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Growing greenhouse cucumbers

Crop failures are pretty bad. You put all that effort in, coaxing the seed into life, nurturing and cossetting with all the optimism of an early-season gardener. Then along comes the weather, or rabbits, or mice, or slugs (or, in my case, a rampaging cow. Don’t ask or I may have to sob). Suddenly your tomatoes are so much mushy blight, your peas are a powdery heap of mildew and that row of lettuces you planted has mysteriously vanished.

But crueller by far even than this is the crop turned bad.

All appears to have gone swimmingly. Your plants are romping away, they’re following the textbooks to the letter and the harvest is coming along nicely. At last arrives the day when you’re ready to pick, your mouth perhaps watering a little in anticipation. And then it all goes horribly wrong.

So it has been with my cucumbers this year. I started out with one seedling I’d raised myself (well, actually I started with five, but four of them went for slug food: see above.) This wasn’t quite enough to feed a family which eats cucumber with everything, so I backed it up with a couple of bought-in plants.They were meant to be an all-female variety guaranteed to produce nothing but female cucumber-producing flowers. The one I’d raised myself was ‘Sweet Crunch’, which I’ve grown before and enjoyed – though also complained about, as it does produce male flowers which turn the cucumbers bitter from time to time.

All was going well: big, rumbustious plants galloping up their supports so fast I could hardly tie them in fast enough. Fruits so heavy they started pulling the plants back off the supports (cue more supports and a Heath Robinson-esque cat’s cradle of string attached to various points on the greenhouse frame. I have yet again been caught out on the plant supporting front this year. Note to self – next year they need a double row of canes to roof height plus horizontal ones at 30cm intervals all the way up too. You messed up the peas too, by the way.)

Triumphantly I brought my first cucumber into the kitchen and sliced it, with that quiet little swagger to myself that goes with preparing home-grown food, into a salad.

It ruined the whole thing.

Ack, ack, ack. Bitter as a bitter thing. Inedible, in fact. My disappointment has cut deep.

Mistake no. 1: mixing my varieties. Really, really stupid. You see, if you take a variety bred to produce female-only flowers and put it next to a variety which produces both male and female flowers, you completely cancel the advantages of having female-only varieties, since you pollinate the fruit and that’s what makes it bitter.

Mistake no. 2: buying in plants from a garden centre. Yes, they were labelled but on closer inspection, it was quite clear that while the one at the far end was producing nothing but female flowers, the one nearer the door was producing pretty much a three-to-one ratio of male to female flowers. I had, in other words, bought a dud.

This happens far more often than you’d think. I got caught out last year, too: bought in three melon plants and one, would you believe, turned into a pumpkin. They’re virtually indistinguishable as seedlings, though I got a bit suspicious when it started producing mature leaves which were huge and oddly reminiscent of a squash plant. The game was up when it flowered (after practically taking over the greenhouse: goodness, it did enjoy itself in there). I evicted it crossly into the garden without even bothering to harden it off and it just bounced back and started taking over several veg beds instead. You can’t keep a good pumpkin down.

But I digress. I did consider pulling the rogue cucumber plant out, but that would have left me short, so now I’m just going through and picking off the male flowers every other day. It only takes five minutes and it’s rather satisfying, in a vindictive sort of way. And I’m taste testing all my cucumbers before committing them to a salad.

Most of the first batch went into the compost bin, but slowly the number of sweet cucumbers is overtaking the bitter ones and I think I’m winning the war. Just remind me to buy some proper F1 all-female seeds next year and stay away from the plug plants section in the garden centre, that’s all.

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