Cool, green cucumbers meet mellow, yellow marigolds

Cucumbers make their first appearance in the kitchen garden alongside tasty marigolds

Cucumbers make their first appearance in the kitchen garden alongside tasty marigolds

WHILE the humble cucumber has always had its critics – such as the author, lexicographer and bon-vivant Dr Johnson, who once memorably said that “a cucumber should be well-sliced, dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out” – it has also always had its fans.

That particular roll call of honour includes Christopher Columbus, Tiberius, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, along with, more recently, the late, great British gardener, Christopher Lloyd, who admired the vegetable’s “amorous” crunch.

Likewise, the food writer Sarah Raven is a fan of the cucumber’s “fresh cool crunchiness”, and in particular the tender, tasty, reliable and very productive variety Burpless Tasty Green, which is being grown for the first time this summer in the OPW’s walled kitchen garden in the Phoenix Park.


“We’ve never grown cucumbers in the walled kitchen garden before, so it’ll be interesting to see how they get on,” says OPW gardener Meeda Downey.

“The thing is that the plants love heat, so when we decided earlier this spring to have a go at growing them outdoors, we were gambling on it being a good summer. But that part . . .”, she finishes with a wry smile, as the skies darken overhead and heavy raindrops begin, yet again, to patter down, “doesn’t really seem to be working out that well so far.”

Burpless Tasty Green is what’s technically known as a “monoecious” variety of ridge cucumber, in that it bears both male and female flowers on the same plant, with the male flowers appearing first.

It gets its rather inelegant name as a result of cucumbers’ famed tendency, when eaten, to cause indigestion (and flatulence) in a vulnerable percentage of the population – a problem that this Japanese-bred variety supposedly overcomes.

Older or more traditional cucumber cultivars also had the problem of sometimes producing very bitter fruit – a problem much less likely to happen with the modern types as a result of careful plant breeding.

Interestingly, very thorough research by the Department of Horticultural Science in North Carolina – where the judges were divided into those susceptible to “burpiness” and those not susceptible – has confirmed that “oriental” cucumbers such as Burpless Tasty Green are “significantly less burpy” but not, however, completely “burpless”. Neither, apparently, are they genetically bitter-free, that distinction belonging only to varieties whose fruit are free of the biochemical compound cucurbitacin.

The final conclusion of this rather eccentric study was that “additional research is needed on cucumbers of all types to identify cultivars that are free of burping for susceptible judges, and to identify the compound responsible for the burping effect”. Important stuff.

Along with this “monoecious” variety of cucumber, Meeda and her fellow OPW gardener Brian Quinn are also growing what’s known as an “all-female slicer” or “gynoecious” variety of cucumber called Swing, which generally produces only female flowers and is thus particularly prolific.

Both Burpless Tasty Green and Swing are climbing or trailing varieties of cucumber, particularly suitable for outdoor cultivation, which is why the OPW gardeners have decided to train the plants up along a rigid A-frame trellis made from timber and chicken wire.

“We’ve given them a nice rich soil in a sunny spot of the garden, spaced about three feet apart and alongside some trailing nasturtiums. It’s a bit of an experiment but it seems to be working out so far,” explains Meeda, as she points out the tiny but succulent baby cucumbers that are already hanging from the plants’ stems.

“You have to keep the plants well-watered, well-fed, and weed-free. Once they’re ready – pick the cucumbers very regularly as otherwise the plant stops producing fruit.

Meanwhile, just across the path from the walled garden’s flourishing cucumbers is a vivid line of pot marigolds, or Calendula officinalis – another experiment by the OPW gardeners that already seems to be paying dividends in terms of the plants’ jauntily colourful display.

“For whatever reason, we’ve never grown English marigolds in the walled garden before,” admits OPW gardener Brian Quinn.

“But when we were going through the seed catalogues together earlier this spring, the plant just caught both my and Meeda’s attention. We liked the idea that the bright yellow and orange petals can be used in salads and also as a replacement for saffron, as a way of colouring boiled rice.”

Not only is the pot marigold wonderfully decorative, long-flowering, edible and easy to cultivate, it’s also a very useful plant in any kitchen garden, attracting beneficial insects and pollinators such as hoverflies and bees.

The flowers and leaves are also useful in the compost heap and are an alternative ingredient of the Quick Return method of compost making, popularised back in the 1930s by the Dublin-born gardener Maye Bruce, a founder member of the Soil Association.

Bruce used the dried flowers and leaves of the pot marigold along with those of wild plants such as nettles, dandelions, chamomile, yarrow and valerian to make a herbal compost activator which radically speeds up the heap’s decomposition, sometimes producing usable compost in as little as four to five weeks.

Her book , Common Sense Compost Making was published in 1946, with a revised edition now available from

Along with its usefulness as a compost activator, the medicinal qualities of the pot marigold have also long been valued, with the vitamin-rich flowers and leaves used as a remedy for skin disorders and to cure bites, stings, wounds and sprains.

The stems, when crushed, have also been used to treat warts. Finally, the plant is also considered a reliable forecaster of poor weather – when the flowers close, it’s supposedly a sure sign that bad weather is on the way.

If that’s the case, then fingers crossed that the walled garden’s marigolds remain resolutely open, even for a few days. Because the cucumbers – and the country’s gardeners – could now badly do with a spell of warm sunshine after what turned out to be a miserably cool and wet June.

The OPW’s Victorian walled kitchen garden is in the grounds of the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, beside the Phoenix Park Café and Ashtown Castle. The gardens are open daily from 10am to 4pm

Fionnuala Fallon is a garden designer and writer

WHAT TO: sow, plant and do now

Sow outdoors in pots or modules, for later planting in the tunnel or greenhouse when space permits for late autumn/early winter protected crops: Calabrese*, kales such as Cavalo Nero, dwarf green curled and Ragged Jack, Florence fennel, kohl rabi, Swiss chards, early peas, dwarf broad beans, sugar loaf chicory**, basil, coriander, dill, plain leaved and curly parsley and sorrel. Covering while outdoors with a fine mesh-covered frame or cloche will give young seedlings protection from pests, and also scorching sun, strong winds and heavy rain. Inside the tunnel, if you have vacant space now, you can still sow dwarf and climbing French beans* .

Outdoors, sow in modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop: beetroot, brocoletto Cima di Rapa, carrots, cabbages (Greyhound and leafy non-hearting spring types**), overwintering spring-heading cauliflowers**, peas* (early dwarf vars. only now), Florence fennel, Witloof chicory (for winter forcing), sugar loaf chicory, radicchios, endives, salad onions, claytonia, landcress, lettuces, kohl rabi, Hungry Gap kale, radishes, rocket, Swiss chards and leaf beets, summer spinach, summer white or yellow turnips, Chinese cabbage, Choy Sum, Pak choi, mizuna, mustard Red Frills and other oriental leaves, Chinese kale (Kailaan), lambs lettuce, salad mixes, herbs such as parsley, chervil, coriander, dill, fennel, buckler-leaved and French sorrel. Also sow some single, quick growing, annual flowers such as limnanthes (poached egg flower), calendula, Californian poppies, nasturtiums, phacelia, etc to attract beneficial insects such as hover flies to help with pest control, and bees to help with crop pollination. Sow fast-growing green manures such as buckwheat, red clover, mustard and Phacelia, to improve the soil, lock-up carbon and feed worms (after digging in), on any empty patches of ground cleared of early crops that won't be used for six weeks or so, or which needs improving.

(*Early July only, ** mid-late July)

NB: Sow in the evenings if possible as germination can sometimes be affected or even prevented by too high a temperature, particularly lettuce.

Plant outdoors: Brassicas, celery, celeriac, courgettes, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, runner beans, French beans. Earth up potatoes, begin to harvest earlies, spray maincrop against blight, keep seedlings and young plants well watered.

All sowing details courtesy of Nicky Kyle at

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon is an Irish Times contributor specialising in gardening