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There is More to the Cucumber Family Than Cucumbers
by Dan Gill
by Dan Gill


Dan Gill earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in horticulture from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and is an Associate Professor in Consumer Horticulture with the LSU AgCenter.

He is the spokesperson for the LSU AgCenter’s Get It Growing project, a statewide educational effort in home horticulture utilizing radio, Internet, TV and newsprint. Gardeners throughout Louisiana read his columns in local newspapers, watch his gardening segments on local TV stations and listen to him on local radio. In the New Orleans area, Dan appears weekly on the Channel 4 Morning News, writes a weekly gardening column for The Times-Picayune and hosts the Saturday morning WWWL Garden Show, a live call-in radio program.

Dan is co-author of the Louisiana Gardener’s Guide and author of Month-by-Month Gardening in Louisiana. His “South Louisiana Region Report” and “Only in Louisiana” columns appear monthly in the Louisiana Gardener Magazine.

May 6, 2012

Some of the most popular vegetables planted in Louisiana home vegetable gardens belong to the cucumber family, or Cucurbitaceae. Members of that family, which can be planted this month, include summer squash, winter squash, mirliton, pumpkin, gourd, cucuzzi, watermelon, cantaloupe, cushaw, luffa and, of course, cucumber.

All of these vegetables produce vines that climb or run along the ground. Summer squash vines are rather short and thick, making them more bush-like than other members of the family.

Members of the cucumber family produce separate male and female flowers, but both types of flowers occur on the same plant. Still, pollen must be transferred from the male flowers to the female flowers to obtain fruit set. The pollen is transferred by bees and other insects, so it is extremely important not to spray insecticides in the morning when bees are most active. Wait until late afternoon or early evening if you must use insecticides.

Although male flowers are needed for pollination, only the female flowers actually develop into fruit. Cucumbers, for instance, produce enormous numbers of male flowers compared to female flowers. I have talked to many a gardener that thought they were about to see a bumper crop of cucumbers, only to watch in stunned disappointment as most of the flowers fell off without making fruit.

To distinguish the male flowers from the female flowers it is necessary to look at them closely. The showy part of the flower is often very similar; it is behind the flower where the differences can be observed. The female flower is connected to the plant by an ovary that looks like a miniature of the fruit that will eventually form. The female flower of a cucumber, for instance, is connected to the vine by what looks like a tiny cucumber, and the ovary of a female squash flower looks like a tiny squash. These ovaries will only develop into fruit, however, if the flower is pollinated.

Squash are among the most popular and productive warm season vegetables. Most families need only a few plants to supply them with an abundance of squash, and now is an excellent time to plants seeds or transplants into the garden. The short-vine, bushy summer squash plants are rather large (24 to 36 inches across), but they will fit into most home gardens. The fruit is harvested immature when it is young and tender. Commonly grown types of summer squashes are yellow crookneck, yellow straightneck, zucchini, scallop and cocozelle.

Winter squash usually have a more vining growth habit and need more space than summer squash. Their fruit remains on the vine until fully matured, which is when the rind is hard. The name winter squash does not refer to when they are grown but rather that the fruit stores well during the winter. Types of winter squash locally grown include butternut, acorn, Turk's turban and hubbard.

Cucumbers are an easy vegetable to grow. Plant seeds or transplants into your garden now. If you buy transplants, you may find more than one plant in the pot. Pinch off all but the largest plant before planting.

Most gardeners allow cucumber vines to grow along the ground, but it is highly recommended that you trellis them. Provide a sturdy trellis 3 to 4 feet tall and space plants along the base 6 inches apart. Tests conducted at LSU AgCenter research stations show trellised cucumbers have substantial yield increases as well as fewer disease problems and better quality.

Delicious to eat, the cantaloupe is a more challenging member of the group to grow. Production generally is not a problem, but the quality of the melon is often disappointing, with a general lack of sweetness the most common complaint.

Make sure the vines are planted into well-prepared beds with generous amounts of added organic matter. Fertilize the plants lightly when the vines begin to run, and water regularly if the weather is dry (although dry weather as the fruit ripens enhances sweetness, so water less when ripening fruit is on the vines). When a melon is ready for harvest, it will develop a strong aroma of cantaloupe, and the stem connecting it to the vine will easily pull away from the melon, leaving a clean, concave scar.

Growing cantaloupes on trellises saves room, and the vines are surprisingly capable of holding the heavy fruit. If the vines are trellised, place a thick layer of pine straw under the vines as a cushion. When fruit is ripe, it will fall onto the pine straw.

One of my favorites of the Cucurbitaceae family is the luffa gourd. This vine does triple duty in the garden. It is attractive enough to be used as an ornamental with dark green leaves that stay healthy all summer and large, bright yellow male flowers.

The fruit is edible when 6 to 8 inches long. It can be sliced, breaded and fried like okra. Indeed, two traditional names for this gourd, climbing okra and Chinese okra, refer to its similarity to okra in flavor when fried.

When the gourds are mature and the skin turns brown, peel away the skin to reveal the most remarkable aspect of this plant – a tough network of fibers that make an excellent sponge. Beautiful flowers, something to eat and a sponge to clean up with – what more could you ask?

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