How To Grow A Cucumber Like A Victorian

As part of our celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of The Victorian Kitchen Garden we are going behind the programme to explore the garden advice of the day, and how a good gardener of the era learnt how to provide food all year round. This week we are looking at cucumbers, the very fruit (yes, it is a fruit) that we buy so cheaply today and allow to rot in their millions in our salad drawer each year - you're not personally responsible for the millions of rotting cucumbers, it's just a national statistic alongside the fact that the poor cucumber, once so revered, so expensive to grow is now been sold so cheap that farmers are considering not growing them anymore because there's no profit in them. We may be on the brink of extinction for the cheap cucumber.

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Mr Beeton said of cucumbers: 'These can be grown under glass, or on a hotbed, at any season of the year, all that is necessary being to maintain the temperature of the house or frame, as the case may be, at a height ranging from 70 degrees to 75 degrees, but not falling before the former'. Let's stop to consider this in an age before thermostats, heated electric benches and electric heaters. We are deep in the age of steam and coal. You can start to see that the cheap cucumber of today was the expensive crop of yesteryear. The sheer amount of work that would have gone into cucumbers from stoking boilers to monitoring the heat in the glasshouses is gob smacking. The fact that Mr Beeton states they can be grown all year round makes you wonder how those head gardeners coped with the idea of growing cucumbers in January. We have much warmer winters now and I doubt we'd get a cucumber through April, let alone winter. Yet, Mr Beeton tells us: 'The best cultivators will tell you that they have had many failures; but failure has given no discouragement, but rather afforded a stimulus to increased effort till success has rewarded their pains'. Nowadays, we'd just take to twitter and bitch.

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Yet, you can't help think that Mr Beeton is covering his back, as if to say, 'others failed and they never gave in, if you do then your not a cultivator!' Let's finish with how the Victorians started the cucumbers. Again, Mr Beeton berates us for starting them late in March: 'it should be done now...the manure being shaken and turned over three or four times; for on this everything depends, the heat lasts longer, and the plants are not exposed to violent and irregular heating'. He recommends that a 'bushel' of loam be placed over the manure under a cold frame or light (another term for a solid brick cold frame). Plants grown in a glasshouse should be planted into the loam five to six days after making the hot bed. However, if you have failed to sow seed, Mr Beeton signs off with; 'If no plants are ready, sow two seeds each in 3-inch pots, only half filled with soil at first, and add fresh soil as the plants grow, The soil in which they are grow should be rather coarse, and by no means sifted'. There is a universal truth about the Victorian gardener and the cucumber, their ambition to excel in producing them as early as possible. However, what became of the cucumber once harvested?:

Slice two cucumbers and two onions, and fry them together in a little butter. Then drain them in a sieve, and put them into a saucepan, with a gill of gravy, two spoonfuls of white wine, and a blade of mace. When they stewed for five or six minutes, put in a piece of butter, about the size of a walnut, rolled in flour, a little salt and cayenne pepper. Shake them well together till the while is good thickness, and then put them in your dish, and serve up - J.C. Schnebbelie, The Housekeeper's Instructor, 1808.

Bon appetit!

Mr Beeton's advice can be found in The Beeton Book of Garden Management, first published in the 1860s.

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