Spring arrives quite early in Southern California, and I am always excited when I feel the new welcome warmth and the smell of the newly turned earth...
I have long imagined since childhood that the garden and all of its living creatures—plants and animals—is a place where the elements of earth, air, water, and fire are transformed, distilled into the gifts of life. And certainly, photosynthesis, among many, many garden processes, is a fine example of alchemical transformation. Does not all life transform in the “Alembic of Life”?
The ancient Arabs called their retorts or Alembics of distillation Cucurcabits; those glass spheres with the tube coming out of the side. Perhaps it was their gourd-like shape (or vice versa) that inspired the Arabic alchemists to call them Cucurbits? These cucurbits or pot stills (Italian distillerie) were the Alembics, the stills (Italian alambicco from the Arabic word al- anbiq) in which the great work of transformation, the “Opus Magnum”, took place; “the Alembic of creation”, as the poet calls it. I think that the tiny round cells of plants are the mini-stills or Alembics where the magic transformation of photosynthesis occurs.
It just so happens that one of the largest plant families is named Cucurbitaceae. It includes such as pumpkins, melons, squash, cuccuzza, and cucumbers. Cucurbitaceae has 125 genera and 960 species—impressive! The cucumbers are believed to have originated in India, and there are a few wild species growing in the Americas.
Cucumbers are relatively easy to grow. However, they do require more heat than any other garden vegetable. The “earth” needs to be above 70F for the seeds to germinate. We who live on the cool coastal edge of the Pacific must plant them in the warmest, sunniest garden niche that we can find. That said, I grow my cucumbers against a fence that faces east (rising sun) and south (the waning sun)--let that suffice for the“fire”.
As to “earth”, cukes need a very rich, porous substrate. Mix in a few cups of organic fertilizer (Dr. Earth, ha!) before you plant the seeds, or, you can sprout them in plastic yogurt cups and then transplant them. Build a trellis and tie on the vines as they begin stretching upward, using those green bag-ties that one acquires in the grocery to secure plastic bags. They work well until the tendrils get a grasp.
Deep watering is essential. I water the plants every day as the baby cukes are forming. Give the “water” in the morning to avoid that wretched, white leaf fungus.
Pick the adult cukes every day as they come on. Nothing drains off the essential élan-energy from a plant more than old fruits. After all, the mature fruits are the plant’s pinnacle of existence to reproduce the specie, so don’t let them hang around too long to feed of the parent plant. Old cukes are bitter cukes.
There are numerous cucumber varieties, but I’ve had the best success with the non-fancy “Straight Eights” type. The fruits are nice and big, and the plants grow with vigor if given ample water in our California heat.
Usually by the end of July, “earth, air, water, and fire” have conspired to transform the great work of your hands, energy, and gardening spirit into succulent cucumbers. And, please remember the ancient alchemist dictum, “Orare et Lavorare”.