A step-by-step guide to growing cucumbers in container gardens
Cucumbers, I’ve found, are a lot like kids: always hungry, always thirsty, and always climbing on things! You can’t exactly keep kids contained … but you CAN grow cucumbers in pots and it helps keep up with their demands.
If you’ve ever seen cucumber plants in an in-ground garden, you know they’re usually big, sprawly, viney plants, much like squash. So it might not occur to you to grow them on your deck, patio or balcony, but you totally can!
The main trick to growing cucumbers in pots is to find compact bush varieties. As long as they have a big enough container and a trellis or some stakes to climb, cucumbers can thrive in a container garden.
This season I kind of backed into the cucumber idea. I hadn’t grown it in a few years, but I was already planning to grow dill (because I love it) and figured … why not plant cucumber again and experiment with some homemade pickles?
I don’t have much time for preserving and canning, so I usually stick to drying herbs and call it a day. But homemade pickles are actually pretty easy to make.
I’ll report back on the end result (assuming I get around to it — because honestly some years I can’t commit to more than watering my plants whenever I remember – but I will try!).
Read on for all the details you need to grow cucumbers in pots from seeds or seedlings, including cucumber varieties, care instructions, common pests, and cucumber companion plants.
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How to grow cucumbers in pots
Let’s start by talking about cucumber varieties, because it can get confusing. When researching this myself online in the past, I found a wide range of information, some helpful and some not. Often conflicting or incomplete.
I will spare you the endless searching!
(If you’re already familiar or don’t care as much about the details, skip ahead to “Grow cucumbers from seeds.”)
Guide to cucumber varieties
Cucumbers are creeping vine plants, part of the gourd family along with pumpkins, watermelons and squash. Cucumbers themselves are technically fruits (botanical berries) but we consider them to be vegetables, much like tomatoes.
Bush and vining
There are two varieties of cucumbers: bush and vining. As you might imagine, bush varieties are more compact and spread less than their vining siblings … which makes them perfect for containers.
Slicers and picklers
- Slicing cucumbers are best for fresh eating, like salads and sandwiches. They have thinner skin and mild flavor.
- Pickling cucumbers have thicker skin and aren’t as pleasant when eaten raw. They’re best for pickling because they hold up well in brine and can maintain that awesome crunchy texture (as long as you preserve them asap after harvest!).
There are vining and bush varieties of both types.
- Monoecious varieties produce male and female flowers. Usually the first 10-20 are male, followed by female. Female flowers have a small bulge at the stem, where the fruit develops.
- Gynoecious varieties only produce female flowers and need a male pollinator planted nearby.
- Parthenocarpic varieties have been developed to produce fruit without pollination. These varieties are most often used in greenhouses and other environments without access to insect pollinators.
Burpless and … with burps?
Cucumbers have a compound called cucurbitacin that can upset your stomach. Some varieties have been bred to have lower levels of cucurbitacin and generally thinner skin (and fewer seeds) for easier digestion. Those may be labeled as burpless, but it’s not a guarantee …
Confused yet?? Don’t be! You’re reading this because you’re planning a container garden (or you already have one in progress), so for now just worry about the bush varieties that produce the kind you want to use most.
This year I’m growing bush pickle cucumbers in hopes of making some pickles, like I mentioned. We don’t eat a ton of raw cucumber in our household, so I’m skipping slicers. You do you!
Which cucumber varieties do best in containers?
Many compact or bush varieties do well in container gardens, as long as you have a way to trellis them. Here are some recommended by gardening experts:
- Bush Champion – high producer with big fruit (8-12 inches) considering the compact plant
- Bush Crop – produces lots of medium-green, 6-inch fruits
- Pot Luck – quick-producing bush cucumber (50-55 days) with 6-8 inch fruits
- Salad Bush Hybrid – full-size 8-inch fruits on very compact, disease-resistant plants
- Spacemaster 80 – prolific producer of smooth, 7-8 inch fruits
- Little Leaf – medium-length 3-5 inch fruits also good for eating fresh, with some disease and stress resistance
- Marketmore – dark green heirloom with 6-8 inch fruits
- Northern Pickling – quick (48 days) heavy producer of small to medium fruits good for slicing or pickling
- Picklebush – dark green 4-inch fruits, exactly how you would picture a pickle
How to grow cucumber in pots from seed
Cucumber is one of those plants that does best when it’s planted directly in its final destination. It’s sensitive to root damage and doesn’t love to be transplanted.
So ideally you would start from seed outside in the container where it’s going to live for the season (after the last chance for frost has passed).
That said, if you want to get a head start, you can start seeds indoors before last frost. I recommend you use 4-inch peat pots so you can plant the whole thing in the outdoor container when it’s time, minimizing root disturbance.
- If you’re getting that head start: About 3 weeks before the last expected frost in your area, plant 3-4 cucumber seeds per peat pot. Plant 1 inch deep in coconut coir, seed-starting mix or potting soil, and mist to keep them continually moist but not soggy.
- If not: After all threat of frost has passed, direct sow outdoors in the container you plan to use for the season. Use high-quality potting soil and mix in slow-release organic fertilizer pellets or aged compost or manure.
- After they’re planted, seeds should germinate in 1-2 weeks.
- Once they’re a few weeks old and have at least one or two sets of true leaves, thin them down to one seedling per pot by snipping the weaker ones at the soil level.
- At this point, if they’ve been growing in a soilless mix, you can give a little bit of diluted half-strength liquid fertilizer. Remember that seedlings generally don’t need much and too much fertilizer can burn delicate roots. So go easy! If they germinated in potting soil with fertilizer mixed in, no need to add more at this stage.
Start cucumber from seedlings
Seedlings are a good way to start your plants if you don’t have time to start from seeds (or just don’t want to).
TIP: My favorite place to get seedlings is the farmers market, where they’re often grown organically and get a lot of care and attention. And it’s awesome to talk directly to the grower, who can share tips for transplanting and growing in your local climate. Farmer’s markets rock. Find yours with this farmers market directory!
Just be sure to transplant seedlings carefully into your containers, minimizing root disruption as much as possible.
If you go with seedlings and they haven’t been hardened off (or you’re not sure they have been), gradually expose them to the outdoors before planting in containers. Set them out in indirect sunlight for an hour or two per day for a few days, adding a bit more time and direct sunlight each day until they’re outside all day.
What size containers to grow cucumbers
Cucumber likes: lots of room, plenty of food and water, full sun
Cucumber doesn’t like: dry soil, small pots, going hungry
These are all key factors when deciding where and how you’re going to plant:
- Choose a container that holds at least 5 gallons of soil per cucumber plant. Bigger is even better. Fill with good quality potting soil (never garden soil, it carries pests and bacteria). Cucumber plants are big and robust — even compact varieties — and need plenty of room to grow.
- Next, find a spot on your patio, deck or balcony that gets full sun at least 6-8 hours per day, if possible.
Succession planting cucumbers
If you want a steady supply all season, consider succession planting every 2-4 weeks. Start a new plant from seed by direct sowing in a new container outdoors
Cucumbers produce fruit starting around 6 weeks after sprouting, so succession planting will keep you harvesting as long as possible.
How to take care of a potted cucumber plant
You know the saying that humans are basically cucumbers with anxiety? Those memes often say the human body is 90 percent water and so are cucumbers. While the sentiment is on point and I can personally relate to feeling like a cucumber with anxiety on a regular basis, the science is a little off base.
Cucumbers are actually closer to 95 percent water. Humans are more like 65 percent.
The moral of the story is that cucumbers are thirsty and need a lot of water to grow and produce lots of fruit.
Make sure you’re giving your cucumber plants 1-2 inches of water per week. They have relatively shallow roots and dry out quickly, so make a plan to ensure you keep steady water throughout the growing season. Set alarms on your phone or a gardening app (like WaterMe) or whatever works for you, if that helps. It’s important!
You can check moisture level at any time by sticking your finger in the soil. If the top inch or two is dry, it’s time to water. Water at the soil level (not over the top of the plant) steadily until it runs out the drainage holes at the bottom.
The goal is saturation but not sogginess.
Mulch is also super helpful for cucumbers. It helps retain moisture and keeps dangling fruit off the soil. Consider adding grass clippings, straw or other organic mulch. Just be sure to keep it a few inches away from the stem at the base of the plant.
Cucumbers are thirsty AND hungry. They’re heavy feeders that need a steady diet to produce so much fruit.
When you plant or transplant in the container you’re using for the season, mix in some aged compost or aged manure at least 6 inches deep. Or you could mix slow-release organic fertilizer pellets in with the potting soil.
Then every 2-3 weeks, apply some diluted fish emulsion (this Organic Liquid Fish is my favorite) or compost tea or side dress with more aged compost.
When flower buds start to form, switch to a fertilizer with lower nitrogen and higher phosphorus and potassium, which help develop flowers and fruit. Nitrogen can actually inhibit flowering.
My cucumbers and pumpkins have been absolutely LOVING this Schultz water-soluble tomato food this season. You can literally see tons of flowers pop out within a few days of applying it.
You can learn more about nutrients in my Fertilizer 101 post, if you’re interested!
How to trellis cucumber
Cucumbers are vining plants, and even the more compact bush varieties need some support. To grow cucumbers in pots, you need to give them somewhere to vine and climb!
Some benefits of trellising cucumbers:
- Gives the vines somewhere to go, like they want to – even bush varieties will sprawl a bit without support
- Keeps vines and fruit out of the dirt
- Helps keep pests like cucumber beetles away from the plants
- Gives the fruit space to grow evenly
- Makes it easier to keep an eye on fruit development so you can harvest as soon as they’re ready
Luckily, you don’t need a fancy trellis or any special technique. Really anything the vines can climb is great:
- 72” tomato cages with multiple set-up options
- Garden obelisk trellises made of iron and plastic
- Trellis netting can be attached to a fence railing or overhang
Important: Make sure you set up the trellis or stakes as soon as you have well-established seedlings. You’ll want the plant to have somewhere to go by the time it flowers, without bending or stressing the main stem. Adding stakes later can also cause root damage.
Here are some ways to trellis your cucumber:
When to harvest cucumber
Cucumbers get bitter and seedy when overripe, so err on the side of picking early and often.
For slicers, harvest when they’re 6-8 inches long (read the seed packet or other description of the variety so you know the optimal size, and pick asap when they get close). Picklers are smaller and usually hit peak ripeness around 2-5 inches.
Don’t wait! They really are best when just barely ripe, and frequent harvesting encourages more growth.
If you miss one and it gets overripe or damaged, go ahead and harvest to encourage the vine to keep producing. Same goes for damaged or unusable fruit.
The best way to harvest is with a sharp knife, scissors or garden shears. Twisting or pulling can damage the vine and hinder future growth. Leave an inch or two of stem attached to the cucumber, to prevent rot while it’s stored in your fridge.
How to control cucumber pests
Cucumbers are susceptible to quite a few pests, so it helps to know what to watch for.
- Cucumber beetles – black and yellow, either striped or spotted. Planting in pots actually helps prevent these, as they overwinter in garden soil and emerge looking for seedlings to demolish. Keep a close eye out for them as your cucumber plants grow. Hand pick them off if you see them.
- Aphids – tiny green bugs that hide out under leaves and suck nutrients out of the cucumber plant. Try spraying the leaves with a blast of cold water or coating with a mix of water and dish soap. Learn more about aphids here.
- Whiteflies – tiny white moth-like flies (duh) that hang out underneath leaves. They drink sap from the plant and leave behind a sticky residue. Treat like you would for aphids, or use covers (but remove when flowering, to allow for pollination). Learn more about whiteflies here.
Cucumber companion plants
Companion planting involves locating specific plants near each other to benefit from complementary characteristics. Companion plants can help:
- Deter pests
- Boost or balance soil nutrients for each other
- Provide shade or climbing structures (like corn with beans)
- Attract beneficial bugs and pollinators
So give cucumbers some friends! They like being planted with:
- Dill and oregano – these aromatic herbs are both known for repelling aphids and other pests, while attracting pollinators
- Sunflowers – a natural trellis friend for climbing
- Marigolds and nasturtiums – I don’t talk as much about flowers on this site because we’re focused on herbs and vegetables, but these two are excellent companions for many plants, including cucumbers. They repel aphids and beetles, two major cucumber pests.
So as you can see, cucumbers are a lot like kids … always hungry, thirsty and ready to climb. Growing cucumbers in pots from seeds or seedlings is mostly a matter of providing plenty of water, steady fertilizer and a trellis for climbing. Try it this season … and maybe even make some homemade pickles? Go wild!
More ideas for your container garden:
- Veggies that grow well together in containers
- How to grow basil in a pot
- How to grow thyme in a pot
- How to grow rosemary in a pot
- Growing zucchini in containers
- Growing okra in pots
- How to grow catnip in pots
- How to grow parsley in a pot