Richard Bogren, Young, John, Gill, Daniel J., Owings, Allen D.
The cucumber family, properly known as the Cucurbitaceae (cu-cur-bit-A-cee-ee), provides a wide variety of vegetables popular for the spring, summer and fall home vegetable garden. Members of the cucumber family (often called “cucurbits”) that can be planted now and into April include summer squash, zucchini, winter squash, mirliton (in south Louisiana), pumpkin, gourd, cucuzzi, watermelon, cantaloupe, cushaw, luffa and, of course, cucumber.
All of these vegetables produce vines that run along the ground or climb on whatever structure may be available. Summer squash and zucchini vines are actually rather short and thick and are more bush-like than other commonly grown members of the family. Some dwarf or “bush” types of cucumbers and other cucurbits also may be available.
Members of the cucumber family produce separate male and female flowers, but they both occur on the same plant. Pollen must be transferred from the male flowers to the female flowers to obtain fruit. The pollen transfer is done by bees and other insects, so it’s extremely important not to spray insecticides in the morning when bees are most active. Wait until late afternoon or early evening if insecticides must be used.
Male flowers produce the pollen that fertilizes the eggs in the ovary of the female flowers, which leads to fruit – the vegetables we harvest to eat. It’s important to understand that only the female flowers actually develop into fruit.
Cucumbers, for instance, produce enormous numbers of male flowers compared to female flowers. Many gardeners think they’re about to see a bumper crop of cucumbers, only to watch in stunned disappointment as many of the flowers fall off without fruit.
To distinguish the male flowers from the female flowers in cucurbits, it is necessary to look at the flowers closely. Because showy part of the flower is often very similar between the sexes, it is behind the flower where you can see the differences between male and female flowers.
The female flower possesses an ovary that looks like a miniature version 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. The ovary of a female squash flower looks like a tiny squash. Male flowers are connected by simple stems.
Cucurbits to grow
Squash are among the most popular and productive of the warm-season vegetables. Most families need to plant only a few plants to supply them with an abundance of squash, and now is an excellent time to plant seeds or transplants into the garden.
The short-vine, bushy summer squash plants are rather large – 24 to 36 inches across – so make sure you space them properly in the garden. The fruit is harvested immature while it is young and tender when your thumbnail easily penetrates the rind. Commonly grown summer squashes include yellow crookneck, yellow straightneck, zucchini, scallop and cocozelle.
Winter squash usually have a more vining growth habit and need more room than summer squash to grow. The fruit remains on the vine until it’s fully matured when the rind is hard – you can’t penetrate it with your thumbnail. The name winter squash does not refer to when they are grown but rather because the fruit keep well and may be stored and eaten during the winter. Examples of winter squash grown in Louisiana include pumpkin, butternut, acorn, Turk's turban and Hubbard.
Cucumbers typically are an easy vegetable to grow. You can use transplants, but as with most cucurbits, cucumbers are easily grown by planting seeds directly in the garden. Most gardeners allow cucumber vines to grow along the ground, but we recommend you trellis them. Provide a sturdy trellis 3 to 4 feet tall and space plants along the base about 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.
One favorite member of this family is the luffa gourd. Very easy to grow, luffa seeds may be planted directly into the garden now at the base of a 6-foot trellis and thinned to 1 to 2 feet apart when they come up.
The luffa vine does triple duty in the garden. With attractive green leaves that stay healthy all summer and large, bright yellow male flowers, it is good-looking enough to be used as an ornamental annual vine. In addition, the fruit is edible when it’s 6 to 8 inches long and can be sliced, breaded and fried like okra. Indeed, two old common 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, it can be peeled away to reveal the most remarkable aspect of this plant – a tough network of fibers that make an excellent sponge. When a plant will provide beautiful flowers, edible fruit and a sponge to clean up with, well, you can’t ask for more than that.
Visit LaHouse in Baton Rouge to see sustainable landscape practices in action. The home and landscape resource center is near the intersection of Burbank Drive and Nicholson Drive (Louisiana Highway 30) in Baton Rouge, across the street from the LSU baseball stadium. For more information, go to www.louisianahouse.org and www.lsuagcenter.com/lyn.