Gardening

a world of crazy heirloom cucumbers, with jay tracy of the cucumber shop

IF YOU THINK you know what a cucumber is, think again. Spend even five minutes on the website of The Cucumber Shop, a passion project of cucumber-mad Jay Tracy, and you’ll realize that you don’t at all. The incredible diversity of cucumbers was the topic for a recent conversation Jay and I had.

California-based Jay Tracy is a teacher and a father of four teens, and also the person behind the collection of exceptional and unusual cucumbers called The Cucumber Shop, a mail-order seed catalog he created about 10 years ago, and that evolved into cucumbershop dot com in 2019.

Read along as you listen to the January 23, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

crazy cucumbers, with jay tracy

 

 

Margaret Roach: How are you, Jay?

Jay Tracy: Doing well, Margaret. Thanks a lot. I’m excited to be able to help people discover cucumbers that have been here all along.

Margaret: There are all these historic, amazing varieties. So how long have you been collecting cucumbers?

Jay: So just to give a little bit of background: Since around 2008 well, 2007 was when my last child was born, and I gave up another hobby for this. And what I decided to do was just try to grow. But I lived in Tucson, and it’s very hard to grow in Tucson. You can grow some things, but not very much. In the middle of the summer it’s very, very hard; tomatoes are very hard. But one thing that grew well were Armenian cucumbers.

So I started probably in about 2008, 2009 to start growing Armenian cucumbers. And I liked them. And then there was a gentleman named George Brookbank. He was big in gardening down in Southern Arizona, and throughout Arizona.

And he told me, why don’t you try the serpentine cucumber? So I found what we call the Striped Armenian or Painted Serpent—it’s called by a number of names. And then it just went from there. I hooked up with some Italian friends, and around 2012 I believe they found my blog. And then I started getting more varieties and sending them back fresh seed of things I grow in isolation, and continuing to grow friendships and grow cucumbers-

Margaret: That’s good.

Jay: … and loving it, because they’re so easy and, so far. [Below, the Painted Serpent, sliced.]

Margaret: So now I counted on the homepage of the website cucumbershop dot com, I think there are, I don’t know, 60 offerings or something this year. There’s a lot. It seemed like there were a lot; I don’t know how many exactly. And you grow some of the seed, I think it says, and there’s a wonderful informational section of the website that’s called the Cucumber-pedia. Is that right?

Jay: Something like that, yeah. That whole thing is with the individual varieties that I offer, I’m trying to eventually get around to writing the histories. Because some of them do have histories. Most of them go back hundreds and hundreds of years, and so these have been grown since Ancient Egypt. And the regular cucumber that we know of from India only came around with the Islamic influence in Spain that brought cucumbers from India through that trade route. And probably the first real evidence they have of those types of cucumbers in literature or drawings is in about 1300. So any reference to cucumbers before then are these things that we’re talking about.

Margaret: So we can do a little mini minute or two of taxonomy. But most of us think of cucumbers as the long green things in the supermarket, or on the produce shelf or in pickle jars, smaller versions, in pickle jars. And I think that’s, is it Cucumis sativus, is that right?

Jay: Yes, sativus, right.

Margaret: Is this species, and that’s Asian as you said, from India originally, is that correct?

Jay: Somewhere around there, yes, exactly. So in Ancient Egypt and throughout some of the Middle East, we have melon. And this melon is grown  to be picked immature, as something that has high water content and is crisp yet tender and delicious. And here in America, a real light long one is called an Armenian cucumber, because of the Armenian influence. A lot of the world would call them snake melons.

And then the shorter ones, the shorter ones are usually grown mostly in Southern Italy. And those are called Carosello, but the long snake melons are Cucumis melo variety flexuosus. And the shorter ones are called adzur or chate. But they can all intermingle. If you were to grow them side by side, they would cross. [Below Carosello Tondo Massafrese, one of the Carosello types.]

Margaret: Yes. Because they’re promiscuous, those naughty cucumbers.

Jay: Yes. But you can grow these next to regular cucumbers and they won’t cross.

Margaret: So, there’s these two species, the one that we’re more familiar with in the grocery store, and the American plate is sativus, the species sativus. And that’s Asian. And then this melo, originates in Africa, I think. Is that correct?

Jay: Yes.

Margaret: So did you just say Egypt or…? So they come from two parts of the world, and therefore have adaptations to different cultural requirements, I assume inherent in them. And you have one picture, at least one on the website, where there’s a big tray of cucumbers [laughter] and there’s long ones and twisty ones, and tiny little round ones and bigger round ones. And striped ones and solid green ones and spotted one; it’s amazing.

Jay: Exactly. So there’s a whole bunch of diverse… It’s almost like, you see a tomato for the first time and you think a tomato is red and round, and that’s all you think of it. And then you see a tray of these heirloom tomatoes, you see all different things. That’s kind of what we’ve got here.

So just to go back as to what these things are, I often refer to them as cucumber melons or melon cucumbers. They’re almost same as a cantaloupe or honeydew. They’re a muskmelon, and it’s picked a zucchini, so it’s picked immature, just a zucchini. And a lot of them cluster in the crown of the plant like a zucchini. And then that first crop, you get a cluster fruit from the middle of the plant, and then later crops you get further on.

So it’s a melon, it’s grown like a zucchini, but you eat it like a cucumber and it tastes just like a cucumber, except it’s always bitter-free, and easy on the digestion.

Margaret: But it’s in the same species as a cantaloupe. That’s this Cucumis melo, the cantaloupe is in there, too. So it’s botanically a melon, but as you say, agriculturally a cucumber.

Jay: Right. Just as tomatoes are…

Margaret: They’re fruit, but we eat them like a vegetable.

Jay: Exactly.

Margaret: So I imagine that as you’ve networked more and more and made new friends, as you said earlier and so forth, and people tried your seeds–and especially with all the interest in heirloom crops and unusual crops and heritage type crops–I would imagine that for some people, there’s no going back. They’re not going to go back to the plain old straight green sativus cucumber. I imagine this is going to catch their attention, and they’re going to want more, more, more. Is that what’s been happening?

Jay: So originally it’ll catch their attention because it’s very pretty. But what really makes me continue to grow them is because they’re really good. And I have market farmers who I sell seed to, and I have just regular growers that I sell seed to, and they’re like, “I can’t buy a cucumber from the store anymore. I can’t grow English or Lebanese cucumbers anymore. I can only grow your stuff because it’s so good.” Which is great. But at the same time, it is one of the drawbacks [laughter].

Margaret: And are these all vine crops or any of them bush form, or how do they look as a plant? [Above, Tondo di Manduria, or Fabio’s Mandurian Round.]

Jay: So if we’re talking about the snake melons, most of the snake melons are pretty much vine-y, and several of the Carosello are. But a lot of the Carosello are like, you would think of them, they grow like zucchini in that they’re be very bushy, more bushy than regular cucumbers to begin with. Very compact. Some of them remain compact throughout their life, but most of them, that first set of fruit, they’ll be incredibly compact. And then after you harvest that first cluster of fruit, then they’re going to grow out more.

Margaret: But other than that, we grow them the same way. And so they’re warm-season crops, which for those of us in a cooler area than you are, that’s probably more important. So they’re warm-season crops. Do you start them indoors? Do you direct seed them? Are there any other particulars of growing that you want to share?

Jay: So maybe I could talk about how to care for them, and then talk about some pluses and minuses compared to regular cucumbers.

So after you’ve gotten some seed, you’ve probably ought to determine when you want to plant. And then they do like it warmer than regular cucumbers, and it’s really wise to start by just pre-sprouting or germinating your seed, in an ideal conditions. I just put my seed in a folded paper towel and a Ziploc [below], add a little bit of water and put it about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. And then I check it every 12 hours. And then when it starts to sprout, that’s when I put it in either something that I’m going to transplant with, or in the ground.

I like to talk about what the plant needs. And the seeds like warm, moist, around 80 degrees. The plants themselves have very sensitive roots. So if you’re thinking of transplanting, you’re going to have to avoid disturbing the roots. I use soil blocks, that works for me. But the peat pots and netted peat, that doesn’t work very well [laughter]. Just for those of you out there that-

Margaret: Pulls the roots apart.

Jay: Yeah. But the plants generally really like it warm above the ground, and somewhat dry and moist yet cool below the ground. The hotter it is day and night. If it’s warm nights, they’ll just keep growing really well.

And then when it comes to the fruit, if you’re picking the fruit to consume it, you probably want to pick, if it’s any cylindrical fruit, like some of the Carosello, at about 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. And that’s the thing with these, you’re looking at the diameter with both the Carosello and the snake melons. You pick it by the diameter, not by the length. And so you don’t want it to get too big in diameter, probably 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. And then the round ones, you’re probably looking at 3 to 4 inches. But a lot of them you can let go a little longer. It’s just the quality is better at that state.

Margaret: So I just want to dip back for a second to the, when you were giving the growing instructions, and you were talking about germinating them at 80 degrees and so forth, and that they’re not cold-tolerant at all, that we’re talking about the species melo, the ones that are, because a lot of us we know with sativus, with the traditional cucumbers, we could even direct seed them once we let the soil warmup, whereas these want a little more TLC at the beginning. And then I just want…

Jay: If you’re planting in June or July, you can plant straight in the ground.

Margaret:,  So the other thing I wanted just say is–because it’s a lot, there’s a whole language to this and so forth–but snake melons versus Carosello. Tell us again who’s who a little bit, describe them a little bit.

Jay: So if you know anything about Armenian cucumbers, that’s a snake melon. You’re looking at something that’s long and thin or longer and thinner. And then a lot of the snake melons are world record-holders for length [laughter], so they get really long. And then what we call Carosello, the Cucumis melo variety adzur or chate, they are smaller, and they’re like these little cylindrical cucumbers–usually cylindrical, sometimes oval, sometimes round–but they’re smaller.

And what we’re looking for there is texture. I have one variety, the Striped Carosello Leccese [below]. In Italy, they call it the Meloncella Fasciata. It was apparently grown for generations for quality. It’s amazing what the Italians could do. But you’re looking for a really nice texture, crisp, yet tender. Just delicious.

Margaret: So the Carosellos, are they still popular in certain parts of Italy? Are these traditionally grown still, or…?

Jay: Yes. So that’s really neat. So all throughout Europe, where they grew all these cucumber melons, they all died off as the new cucumber was introduced, the Indian versus the African cucumber. So the Indian cucumber, it’s really good for storage, really good for transport-

Margaret: The skin is tougher. And that helps?

Jay: Yeah. Especially those older… You grow some of these older Indian cucumbers and they’re made to store. That’s what they’re there for, is you store them. You can pick them immature, but if you let them sit on the vine later, they can store and you can eat them later, which is a great thing if you’re dealing with famine or whatever.

But if you’re dealing with quality, and if you’re dealing with freshness and quality and stuff, there’s no comparison with the other [laughter].

And one other difference between regular cucumbers and these, besides the texture and things, you can eat the skin of these, it’s real thin skin and real nice. But regular cucumbers will have the spines or something like that. These, a lot of melons, have fuzz on them. They call them trichomes, these little tiny hairs. They’re really not much, but there are a couple varieties, the Mezzo Lungo, they grow them specifically to have more hair, more fuzzy. So there is a bit of a fuzz factor, which is fun, but…

Margaret: Oh, interesting. So that’s preferred in some cases by people? [Below, trichomes on Carosello Leccese Light.]

Jay: Yeah.

Margaret: Oh, interesting.

Jay: And then there’s others that are almost completely hairless.

Margaret: These little things that in recent years that lot of American garden bloggers and vegetable growers and social media and stuff have gotten excited about are cucamelons [Mexican gherkins, Melothria scabra]. They look like a mini, tiny watermelon. So is that one of these things, does that fit in here?

Jay: No. So the cucamelon, or, let’s see… So the cucamelon comes from Mexico and that area. It’s a very distant cousin. Personally, I’m going to say this and those of you who grew cucamelon hate me for this, but to me, the taste of it is kind of like a cucumber rind. And the texture’s not that great, but they do really well if you’re going further into the season until your first frost. They can really do well later on in this season, when you can’t grow other cucumbers or melons. So I’ll give them that [laughter], and they’re cute. They’re really cute and fun. They are.

Margaret: But it doesn’t fit into the same species, these two.

Jay: No.

Margaret: It’s a slightly different animal. It’s a cucurbit of some kind, but it’s not in the same… world.

Jay: It’s not. It’s even distantly related to squash as well. It’s kind of out there.

Margaret: I bet you have a cucumber beetle regimen [laughter]. You do have cucumber beetles, I think, even in California, don’t you?

Jay: Yeah. I just go out early in the morning when they’re still cold, and then if you scare them or they feel any kind of threat, they’ll just drop straight there. Because when they’re cold, they don’t really move a lot, so you just touch them and they drop. And our cucumber beetles also carry viruses here as well, so I do watch out for them.

Margaret: So you let them drop into a pile of water or soapy water, a cup of water or something like that?

Jay: Or my hand or whatnot, if there’s just a couple.

Margaret: Early morning while the electric tea kettle is on, I definitely am out there doing that. That’s important. And it’s important because a lot of the cucurbits, that is the reality, depending on what part of the country you’re in, they do have pests–squash bugs and cucumber beetles and so on and so forth. And so keeping ahead of that is the key, don’t you think? Not turning a blind eye, but having a regimen each day to check.

Jay: So with me and my garden, it’s kind of like the garden is a teacher; the garden teaches me what it needs or how it’s doing. In the plants, there’s this interaction that happens between me and the plants. And what’s nice about these, is they’re pretty forgiving, and I can watch. As you go out there, you watch the plants day after day, they kind of tell you what they need, and you can change things up based on whatever the garden needs.

Margaret: So you’re a collector, and whether we’re collecting a particular type of bric-a-brac [laughter] or collecting baseball cards or collecting cucumber seeds, collectors have a passion, they ferret out the next motherlode, networking, as you said at the beginning, making new friends. What is the direction that you’re on the hunt for? So you probably read in historical, agricultural or food literature. I don’t know. Do you read about these things? You go, oh, I hope I can find that someday. Is that what happens [laughter]?

Jay: Well, so I do read a lot of scientific works because there’s not a lot out there about these. And then I also have a variety from India that’s completely different, this cucumber bleeds red sap. And it’s just wild. It’s pretty neat. And it’s actually a cucumber melon like these others. But that one’s really neat.

Margaret: And you have that?

Jay: Yeah.

Margaret: Wow.

Jay: It’s Ayra from India. It’s pretty wild. But it goes with finding them. Really, it just comes down to making friendships, making connections. The scientific community has nothing on just making connections in family and friends and all this.

There’s several that have varieties that have almost gone extinct. But between me and some other gardening friends, we’ve been able to keep them alive. One of them just was close to extinction and we brought it back and I found out that it’s parthenocarpic, which means it will set fruit without pollination, which is neat.

And then there was another one about five years ago that was pretty much, well, extinct. There were none of it left, and some seed was given to a market farmer, and he happened to grow it and eventually be able to pick it out of the ones that he grew. And then now I’m offering that one. And then I also selected one recently myself from the Scopattizo Barese. I selected one that’s checkered, and so I just nicknamed that one Checks, and it’s really fun. So the-

Margaret: The skin is decorative almost, isn’t it?

Jay: Yeah. It got a little bit of a checkered pattern to it.

Margaret: I just want to say, for your family, what are the ones that everybody looks forward to, or are they also sick of eating cucumbers [laughter]? Do you or your family, does anybody have favorites or ones to shout out just in the last minute?

Jay: So I love the Striped Carosello Leccese, that’s my favorite. I love to go back to that every year. And that’s my standard for quality in everything else.

One of the neat ones I have is a Facussa [above] that one’s out there. But the striped Armenian or painted serpents are good for later in the fall. They’re pretty cold-tolerant and disease-tolerant.

But one of the takeaways is these are not necessarily the next superfood or anything, but they’re easy to grow. They’re gentle on the soil, they’re not hard to grow like tomatoes. For some people, tomatoes can be hard, but they’re fun and they’re delicious. There’s a reason why ancient people grew them and kings wanted them year round and things like that. They’re fun and they’re delicious and they’re great. And if you’re looking for something new and fun to try out, look into Carosello, they’re great.

Margaret: Well, Jay Tracy of cucumbershop dot com, which is not your main job, but is your love, and it’s wonderful. And I’m so glad that we met. I’m so glad that you introduced yourself to me, and I’m having fun learning more about cucumbers, thanks to you. So thank you, and I’ll talk to you again soon.

Jay: Thank you, Margaret. I really appreciate it. And I hope your garden grows well, too.

(All photos provided by Jay Tracy.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 13th year in March 2022. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the January 23, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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