Senior Gardening

One of the Joys of Maturity

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A Cucumber of Distinction
August 7, 2008

I came scarily close to losing one of my favorite garden varieties this year. Only one seed of the Japanese Long Pickling variety of cucumber germinated this spring. Of course, one is all it takes, but it was close.

I got my original start on Japanese Long Pickling cucumber seeds from Stokes Seeds many years ago. Stokes quit carrying the open pollinated variety long ago in favor of some hybrid or another. But I've not found a cucumber its equal for making bread and butter pickles.

The Japanese Long Pickling variety of cucumbers produces abundant crops of long, thin and often straight fruit when trellised. The fruit easily grow to 16-20" long while remaining thin and tender enough for slicing for pickles or table use.

Japanese Long Pickling Cucumbers

We put out our single Japanese Long Pickling cucumber plant in 2008 after clearing our early peas off the trellis and renovating the soil a bit. Since the T-posts and trellis were in place, I just worked in a good bit of lime and some triple 12 fertilizer before transplanting the precious plant with a trowel and mulching it in with grass clippings.

JLPs in garden

JLP harvestEven with the close proximity of flowers (foreground), peppers (background), and a few sad Sugar Snap peas (on the right), the plant thrived. At right is shown the harvest from one day!

I let the first two fruits the plant produced get large and yellow before picking them to save them for seed. Doing so risked having the plant stop producing fruit, but I got away with it. Since we have all the cucumbers we need for now (canned pickles keep forever), I'm going to let the plant really ripen some fruit on the vine for more saved seed.

Germination testA quick germination test on the seed from the first few JLP cucumbers confirmed that I had viable seed. To do the test, I just counted out ten seeds onto a paper towel. I folded the paper towel over the seeds, wet it, and put it in a zip lock freezer bag. Then I set it in a warm space and forgot about it for a week. The warm space was on top of a shoplight, so the seeds picked up some reflected light and show some good green on the shoots. From what I could count, I got eight out of ten seeds to germinate. I'll gladly take 80% germination, especially when this spring I thought I'd lost the variety!

With abundant good seed, we began to offer the seed first to other seed savers via the Seed Savers Exchange, and later to seed libraries around the midwest. For a time, we didn't have many takers, but that has changed in recent years.

Inbreeding Depression Sets In

Having gotten our start of Japanese Long Pickling cucumbers from just one seed eventually led to inbreeding depression of our strain. Seed germination rates dropped below 50%, and our plants began to show less disease resistance and less vigor. Knowing the cure was to cross our cucumbers with another strain of Japanese Long Pickling cucumbers led to a rather long and frustrating search for the seed. After several false starts with similarly named cucumbers that proved to definitely not be what we thought a JLP should grow, look, or taste like, we got lucky in 2013. I found that Reimer Seeds offered a strain of the variety and obtained some of their seed in 2013.

In our first trials with the new seed, we isolated the Reimer plants along with some of our own JLPs. The new seed turned out to be true to variety, producing the long, slender cucumbers one expects from a Japanese Long Pickling plant, although a bit shorter, fatter, and greener than our strain. Picking cucumbers for seed production only from our strain of plants which presumably had some crossing from the Reimer strain, we saw increased plant vigor, production, and better seed germination.

We've continued to grow some of both strains together with good success. We still, however, only harvest cucumbers for seed production from "our strain."

Free Seed for a While

CukesJapanese Long Pickling cucumberRealizing how close we'd come once again to losing our strain of Japanese Long Pickling cucumbers, I offered free JLP seed at times to readers of Senior Gardening who were willing to grow, harvest, save seed, and offer it to others. The variety needed more than an old gardener and one commercial outlet preserving its seed.

Several months after starting the first offer, I received a request from a major seed house that wanted to trial our strain of JLPs and possibly cross them into their strain that was named Japanese Long Cucumber. We'd tried their strain or variety when hunting for other JLP seed and rejected it for breeding with our strain as it produced shorter, much fatter, but still tasty cucumbers. They definitely weren't what we were looking for. But their request pretty well used up our surplus seed, ending our free JLP seed offer for 2015. Sadly, after rushing the seed to them as requested, I never got any confirmation of the seed being received, much less a thank you! It will be interesting to see if the company ever offers a Japanese Long Pickling cucumber variety in the future.

The Original Seed Packet

While filling a Seed Savers Exchange request for Japanese Long Pickling seed several years ago, I remembered that I had scanned in the original seed packet that contained the last of my commercially supplied cucumber seed. While most of the printed information on the packet isn't really important, the date on the top of the back side of the packet was important to me. It reads, "Jan. 1994 - 95%."

JLP packet front JLP packet back

Update (8/2/2015)

Immature JLP cucumber on vineCucumber blossomsWhen doing a links check, I realized that I'd let this feature story get out of date over the years. So I did a quick update to include more information about our current status with preserving the Japanese Long Pickling cucumber variety. This year (2015), we're growing a nice bunch of JLPs as a succession crop after we cleared our trellises of early peas. We have tomatoes growing at either end of the cucumber row, mainly so that I could anchor the tomato cages to the T-posts that support the trellises. (Our caged tomatoes get top heavy with fruit late in the season and tend to blow over without additional support, often uprooting the plants!)

I transplanted three plants grown from the packet from Reimer Seeds and about seven plants of our "improved strain," that has experienced some crossing the with Reimer strain. We once again will only be saving seed from cucumbers from "our plants." My wife's co-workers are enjoying the mature cucumbers grown on the Reimer vines. And even though seed saving is paramount in this project, I did steal one ripe cucumber from one of our vines for salads. I'm looking forward to having enough JLP cucumbers this season to save lots of seed and then make a large batch of bread and butter pickles, possibly the best use for Japanese Long Pickling cucumbers.

Maverick Red geraniums, Merit tomatoes, and Japanese Long Pickling cucumber vines

Update: (5/5/2017)

The commercial entity that requested JLP seed eventually got back to me when I pointedly inquired about it. They grew out the seed and liked the results. They've added it to their seed bank and are considering further developing and offering it as a commercial variety sometime in the future!

We had an incredible harvest of Japanese Long Pickling cucumbers in 2016. Most of the cukes went for seed saving. With an abundance of good saved seed in frozen storage, I'm going to focus on pickle production (bread and butter and dill) in 2017.

After giving away lots of JLP seed to commercial entities, seed libraries, and individual gardeners over the last few years, I'm a little disappointed to find that I'm still the only one offering the seed via the Seed Savers Exchange. I'm hoping that gardeners receiving the free seed have saved and shared the variety with other gardeners. But at this writing, there is no evidence of that happening.

Update: Sweet Relish (11/9/2018)

Absolutely overwhelmed with good Japanese Long Pickling cucumbers this year, I once again tried making sweet pickle relish. While a batch last year was a bit runny, some help from several online recipes helped me pull together a recipe that suits our tastes. It was good enough that I memorialized it in our Recipes section in Sweet Pickle Relish.

Relish jar and hot dog with relish

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From Steve Wood, the at Senior Gardening


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last updated 11/9/2018