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A recycled Christmas tree awaits cucumber 'ornaments'

On a visit to a coastal garden here recently, I was introduced to a cucumber tree. It didn't look like much at the time, but there was no doubting its potential. Come summer it will be loaded with cucumbers hanging from the boughs.

In fact, it's really a recycled Christmas tree. When the Yuletide festivities were over in their home, Jim and Norma McLoughlin stripped the 6 -foot-tall evergreen of its ornaments and tinsel and hauled it out to the vegetable garden. There in the wind, cold, snow, and sleet -- everything that is common to a Maine winter, in other words -- the needles dropped off.

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Now, in its skeletonized form, with the longer branches pruned back to about 2 feet and the smaller twigs removed altogether, it stands tall and erect again, waiting for the summer cucumbers to reclothe it in new green beauty.

The tree is firmly tied to two stakes that have been driven 2 or more feet into the ground becuase, as the McLoughlins say, the last thing they want is for the tree to fall over when the cucumber crop is at its peak.

Cucumbers are the third-most-popular crop in the home garden, behind tomatoes and beans. According to the garden-seed industry, 2 cut of every 3 gardeners find room for cukes. Why everyone doesn't grow them is something of a surprise, because no fresh salad is complete without cucumbers and no other vegetable anywhere commands more space on supermarket shelves than pickled cucumbers.

There are new bush-variety cucumbers that take up very little space and are suited for small gardens.

I am convinced, however, that the most productive route for the home gardener is to grow conventional vines up fences, trellises, in cages, and, yes, as cucumber trees. This way tremendous production can be obtained from a few square feet of garden space.

Last year one cage of cukes (five vines) provided an abundance of cucumbers in our home. At its productive height we were picking anywhere from 2 to 8 cukes a day. What we couldn't eat fresh we dried; all winter long we have been able to enjoy cucumbers in soups or crushed up and sprinkled on salads.

This is how I planted that cage of cukes. First, I dug out a shovelful of topsoil and placed an old auto tire around the resulting hole. Next, the hole and tire were filled halfway with rough, partly decomposed compost. The topsoil was spread over it and a half inch of finished compost went on top.

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Into this soft, rich mixture the seeds were planted and, in the warmth absorbed by the tire, they literally took off. (I could have had a faster jump on the season by planting the seeds up to two weeks before all danger of frost had passed, covering the tire with a sheet of clear plastic to create a mini-greenhouse).

Another advantage of the tire was the dish effect it created around the cukes. This forced all water to soak in around the plants, eliminating any runoff. If you have a heavy clay soil or live in an area of abundant summer rainfall, you may wish to fill the tire to the top so as to allow excess water to run off.

Once the seedlings were up and growing, I placed a cage of reinforced concrete wire around the tire. Any wide-gauge wire you can get your arm through will be suitable.

You might also use conventional wire fencing that has been pulled and staked into a three-quarter circle, leaving one side of the cage open for easy access. Stake the cage securely. What seems safe enough at first can become vulnerable to high winds once the vines cover the cage. (I know from sad experience.)

During the growing season, I feed my vines with a dilute blend of water and kitchen waste about once a week. The rich compost-soil mix contains enough soil organisms to quickly process this waste into food for your plants. Make sure that this process doesn't form a skin that can block out the air from the soil and cause the plant to suffer.

Scratch the surface of the soil once it is dry if you suspect this to be the case. I also add a mulch of shredded leaves around the vines.

If you do not have a supply of compost, you can mix organic matter in with the soil and enrich it with a light sprinkling of 5-10-10 or 5-10-5 commercial fertilizer. Add a side dressing of the same fertilizer once the young fruits are forming. Another approach is to buy dehydrated or composted cow manure from a garden store and mix this in with the soil.

A combination of compost or peat moss, builder's sand, and dehydrated manure makes a good mix for container- grown cukes if you have a roof or balcony garden. Or you might even go with an artificial soil mix that is very light in weight. A bushel basket, with plastic liner, or recycled waste bin, will readily support 2 to 3 vines. Be sure to punch some drainage holes in the bottom; but don't allow the water to drain out too rapidly or you will have to water the plants perhaps twice a day in really hot weather.

Remember, while cukes are cool and refreshing, they need a good sunny spot in which to grow. Try for at least 6 hours of sun. Plant seeds 1 to 1 1/2 inches deep and thin to 6 inches apart if planted in long rows.

On the other hand, it doesn't matter if the half dozen or so cucumbers you grow in a cage are all clustered together at the base. They will spread out as they grow up the cage.

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