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ManyTracks Organic Gardening
Cucumber in the
Four decades of Growing
in the Northwoods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Pickles may not be a required food group but they are close to the top of my food preservation list. They are particularly appreciated when the salad ingredients are sparse while the garden rests during its long hibernation. Pickles are why I grow and love cucumbers.
August 7, 2019 -- First Pickles of the Season
Someone ate my first planting of cucumber seeds this spring (and the squash, too!) so I replanted later than I normally plant. Being concerned that the crop would be limited because of that I planted extras. Turns out that wasn't at all necessary and I now have a crowded, thriving, green jungle of cucumber plants in my plot, happily putting out cucs right and left and right on schedule. They know when it's time to produce. Plants probably get quite a chuckle at human's fussing.
They did catch me a bit by surprise, since I thought they'd be later, but when I noticed some full sized cucumbers I was quite happy to grab a basket and pick enough for the first batch of fermented pickles. I do both fermented and vinegar pickles; not so many of the first and more of the second since they last longer. The ferments are for "fresh" eating while the vinegared are mostly cut up in salads and dishes.
Since ferments are alive and ever changing their shelf life is limited. How long they are good depends a lot on the temperature and the season and weather. The first batch of the season is barely given time to get going before being eaten since it's been a good long while since we've had any. In a week or two we'll start sampling this first batch. They won't last long. But they are very easy to make so more will be on their way soon. I spread out my pickling - a small batch of ferments now, then several batches of vinegar, which aren't hard to make but they take a bit more time so it depends on my schedule and how the cucs are ripening. This year I think I'll be giving cucumbers away!
But not until the pickle shelf is full. If you've never had fresh fermented pickles you might want to give them a try. We like them. I'd made them off and on through the years, using directions from here and there, coming up with my own recipe. Usually they turned out good, though it's not a sure thing. But a few years ago I bought a book that got me enthused once again about ferments - "Fermented Vegetables" by Kirsten and Christopher Shockey. Now most of their well written and wonderfully photographed book is a bit lost on me, being quite fond of simplicity in my own kitchen/preserving life and not much inclined to add to it. But I enjoyed reading the book anyway and was really amazed at the array of ferments. They do a great job of explaining the ins and outs and particulars of fermenting - well worth it even if you don't want to ferment everything in sight. I did try a few new things and came up with an adaptation of their onion and sweet pepper relish that I really liked. I'll do that one again when my peppers are ripe. It's a fun book.
Ferments are pretty basic and simple. My recipe is basic and simple. The tools required are simple, too. I made many a pickle, and sauerkraut, in a crock with a plate and a rock or jar of water for a weight. It works, and I still do that sometimes. But skimming off the scum is a bit fussy. I found that for pickles doing them directly in a jar works better - no or little skum to skim. But last year I discovered something even easier - Pickle Pipes made by MasonTops, along with their PicklePebbles glass weights. I started with a set of four, and it wasn't long before I ordered another set. I made do with those 8 last year, using a crock until a PicklePipe and Pebble was free then transferring to a jar. I'm not much for gizmos, especially in my kitchen, but I have to say these things are not only cute they simply make ferments easy, more reliable and trouble free.
So this is how I (usually) do it:
Scrub and slice medium sized pickling cucumbers (large ones tend to get
mushy). Pack firmly into into a wide mouth quart jar along with these
Leave about 2" headroom if using Pipe & Pebble (less if not). Weight with
Leave for 3-5 days in kitchen (or somewhere around 70 deg) to begin ferment, then move to cooler space, for me this is the root cellar at about 60 deg this time of year. Start testing in about a week or two. Start eating when you like the flavor. Move to a pint jar when half eaten. The ferment brine is good, too, and good for you. It adds a real nice flavor to bread or baked goods, or general cooking that needs liquid.
The last fermented pickles made end of season in September have kept fairly well until March but they do tend to get soft by then, and that's the end of the fermented pickles until the next season. These later pickles get cooler storage temps as the root cellar starts cooling down in October and is down to 40 degrees in November.
But that's a long ways off. Meantime, we look forward to the first fresh fermented pickles in a week or two.
Cucumbers are good eaten fresh, too, of course, but mine prefer to be pickled.
If your garden is healthy and the soil reasonably rich in humus, you will
probably grow great healthy cucumbers. But even when I was still building up my
depleted sandy-loam soil I was able to get a small but usable cucumber crop.
They make do with what they have, just as people do, but do best in an
environment that suits them (as do people!). Since we have a fairly short
growing season here in the upper Midwest my goal is to get the plants growing
strong as early as possible to get a good crop before the frosts and freezes
arrive in the fall. Cucumbers are not fond of frost.
Since this is still about a month before our weather warms and frosts abate, the
cold frame windows are closed at night and during cloudy cool days, then propped
open when the sun shines. If temps really drop, the frame is easily covered with
an old blanket or rug. This gives the crop a wonderful head start on the season
without unduly pushing their comfort level. The most important job for the
gardener during this time is to be sure to prop open the windows when it is
sunny. Better to have a bit of cool than to cook the little plants. If I’m going
to be gone overnight and I’m not sure of the weather, I’ll leave the cold frame
closed and covered with a blanket. The plants do fine with a few days of
The cucumber plants grow and spread and, other than admiring them, my only chore
during this time is to direct enthusiastic vines out of the path and back onto
SAVING SEED - If you grow open pollinated cucumbers and a good number of plants (you want a reasonable gene pool, not just saving from one or two plants), saving your own seed is as easy as just letting some of the cucumbers of each plant mature. Cucumbers cross pollinate, so I grow only one variety if I'm saving seed. If you store your seed well (cool, dry, dark) it will be viable for many years so you don't have to save seed every year. If the plants and fruit are having a good year - disease free, generous production of fruit, good weather for maturing - I simply choose to leave a cucumber here and there to mature, usually the ones that escaped my notice and have already grown beyond the nice pickling stage. If it's a great year, I simply stop harvesting when I'm tired of making pickles and let the rest of the crop mature.
Maturing cucumbers will turn yellow then dark orange or yellow and their
skin/shell becomes less tender as they age, well past . Light frosts don't
bother them even if the leaves are damaged and I leave them in the garden until
hard freezes are predicted. I then bring them inside to set and further mature
their seeds for at least several weeks (which isn't hard since I'm plenty busy
doing other things this time of year). At some point before they get too soft
and mushy I cut them open and scoop the seeds out into a bowl. There's usually
enough juice to let them ferment (which takes care of that gelatinous covering
on the seed and might take care of some diseases, too). If not, add a little
water. Stir several times a day and let them ferment for several days. Then
clean the seed. I do this by adding water, letting the seeds settle to the
bottom, pouring off the debris. Keep doing this until the seed is clean, then
strain and dump on a towel to remove as much water as possible. Spread out on a
plate or cookie sheet and let air dry until they snap when bent. Old envelopes
work well for seed packets (note the year and where you originally got the seed,
as well as the proper name). Store in a cool, dry, dark place and you'll have
more then enough seed for you and your friends for many years.
In each pint jar put 1 tsp mixed pickling spice (with cinnamon and cloves), some
dill, a few small grape leaves.
Drain brine off cucumbers, cover with hot water, drain. Pack not too tightly
into jars. Cover with hot vinegar/sugar solution leaving 1/2” headroom. Lid and
process as you normally do (boil-water-bath or steam-pressure-canner can) for 10
minutes. Or don’t process, if you don’t do that to your pickles. I used to, but
don’t anymore. I make sure the vinegar solution is boiling hot, fill to about
1/4” headroom, put heated lids on the jars with rings just as if I were going to
process them, then let them be. They seal and keep just fine, and it’s a lot
less work. If a jar doesn’t seal it is obvious and that jar gets put in the root
cellar and eaten early. All other precautions are the same as with any canning.
Well, we had a good crop of pickles and I had collected a good number of
fermented pickle recipes. I was conservative and only tried six variations.
Really, they were all pretty much the same, but a little more salt here, little
less there, quart jar, gallon jar, small crock; no dill, some dill, lots of
dill; grape leaves vs cherry leaves; onions and peppers in one, just cucs in
others. It’s amazing how complicated you can make a very simple thing! But it
was fun. And we loved the pickles! I made 27 quarts of fermented pickles and we
ran out in February. And we are only two people (and two cats but they didn’t
share our pickle passion). Granted, I did give many jars away as gifts, pickles
seem made for that. But we had discovered a great new-old food. How wonderful
that it was also easy and good.
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© 2009 by Susan Robishaw
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Have you read "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener" ? A fun short read.
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