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 McGee 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!)

An Excellent Pickler

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My new favorite pickling cucumber has a name that’s a mouthful: Vorgebirgstrauben. It’s a European type, with abundant little prickles instead of scanty warts. This cucumber is thicker than skinny French cornichon types, but unlike most American pickling cucumbers it doesn’t tend to bloat; it makes an attractive pickle at any length from one inch to five inches. Although the fruits from my plants have been slightly bitter, the bitterness is lost in pickling, and the mostly dark green color is retained. The plants are very productive and, in comparison with the other varieties I planted this year, disease-resistant.

I bought Vorgebirgstrauben seeds from Harvest Moon Seed Company. I hope other U.S. seed companies will begin stocking this outstanding variety.

2020 update: Vorgebirstrauben is now available from Uprising Organic Seeds, High Desert Seeds, and Restoration Seeds.