you can do something to speed your harvest time. To learn what, keep reading.
The Days-to-Harvest Number
Every cuke seed packet has a days-to-harvest number(usually between 50 and 70 days) indicating how long you can expect to wait for variety to produce harvest-ready fruit. The countdown starts from the time the seeds germinate, not from when they’re planted. Because weather and growing conditions play an enormous role in their growth rate, the number is only a useful estimate.
Stages of Growth
Every cucumber you pick is the result of two earlier growth stages.
- Germination refers to the changes seeds go through as they sprout into a growing seedling. Once your seedlings appear, you can start their days-to-harvest countdown.
- Flowering cuke vines first produce clusters of pollen-bearing male blooms, followed by individual or paired females. It can take up to two weeks longer for the first females to open. The most obvious difference between the two that the female flowers’ swollen stems are baby cucumbers awaiting pollination.
It’s at the flowering stage that you can speed the time it takes your cukes to reach the picking stage. How? Unless they’re pollinated, your baby won’t develop. Wind or insect pollination isn’t guaranteed. To ensure the largest possible crop in the shortest amount of time, hand pollination is the answer.
How to Hand Pollinate
Hand pollinating cucumbers takes time and patience, but the process is a snap. All you need is a soft-bristled artist’s brush:
- The night before you start, inspect your plants and mark the female flowers that are about to open.
- Pollinate early the next morning, because the flowers will be closed by early afternoon.
- Search the male flowers for one with a pollen-shedding central stamen.
- Strip the petals from the male flower to uncover the stamen
- Swipe the brush gently along the stamen to load it with pollen
- Swipe the pollen-loaded brush over a female flower’s central stigma. Make sure the entire stigma gets hit.
- Repeat the process for all the open female flowers. Reload the brush with pollen as needed.
Expert gardener’s tip: Continue hand pollinating throughout the flowering stage. Successfully pollinated female flowers wither in a few days, exposing your growing cucumbers.
Most baby cukes are ready to pick between eight and 10 days after pollination. Leaving them on the vine much longer means the difference between classically crisp, sweet or disappointingly mushy,bitterflesh. Pick your cukes when:
- They’re uniformly medium to dark green with no whitish or yellow discoloration. Both signal over-ripening.
- They’re the right size. Pickling cukes should be 1.5 to 3 inches for gherkins and baby sweets, or 4 to 7 inches for dill and bread-and-butter pickles. Pick most slicers at 6 to 8 inches long and 1.5 to 2 inches around.
- They pass the squeeze test. Table-ready cukes feel firm when lightly squeezed, with no wet or soft spots.
Faithfully hand-pollinated cuke vines will need picking every one or two days after their fruit starts maturing. If you miss a day or two, remove the overripe cukes immediately. Otherwise, your vines will stop flowering and fruiting because they think their job is done!
Always harvest cukes with clean, sharp pruners or garden shears. Pulling or twisting them off by hand may damage the entire vine. Be sure to leave a 1/4- to 1/2-inch piece of stem attached to each one so its stem end remains firm.
Expert gardener’s tip: Long, burpless cucumber varieties bruise very easily. Handle them with TLC when picking.