5 steps to managing wilt in your cucumber patch
Question: I lost my cucumbers to wilt this year. I’ve been growing Asian long cucumbers, from the same seeds, for several years and this is the first year I’ve had this problem. I’ve seen wilt in zucchini in the garden, but I grow my cucumbers in a small open-door greenhouse, and the Asians held up well to the heat and never budged. I’ve only been doing this about four years, but each year I’ve had a bumper crop. I love Asian longs or small gherkin-style cucumbers. I like vining types. What would you recommend for my situation? Do you think the age of the seed might have been a factor since I didn’t have a problem until this year?
Answer: I, too, love the crisp texture and small seeds of Asian long cucumbers so I understand your lament over losing your crop this year. How disappointing.
I’ll start by saying that I’ve heard from many gardeners this year who lost their cucumbers to bacterial wilt. It seems to have been a particularly bad year for this pathogen. Bacterial wilt is a devastating disease that seems to appear almost overnight and causes the vines to suddenly turn yellow and wilt. Unfortunately, once the symptoms appear, there’s no cure. Cucumbers with bacterial wilt are doomed to a quick death.
For those readers not familiar with this pathogen, it’s a bacteria that’s spread by a small, 1/4-inch-long insect called the cucumber beetle as it feeds on the foliage of the plants. Though getting rid of cucumber beetles may seem like the best way to prevent and manage this disease, it’s extremely difficult to do. So, your best course of action for next year is to follow this plan.
1. Clean out the planting bed at the end of the season. Adult cucumber beetles overwinter in garden debris, so clear out all the old vines, leaves and other spent plant material in the autumn. Adult beetles can travel large distances, though, so this alone is not going to solve your problem.
2. Next spring, be sure to purchase seeds of resistant varieties. Though I don’t think the age of your seeds made the plants more vulnerable to this disease, you should hedge your bets by planting varieties with a known resistance to the pathogen. And don’t plant just one variety; plant several. That way, if one variety succumbs to the wilt, others may have an increased resistance and continue to produce. Though there isn’t a big selection of resistant varieties, some to be on the look out for are “County Fair,” “Cross Country,” “Chinese Long” and “Tokyo Long Green/Tokiwa.”
3. Protect the young plants. Since seedlings and young plants are the most susceptible to cucumber beetles, cover the planted area with a layer of floating row cover soon after planting the seeds. Pin down the edges, leaving plenty of slack for the plants to grow. Leave the row cover in place until the plants come into flower when it needs to be removed to give the pollinators access to the flowers.
4. Trap the cucumber beetles. It’s possible to trap these beetles before they can transmit the disease, but I wouldn’t rely on this method alone, as it won’t trap every single beetle. Purchase yellow sticky cards online (you can get them on Amazon or from a greenhouse supply company) and put them up on stakes so they sit vertically only a few inches above the plant tops. Cucumber beetles are attracted to the color yellow and will get stuck in the non-drying glue coating the cards. Be forewarned, though, that some other insects may also get trapped on the cards and die.
5. Don’t plant all of your seeds on the same day. Staggered plantings are more resistant to the beetle’s feeding habits. Plant a few seeds every two to three weeks from mid-May through mid-July. One or more of those plantings will be “off” the lifecycle of the cucumber beetles. It will also prolong your harvest and is another way to hedge your bets against this terrible disease.