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Cucumbers mean more than just salads and pickles

In 1979, when the garden produced more cucumbers than we could give away without being offensive, I learned that the cuke is far more than a salad ingredient or a potential pickle. It makes, among other things, a great soup that can be served hot or cold. We ate (or is it, drank?) a good many cuke soups that season.

I was reminded of that bumper year when I turned over the page to May in my Burpee Seeds calendar. It was filled with pictures of cucumbers and included this recipe for cucumber soup:

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Ingredients: 2 cups chicken broth (homemade or canned); 2 large cucumbers, skins and seeds removed; 2 teaspoons minced onion; salt and pepper to taste; 1 teaspoon fresh dill weed or onehalf teaspoon dried dill weed; 2 cups of plain yogurt; additional slices of cucumber and chopped dill for garnish.

Method: Cook cucumbers and onion in the chicken broth until the cucumber is tender. Combine in a blender until smooth. Add salt, pepper, and dill weed and chill thoroughly. Stir in yogurt and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Cucumbers are one of the most prolific vegetables in the garden provided they are grown in a compost-enriched soil and are regularly watered. In my experience, they respond particularly well to regular feedings of kitchen scraps , combined in a blender and served up to the plants in a souplike consistency. When doing this, however, watch that a skin doesn't form over the soil. If it does, scratching the surface of the soil will rectify the situation.

Mulch cucumbers by early summer or even sooner. I recently mulched some cukes of mine with 14-day-old compost made of sheep bedding (straw with a little manure mixed in). The response was immediate, not only because of the nutrient value of the compost but because the mulch moderated the temperature of the soil , smothered any competing weeds, and kept the soil pleasantly moist.

Another plus for cucumbers: They grow so quickly (from seed to maturity in 50 to 70 days) that fairly late plantings will still yield before frost in most areas. I often sow cucumbers after my sugar snap peas have been taken out. They grow up the same fence and appear to benefit from the nitrogen left in the soil by the peas.

Incidentally, I cut the old pea vines off at the base, leaving the roots untouched in the soil.

The vines, which will reach 4 to 8 feet long, will take up valuable space in the garden if they are not trained up a trellis or fence. I have heard of some gardeners making little slings for the individual cukes to ease the strain imposed on the vines by the weight of the fruit.

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In my experience this is totally unnecessary. Apart from that, cucumbers produce so abundantly under the right conditions that making slings would be a fulltime occupation if you had more than a couple of vines.

Always pick cukes on the young side -- as soon as the little cukes have passed the crinkled stage. At this stage they are at their sweetest. Moreover, picking the somewhat immature fruits encourages the vines to go on producing more.

If you wish to grow cucumbers in a container, Mary Johnson's "Tub Farming" (Charlotte, Vt.: Garden Way Publishing) recommends the minimum container size for one vine is two gallons of soil, or an 8- inch pot.

Cucumbers are often bothered by a little stripped beetle -- an elusive little fellow if you try to catch him during the day. But he's a somewhat sluggish late-riser in the morning, at which stage you can easily despatch him.

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