Growing cucumbers organically is challenging just about everywhere in the continental U.S. thanks to a small pest with a big appetite. Two actually. Cucumber beetles are the size and shape of Ladybugs, but that is where their similarities end. These “Diabrotica”
as they are known to entomologists, are green and yellow. One variety is striped, the other spotted.
Cuke beetles will eat any number of dark green plants, including many of the vegetables we grow, but they prefer…yep, Cucumbers. They like cucumbers so much they will feed on the seeds in the ground, the stems and leaves of the plants, and the fruit. Even when they don’t mortally wound the plants, they almost always cause extensive cosmetic damage to a percentage of the fruit, rendering them unmarketable.
The diabolical Diabrotica also has no insect predators to keep it under control, and only a few types of birds like the way they taste. Rounding out all the other factors making it such a serious pest? There is no viable way to control them organically. Conventional cucumber growers use large amounts of highly toxic insecticides.
For years we struggled to grow cucumbers, sometimes losing the whole field while the plants were still tiny. Often most of the fruit was not marketable. Then we happened on the Painted Serpent variety.
Also known as “Striped Armenian”, these are actually a variety of melon. But if you harvest it when it is still immature, it tastes just like a cucumber. While the beetles will still attack the plants, they grow much more vigorously than actual Cucumbers so the damage is less often catastrophic. And because the Serpents’ fruits are fuzzy when they are very small, the beetles don’t damage them as much as they do the smooth skin of regular cukes.
In many ways, the Painted Serpents are also superior to regular Cukes for culinary purposes: the skins and flesh is never bitter, and they are essentially seedless. They are not naturally as firm as cucumbers, but the flesh is still crisp. Some people find their skin too fuzzy, but it’s easier to peel than regular cucumber skin. And one pest does seem to prefer them to just about every other crop: the Jackrabbits will eat the young leaves as they are growing.
We don’t grow regular cucumbers anymore, just the Painted Serpents. For us this was a form of ecological adaptation. We hope that you enjoy these unusual-looking vegetables as much as we enjoy growing them.