EDITOR’S NOTE: This article by Shirley Barker is the first of what we hope will be an ongoing series of articles from local gardeners writing about their own gardens. We thought readers would like to see her in her garden. She’s originally from England “with a touch of Irish,” she says. She comes from a long line of gardeners and farmers, and says she learned about gardening at her mother’s knee.
Some years ago I met a woman who grew superb flowers. Although she was in her nineties, she was still able to totter round her plants, clutching a jam jar full of a liquid with which she anointed them. I felt sure that this magic brew was responsible for the atmosphere of well-being exuded by her garden.
So last year, when I decided to grow for the first time the long, thin, Japanese cucumber, setting out nursery plants, and they did not do so well, I thought about my skilled gardening friend. The weather was warm, the ground richly prepared, and yet the plants barely limped along. I remembered my friend’s magic brew and decided to give the cucumbers a shot of it: fish emulsion, diluted to the palest fawn.
The effect was greater than I had anticipated. The plants leaped up and over their six-foot fence, and produced an embarrassment of foot-long, crisp and luscious fruits in what seemed no time at all. I pressed them on neighbors three at a time. I cooked, pickled and snacked on them. “A cucumber a day” became a mantra. They went on like this until October, when I reluctantly removed them to make room for fall peas, knowing that without more global warming they could not continue past the equinox. Did I mention how many plants contributed to this largesse? Two!
If a garden lacks a sunny fence, cucumbers and tomatoes will companionably share space. If the tomatoes are grown in hoops, the metal will give their tendrils something to grip and the fruits of both can dangle off the ground. Cucumber plants arrive in nurseries in April, and they are also easy to grow from seed. They do best when the earth has warmed up. Because of their rapid growth, planting is possible through mid-July. Put one plant outside and next to each hoop leg. Water regularly at ground level. Neither plant likes damp leaves. When new growth appears, it’s time for the fish emulsion.
Ease of growing and their considerable nutritional value, including surprising amounts of B vitamins and iron, make cucumbers an important component of the home vegetable garden. Our ancestors recognized this. Pre-historians have credible evidence that our relationship with the cucumber has gone on for eleven thousand years, probably pre-dating agriculture. Such an ancient pedigree is perhaps why cucumbers, once harvested, lead a varied life, from slices placed on tired eyelids to the ubiquitous soggy English sandwich. Indeed, there are few regions in the world that do not have a culinary use for them, such as Russia, the Middle East, India with its numerous raitas, and various deserts where cucumbers, or a close relative in the same family Cucurbitaceae, have value as a source of water. Most commonly they are prepared in a salty, acid or sour medium. Yet cucumbers are delicious when allowed to speak in their own voice (see recipe at left.) Its blandness can be a soothing interlude in or contrast to spicier fare.