Jolly green giants: Anna Pavord's first attempt at growing greenhouse cucumbers has resulted in a bumper crop
Saturday 21 August 2010
The cucumber harvest has been sensational. Millie (my granddaughter, aged 11), took advantage of the fact that I was laid out in Plymouth hospital with a broken leg to raid our new greenhouse for a charity stall she was running with a friend. In one swoop, she gathered 30 cucumbers. They sold straight away, she said. So that's good.
Of course, I would have dearly loved to gather them myself. But wobbling on crutches like a drunken crane, I dare not try. From a distance, I gaze through the double doors and think "perhaps next year". It's what gardeners always say. By nature, we are optimists.
The cucumbers were sown earlier this year, on 23 April – an F1 hybrid variety called 'Zeina' (Thompson & Morgan £5.99). Since there were just five seeds in the packet, that seems expensive. But the cucumbers are superb – sweet, juicy, lunchbox-size fruit that you harvest when they are 17-20cm (7-8in) long. 'Zeina' is an all-female variety, so every flower turns into a fruit, which is why they are so productive.
They could not have been simpler to grow. I sowed late, because though we keep our greenhouse frost-free, we do not heat it. Each of the seeds went into an 8cm (3in) pot full of compost. I watered them, set the pots on the top shelf of the greenhouse, as close to the glass as possible and covered the row of pots with a sheet of glass to keep in the moisture.
All the seeds germinated and when the roots had filled the small starter pots, I transplanted each cucumber into its final home. This was a black plastic pot 30cm (12in) across, three-quarters filled with our own compost, then topped off with Levingtons multi-purpose stuff.
The cucumber plants in their pots sat along the far side of the old pig-salting trough (185cm long x 70cm wide) that stretches along the south-facing side of the greenhouse. I jammed bamboo canes 120cm (4ft) tall into the pots and as the plants began to grow, tied them in. When they reached the top of the canes, we strung a wire under the wooden struts of the greenhouse roof and trained the stems along that. They've been watered once a week, with a splash of Tomorite added to the water each time. That's it.
This is the first time I've grown greenhouse cucumbers. In our old garden, I grew some outside, but the skins were tough and the crops not great. 'Zeina', which has an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society, is nutty and crunchy and in every way terrific. I'll certainly grow it again.
Last season, the RHS ran a new trial of 22 different all-female cucumbers in an unheated polytunnel at Wisley, their garden in Surrey. Judges gave points for taste, quality and length of fruit, the colour and texture of the skin, crop size and disease resistance.
Nine of the varieties grown in that trial got Awards of Garden Merit: standard cucumbers 'Carmen', 'Naomi', 'Tyria' and 'Tiffany'; intermediate 'Byblos' and 'Emilie'; mini cucumber 'Socrates' and super-mini 'Cucino' and 'Mini Munch'.
The whole of the south side of our greenhouse opens out, in three separate windows. This, combined with the double doors and the three automatic ventilators in the roof, means that the air inside is constantly on the move. That cuts down the danger of disease.
The only pest I noticed in the greenhouse earlier on was red spider, spinning its irritating way round the new shoots of the nectarine. It never found the cucumbers, though, and next year, I'll be more thorough about damping down the floor, which is the best way to discourage red spider from moving in.
Millie was so taken by the cucumber harvest, she wanted to sow some seed of her own. "Sorry. You've lost the slot," I said, but we sorted out some other veg that would still be worth growing even though the season now, in the third week of August, is getting rather late. Top of the list are salad vegetables. For weeks through the summer, we've been harvesting mixed cut-and-come-again leaves, sown in a half barrel after the tulips were lifted out.
Now, to guarantee a supply through till November, I've started pots of salad rocket 'Apollo' (Thompson & Morgan £1.99) and some 'Red Giant' mustard (Chiltern £1.80) which is very hardy and slow to bolt. You don't need much in a mixed salad as the taste is hot, but it adds a good kick to lettuce. Corn salad, also known as lamb's lettuce, is equally tough. Sown now or in early September, it will provide leaves to pick all through winter. Look for 'Coquille de Louviers' or 'Verte de Cambrai' (Chiltern £1.67) which produces compact little rosettes of leaves, dark and tender.
Chicories such as 'Late Rossa di Chioggia' (Chiltern £2.59) and curly endives could both be sown now, but the later you leave it, the less likely it is that they will have picked up enough oomph to get themselves through the wintertime. So much depends on the weather, of course. Curly endive can bulk up surprisingly well in November, if it is not too cold. Water all the seed drills before you sow as the ground is still very dry.
I'm thinking, too, about crops that I can slide into the greenhouse, once the cucumbers and tomatoes have come to an end. If I sowed a potful of lettuce 'Red Grenoble' or 'Rougette du Midi' (Suffolk Herbs £1) I could prick out some seedlings into the same big black plastic pots in which I've grown the cucumbers. Set in the same place in the greenhouse, I think they'd give us leaves to pick from November right the way through winter.
Since this is our first year with the greenhouse, I'm still working out ways of using it to its full potential. Food comes top of the list. All in all, it's not been a bad season, with lots of sweetcorn still to come and masses of tomatoes to harvest. All I need is a new leg.
Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7PB, 01229 581137, chilternseeds.co.uk; Suffolk Herbs, Monks Farm, Coggeshall Road, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG, 01376 572456, suffolkherbs.com; Thompson & Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU, 0844 5731818, thompson-morgan.com
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