If you are short on garden space and have decided to growing food in your balcony – cucumbers should be on the list for you. It is easy to grow cucumber in a balcony garden setting. In this article I am going to explain everything you need to know to grow your cucumbers in small spaces.
Cucumber(Cucumis sativus) is a warm weather annual plant that thrives well in heat. It belongs to the gourd family Cucurbitaceae. These are creepers but can be trained to grow in a trellis or teepee as climber.
The prime requirements for good cucumber growth are
- Rich loosely packed soil and ample water
- Cucumbers thrive well in the sun, a sunny spot is needed.
- Space for plant to creep or climb.
Cucumbers are prolific plants and grows really fast. You miss a day to check the plants it would have over grown holding its tendrils wherever it wants to be, also the fruits also gets bigger at a faster rate on longer days. When growing cucumber in containers as a balcony garden, pot selection. The bigger the pot bigger the yield will be. So put some thoughts in this when selecting the plants and pots.
Water requirements for container cucumbers
Plants in containers don’t have the luxury of ground water, so water them twice on hot days. Also the covered balcony or porch will prevent the plants to get water through rain. If you miss a day of watering during a summer heat wave, the flower buds may drop temporarily until the plant recovers back from the shock.
Sunlight & Location
The sunlight is another important factor, choose the location wisely – a north facing balcony in northern hemisphere will receive less sunlight than the south facing one. Make sure the area is accessible for pollinators like bees. If space allows, plant some flowers which will attract the bees to your balcony garden. Keep in mind that, not all flowers will attract bees.
The seeds can be started indoors four to six weeks before last frost, then transplanted to the garden. Usually Cucumbers don’t transplant well. Once the temperature shoots above 70F (21C) they will be happy to sprout and take off.
I planted a few cucumber seedling transplants last summer as well as a few direct sowing in a pot. The direct sowed seeds overtook the transplants with vigorous growth. It took quite a while for the transplants to keep up with the direct sown seeds. Even if you transplant the seedlings at 55F(13C) there will be less growth with no vigor. Therefore wait until the temperature warms up to do transplants or seed sowing.
Next decision you have to make is to whether let your plants crawl or climb? In balcony or urban garden settings with limited space climb is the only way. If you are going with climbing option provide a trellis or teepee or tomato cage as soon as the seeds are sprouted or the transplants is done. The tiny plants produce tendrils(like octopus) to climb anything that they can hold on their way. I like to provide tomato cages for my balcony garden plants.
The plants are growing well and here comes the most awaited first bloom and it will yellow in color. The blooms didn’t produce any cucumber for you yet. Then comes the second, third,…tenth bloom but still no cucumber (Scratching your head or biting your fingernails until you finally figure out there are separate male and female flowers in cucumber.)
How to tell difference between male and female cucumber flowers?
Cucumber plants are hermaphroditic. The plants will set out male flowers first, then it will produce the female flowers. Each cucumber plant will have separate both male and female flowers. To set fruits the pollen from male should reach the female by pollination. The female flowers will have a slightly swollen flower stalk which is shaped like a mini cucumber. Obviously that’s how you will able able to differentiate male and female flowers.
For pollination to take place you need natural pollinator like bees or insects. Bees usually visit garden if they can find nectar and pollen. In search of food bees visit each and every flower thereby taking pollen from the stamens of the male flower which sticks to the bees hair. When the bees move to next flower some of the pollen collected earlier is rubbed onto the stigma of the female flower. Pollination occurs resulting in setting of the fruit. Plants like Marigold, Zinnia can be easily grown in a small balcony space along with vegetables to encourage bees visiting your garden. This will ensure that you have natural pollination.
How to know if your cucumber is pollinated?
When a female flower is pollinated, its swollen fruit like stem attached to the flower will get bigger day by day. Whereas if the female flower is not pollinated the swollen stem wont increase in size and the flower will dry out.
Besides taking all these measures if you still feel like pollination rate is not good you can help with manually pollinating the flowers. Repeat the process of transferring the pollen from Stamen to Stigma using cotton swabs, makeup brush or a battery operated tooth brush.
Now everything is going perfect, your plants are growing well and you are happy with the work done so far. Then comes the horror – on a fine morning you wake up to see all the flowers and tender leaves eaten by some worms. They can chew through the flowers, tender fruits and also young leaves. Those tiny holes in the blossoms will most likely prevent fertilization or end up in partial fertilization happens. In both cases the fruits cannot develop to full maturity resulting in fruit loss.
Pest Prevention Measures for Cucumber
1. Handpick the pests
If you are able to catch the cucumber worms early they can do little to no harm. I was able to hand pick all the worms mostly hiding inside the flowers, since I had only few cucumber pots in my balcony. They were yellowish green, therefore difficult to spot on the yellow flowers. They can camouflage really well inside the flowers.
2. Row Covers
This method helps prevent the moths from laying eggs on the plant which then develop into the cucumber worms.To keep the worms off your crop, cover your cucumber with a fabric row cover at night, since these pesky worms are more active at night after sunset. The plants will be able to get sun and rain through the row cover while keeping pests out. Once the plants begin to flower, lift the cover during the day so bees can pollinate the plants. Also cover the plants with row cover before sunset without giving any opportunity for the moths to thrive in.
If using this technique after worm infestation, make sure to pick all the worms before covering with row cover. If not the remaining worms will be feasting your crop. The key here is preventing any moths from laying eggs.
I didn’t had any other pest problem in my garden last year other than worms.
Cucumbers taste good when picked young. Always read the information on seed packet to have an idea based on the variety you are growing. The duration of the plant growth as well as the number of days required for harvest. If you have a rough idea you will be able to pick cukes at the right time.
To collect seeds leave the cucumbers on the plant longer than when you would harvest for fresh eating. The cukes will turn to yellow/ brown depending on the variety. This is called ripening of the fruit. Before frost collect the ripened cucumber. Cut open the ripe cucumber to collect the seeds – clean seeds with water and dry on a ceramic plate.
Cumber will readily cross pollinate with each other if you grow many varieties in a tight balcony garden or your neighbor grows another variety.
My experience growing cucumbers in balcony garden
I will also tell the pros and cons when growing cucumber in containers as a balcony garden.
The balcony conatiners are easy to take care for. When I had the worm infestation in the cucumber I was able to identify and pick it easily. I also used a tomato cage which helped control the plants and was easy to move to another spot if I feel the sun was too hot or not sufficient.
Since I grew the cucumber plants in a balcony garden, I was able to control many factors like pests and pollination. I was able to follow every female flower to check if pollination has happened or help them as needed.
Because I used the tomato cage, the plants didn’t have much space to climb. Therefore the production was limited. There are days that I have forgotten to water my plants when it rained outside. If your pot is in a location where it can’t get rain you definitely have to keep an eye on the plant water situation.
Cucumbers are healthy snacks on a hot summer day. It comes in three major groups – pickling, slicing and burpless cucumbers.
- Pickling cucumbers are small about 3 to 4 inches long and used for pickling with brine or vinegar
- Slicing cucumbers are great for snacking or tossed on salads
- Burpless Cucumbers are also great for snacking with thin skin, tastes sweet with no bitterness
Let me run you through some of the common types/ varieties of cucumber. I will also try to give you information if that particular type of cucumber is suitable for balcony garden.
1. Lemon cucumber
This cucumber tastes nothing like a lemon. It has a thin, tender skin with milder flavor than the regular cucumber and especially no bitter taste. It has the color and shape of an orange sized fruit which gave this cucumber its name. This variety can be grown well in a container or smart pot. The cucumber will be ready for harvest in 60 to 75 days.
2. Miniature white cucumber
This particular variety is great for snacking as it is sweet with no bitterness when picked young. The fruits are about three or four inches long with small spines. The plants are very compact enough for container and produce prolifically when given space to climb. The skin is so tender that you wont feel the skin when taking each and every bite. Therefore no need to peel the skin. But you have to remove black spines by scratching gently on the surface without giving much pressure with a knife. The spines will develop in green color then mature to black. It is also an early producer which will grow faster. The young cukes will be able to harvest in like 55 to 60 days from sowing to harvest.
The Armenian cucumber (Cucumis melo) is a type of long, slender light green fruit which tastes like cucumber and looks similar to cucumber. It is actually a variety of muskmelon, a species closely related to the cucumber. It is also called yard long cucumber or snake cucumber. It is a very good slicing cucumber with ribbed thin skin. This is a prolific variety which needs more space to thrive. Probably not fit for small balcony gardens. Ready to harvest around 60 days.
4. Gherkin cucumber
Gherkins are also called cornichons. These are around 1 or 3 inches long suitable for snacking and pickling. The plants are prolific and needs plenty of space to grow. Mexican sour gherkin(Melothria scabra ) is one of the popular gherkin variety. This is also not a real cucumber variety. Harvest the fruits when they are about 1 inch long. This variety will take over 75 days to harvest as well as boasted for its tolerance towards many pests.
5.Beit Alpha Cucumber
Thinking about growing cucumber in greenhouse or tunnel house during winter, but thinking about how to pollinate without bees, here is the answer. This cucumber variety is parthenocarpic, the blossoms creating seedless fruit without pollination. The fruits are usually seedless. For example Beit Alpha cucumber variety can produce seeds without pollination. The cucumbers will be ready in 60 to 70 days.
The overall experience was good. If I do it again, I will select smart pots or container over 10 gallon for considerable yield. In addition to that I will give enough space for the plants to climb. If the vines are long they will produce flower, therefore the yield increases.
If you are interested to set up your own balcony garden, check my article on how to grow tomatoes in containers as well.