Cucumbers for Pickling: They’re Not All Alike

This year’s pickling varieties, each at about 4 to 4 1/2 inches long

Whenever I start talking about cucumber varieties, people give me that look that says, You are weirder than I ever imagined.

Why isn’t cucumber breeding a more compelling subject? A gardener can introduce every tree and shrub in the yard in mock Latin, and nobody blinks. Ordinary people talk about rose breeders by name. But what vegetable gardener hasn’t suffered with disease-ridden cucumbers, bitter cucumbers, cucumbers that blow up like balloons before they reach four inches long? What cuke grower hasn’t felt frustrated by inaccurate catalog descriptions and a single photo standing in for several varieties? Why don’t we dirt-scratching picklers compare notes more often?

For pickling, people tell me, you use Kirby cucumbers. I have never planted a Kirby. I have never seen a seed packet labeled Kirby. I guess there must once have been a cucumber variety called Kirby, but I’ve searched and found no record of it.

The four pickling varieties I’ve grown this year are a diverse lot. They are—

Parisienne Cornichon de Bourbonne. Slim as a cigarette at three inches long, this many-prickled cuke can grow to more than seven inches long without bloating. The only current U.S. source I’ve found for this classic French cornichon variety is Kitchen Garden Seeds.

Vorgebirgstrauben. Like Cornichon de Bourbonne, this German pickling cucumber is covered with tiny prickles that rub off easily. But Vorgebirgstrauben is much thicker than its French cousin and so is best used at no more than four inches long. The only current American source I’ve found is Reimer Seeds.

Agnes. I bought seeds of this Dutch variety at the recommendation of Rose Marie Nichols Magee of Nichols Garden Nursery. With unfurrowed but heavily prickled deep-green skin, this new, hybrid sausage-shaped cucumber is unconventionally handsome. For pickling, it is best used at about four inches. The fruit is never bitter, although for some reason it seems particularly susceptible to damage by bitter-loving cucumber beetles. Disease-resistant and said to produce well in cool weather, Agnes is available from Territorial as well as Nichols.

County Fair. This deep-green, warty, arrow-straight hybrid cucumber grows on a vine that’s quite productive in my garden. Some seed companies say County Fair is three inches long, others eight or ten. The fruit can reach any of these sizes, of course, but it doesn’t seem properly filled out until it reaches about 4½ inches, so I recommend it for people who like long pickles. It’s also an excellent slicer for salads. County Fair is disease-resistant, self-sterile (and so seedless if planted apart from other varieties), and never bitter. Many seed companies carry this variety.

Alibi. Recommended by one of my readers, Alibi didn’t get labeled in my garden; I think I forgot to plant the Alibi seeds at first and then very scientifically slipped one Alibi seed into the pot for each hill. But the cucumber you see pictured here, labeled with the question marks, fits the more reliable catalog descriptions. This pale-green hybrid cuke, warted in the American style, is tapered at either end and so is prone to bloating, but it’s excellent for pickling at two to four inches long. The most prolific variety in my garden this summer, Alibi is available from many seed companies.

For perhaps the first time, not a single cucumber vine in my garden has prematurely died this summer. All the pickling varieties have produced well, and we’ve tasted only two bitter cucumbers. This success may be partially due to mild weather, spun polyester row covers, and interplanted marigolds, whose stink truly does seem to fend off cucumber beetles. But my careful choice of varieties has no doubt helped.

What pickling cucumbers have performed best for you? (Please don’t say Kirby!)

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About Linda Ziedrich

I grow, cook, preserve, and write about food in Oregon's Willamette Valley.
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29 Responses to Cucumbers for Pickling: They’re Not All Alike

  1. Sheila says:

    Your de Bourbonnes are slimmer than mine, mine did bloat but I found them to be good slicers (once you rub the bristles off) if they got away from me. I’m embarrassed to say that happened quite often this year – I only got to make 1 quart of cornichon pickles.

    I found Little Leaf H19 to be a good pickling variety (also good for salads), though sadly it was not immune (only resistant) to downy mildew.

    Picklebush didn’t produce as much as Little Leaf did, and the fruit grew twice as large in diameter than Little Leaf, though they didn’t get any longer.

    I don’t know what the “pickling cucumber” I picked up at a nursery was (maybe the elusive Kirby LOL?) but they tended to have “waists” which didn’t make them very attractive.

    I’m definitely planting Little Leaf again, I still have seeds for de Bourbonne (bought from Fedco last year so there’s another source), and I have heard good things about Diva as well as County Fair so I may try those next year.

  2. Elaine says:

    We used Alibi this year and I have made bucket after bucket of your Lower East Side full Sour Dills. Not sure what I am going to do with them all. They line the shelves of on of the little refrigerators. I found that the Alibi pickling cukes did much better than the marketmore cucumbers that we also planted. I have about a dozen jars of bread and butter pickles and right now, I have a refrigerator drawer full of both types of cukes with lots more on the vines.
    I have had a slight problem with a couple of the vines dying off but they were still producing. I am planning on using the Alibi again next year.
    Our garden is a square foot raised bed garden and all of our cukes, melons, peas, beans are grown on trellisis. Our zucchini is staked so it grows upright.

    • I recently bought a little refrigerator to fill with pickle jars, and I turned the temperature too low. What a fine smell and big mess in our garage last night after a frozen pickle jar broke!

  3. Kate says:

    My cucumbers got a slow start this year and didn’t start really producing until a couple of weeks ago. I bought seeds from Botanical Interests but they didn’t specify the variety. I bought a larger plant at the farmers market to supplement and it was only labeled “pickling” as well. Maybe these are the phantom Kirbys?

    Thanks for the information on pickling varieties. I’ve been interested in trying new ones but Botanical Interests, my go-to seed source didn’t specify varieties (which is odd for them since they promote heirlooms and open-pollinated seeds).

    I’d always heard that planting more than one variety in a single garden caused problems with cross-pollination. You haven’t found that to be the case, I take it?

    • I’ve saved seeds of non-hybrid cucumbers for many years, and I’ve had very little apparent crossing although I always grow several varieties close together. Parthenocarpic varieties, originally developed for greenhouse production, are seedless provided they are isolated. Some people think that cucumber seeds make them burp.

  4. Sheila says:

    I just noticed (bought the seeds last year so forgot) that the Fedco site said the de Bourbonnes weren’t spiny. Not the case! These things are spiny even when they get big. Just wondering if maybe they sent me the wrong seed?

    Cross-pollination is only a problem if you’re saving seed.

    • I’ve grown these cucumbers for many years, and they have always been spiny–so spiny that my children wouldn’t pick them. Maybe Fedco means that the spines, though numerous, are very small, and that they rub off easily.

    • Mary Ann says:

      I’m growing alibi for the 2nd year. They seem to grow reliably, stay in good shape through the season and don’t get bitter. I use them for both pickles and salad. This year I’m trying Mexican sour gherkins from seed (my transplants died). Hopefully I’ll actually get some before the growing season is over.

  5. Judy says:

    I really enjoyed this post. This year I grew Jackson Classic which Johnny’s used to replace Alibi. I was not impressed — vines died early and were not very productive. It’s a smaller vine than Alibi and the cucumbers have a uniform shape — that’s all the good I can say about it. I’ve grown Harmony for 2 years and find it to be prolific and disease resistant — it does tend to get bulbous. Little Tike is very prolific, but is really thin-skinned and gets seedy unless picked small. The only Cornichon I have tried was a big disappointment. The cucumbers were only good for about a day and I never got enough at one time to pickle.

    • Judy, thanks for the report on three varieties I’d never even heard of before.

      I think it’s worth making cornichons even if you can gather only a cup of cucumbers. How many of such sour pickles can normal people eat in a year, anyway?

  6. Hi Linda,
    I enjoyed reading about your experiences with these varieties; very valuable. Can you talk a little about cuke growing culture. I have had very mixed results in the past with die off being the biggest problem. Also, how do you calculate the number of plants needed to produce enough fruits for pickling and have enough ready at about the same time? (No planting this year because of an extended trip) Thanks!

    • Three or four productive plants should be enough, I think.

      Cucumber plants don’t like their roots disturbed, so plant seeds directly in the garden if your season is long enough, or transplant with great care. The plants need plenty of compost and, especially, warm air and soil. Planting on slightly raised mounds helps warm roots. Black plastic and floating row covers may not be ecological, but they retain heat well, and they also protect plants from disease-spreading cucumber beetles. Marigolds seem to help fend off the beetles, who are less attracted to bitter-free varieties.

  7. Julia says:

    I have planted a variety called “Diva” for a couple of years now (one packet lasted me a while!) and have really liked it for pickles even though I don’t think it’s actually a pickling cucumber. It has a really good flavor and it gets plump for its length (so it makes a short but fat pickle). It stays sweet even at large sizes so the ones you don’t catch at the pickling size are still good.

  8. Judy says:

    I grew both Diva and Summer Dance this year for eating (not pickling). They are great for that purpose, but I would be a bit cautious about pickling them. Last year I had such a surfeit of Summer Dance (and because they were so beautifully shaped) I picked some. My experience is that they work pretty well for B & B type pickles. As dill chips I thought they were too soft even with pickle crisp.

  9. Sheila says:

    Thought some might find this article interesting – I eventually lost all my cucurbits to DM this year, even the Little Leaf which was supposed to be resistant. Maybe I had this new strain of DM?
    http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Oct12/Cucurbit.html

  10. Thanks, Sheila. I’m happy to hear about the grant. Gardeners and farmers both need robust open-pollinated varieties!

  11. Sara says:

    I grow little leaf too, after a few years of bad luck I went for genetics to help :) They can be grown under row cover entirely, though they usually get too big for mine eventually. I like how prolific they are in a smallish patch, and their size/shape for pickling is ideal. I also have telegraph for long salad cucumbers (which make great Asian fridge pickles), and lemon, though I’ve only had one measly fruit so far, no luck with those at all!

  12. Pingback: Links: Pickling Cucumbers, Seven Day Pickles, and Winners | Food in Jars

    • Jeremy, that’s a nice article you wrote.

      Asier doesn’t look like the sort of cucumber you’d brine. In fact, the word asier seems to refer as much to a sort of pickle as a sort of cucumber, and that sort of pickle is a mustard pickle, called Senfgurken in German. There’s a recipe for Senfgurken in The Joy of Pickling.Your etymology may be correct, because in much of the world words like achar refer to mustard pickles.

      Here’s a link to a Danish article on asier agriculture: https://www.landbrugsinfo.dk/Planteavl/Havebrug/Frilandsgroensager/Sider/gr_oko_dv_asieagurk.pdf?download=true. The article lists three varieties of asier cucumbers: Dansk Asie (an old variety, hardy, striped, now rare), Langelands Kaempe ‘Gigant’ (grown in Langeland, large, cylindrical, smooth, dark green, susceptible to mildew), and Fatum (a recent German variety, smmoth dark green medium length, bitter-free). You can get Fatum from Amazon.de. You can get Dansk Asie from this supplier: http://www.vaegtkonsulenterne.dk/Slanketips/Sundhedsleksikon/asieagurk/. At least I’m guessing that you can get seeds from these sources, since you’re in Europe. I don’t know of any U.S. sources.

      If you succeed in getting seeds, will you send me a few?

    • Thanks, Deb, but I think that Renee is using kirby to mean simply “pickling cucumber.” Since the particular variety listed, Endeavor, is a gynoecious hybrid (WI 2870G x Clinton), I don’t think it’s the original Kirby. (From Iowa State University Extension: “Gynoecious varieties are special hybrids which produce predominantly female flowers. Seeds of a standard monoecious variety are commonly included in the seed packet to ensure adequate pollination. (The seeds of the monoecious variety may be dyed or placed in a separate packet.) Gynoecious varieties often outproduce standard varieties when a pollenizer (monoecious variety) is present.”)

  13. Sherri Venditti says:

    I have loved the Persian Baby Green Fingers from Renee’s …. Until last year when either the seed was different or something in my garden was. In the past, the production was amazing, the fruits extremely flavorful, crunchy, and consistent. I found they made good eating at any size right up
    until they were yellowing, didn’t have to be peeled for salads, and were equally nice fresh or brined (I’m still enjoying NY Sours from my short growing season!). Other seed companies show a Green Fingers variety but I have no idea whether it’s the same or not as they refer to a much longer fruit.

    • In a quick Web search for Persian Baby Green Fingers cucumber seeds I found one other source, Rohror Seeds, but Rohror’s supplier is apparently Renee’s. Whereas most Persian cucumbers are picked at 4 to 6 inches, Baby Green Fingers is picked smaller, at 3 to 5 inches. I don’t know if I’ll ever try growing Persian cucumbers, which are much loved in California for their smooth, thin skins and sweet, crisp flesh, because this variety is developed for warm, arid climates. Sherri, where do you live, with your short growing season?

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