Cucumbers and the Gardening Nincompoop

My little cucumber!

My little cucumber!

I definitely still consider myself a novice gardener. I would never presume to give any kind of advice on gardening, but I do like to write about my experiences with the hope that other beginners can learn from my mistakes and incredible ignorance (and give experienced gardeners a good laugh at my expense). So with that being said, I’m happy to say I finally have some real bonafide cucumbers growing in my little garden!

I’ve been trying to grow cucumbers for well over a year now and have had one set back after another. The first time around, I was still in my “black thumb” stage where I just killed all plants in my presence with no effort whatsoever. The next plants burned to death in the scorching Florida heat (and I shamefully admit I forgot to water them quite often). Then I decided to try again and at that point I actually got some decent looking plants going. Hooray! And then the aphids came. They ate. And they destroyed.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m fairly persistent, so I planted more cucumber seeds. This time around the plants grew and grew. I did have a small aphid invasion, but I fought back and saved my plants. And then the plants continued to grow and grow. I started to see those gorgeous little yellow flowers bloom. Yet I saw no actual cucumbers. I was perplexed, but in my ignorance I just assumed that someday little cucumbers would just start showing up and then grow into big cucumbers.

My little spikey thing

My little spikey thing

About two weeks ago, I thought that day had finally come. I saw this adorable, spiky looking little green thing with a yellow blossom on the end. Woo hoo! Cucumbers! …NOT! Several days after my little spikey thing appeared, it shriveled up and fell off. I was heartbroken. Why did my cucumber die? A day or two later, I happened upon an article about cucumbers that someone posted on Twitter. I read the article and it was interesting, but when I scrolled to the bottom of the page I saw an advertisement for another article that had to do with the difference between male and female flowers on the cucumber plant. What?!? Male and female flowers? Was this something I needed to know about? Why yes, yes it was.

Female flower - you can see the beginnings of a small cucumber at the base of the flower

Female flower – you can see the beginnings of a small cucumber at the base of the flower

I took biology in high school and college. I learned about pollination. I even planted some flowers in my garden specifically to attract bees, you know, those small, buzzing creatures that pollinate. It just never occurred to me that the plants would have male and female flowers and that pollination would have to occur for cucumbers to grow. Dumb rookie mistake. After a little research, I learned the difference between the two flowers and also researched how to pollinate the flowers myself.

Male flower - just the stem is present at the base (receptacle) of the flower

Male flower – just the stem is present at the base (receptacle) of the flower

Even though I have some lovely zinnias and cosmos growing, I haven’t really seen any bees. So I found that if your garden is lacking in natural pollinators, you may have to do it yourself.

I went to the craft store, spent way too much time examining each and every paint brush, and then bought a small soft bristled paint brush for my pollination. I followed the suggested directions and lightly turned the tip of the paint brush in several male flowers to make sure I got a good amount of pollen on the brush. Then I gently twisted the tip of the brush in the center of the female flower. After that, all I could do was wait. I’ve been checking my spikey baby cucumbers every day and they are still there and still growing!

Retrieving pollen from the male flower

Retrieving pollen from the male flower

The yellowish dust on the tip of the brush is pollen from the male flower

The yellowish dust on the tip of the brush is pollen from the male flower

Some of you are probably wondering why I’ve been trying so hard to grow cucumbers. They’re easy enough to find at any grocery store. One reason is that I love cucumbers. I love the taste. I love the smell. They’re wonderful. I also always have them in the house because I have some very picky birds. Cucumbers are one of the only types of produce I can get all three of them to eat. They are also one of the only types of produce (besides greens) that I can get my lizards to eat. The lizards don’t need them, but I like to throw a treat in their food dishes every now and again. And the tortoises love them. As I’ve said before, I don’t feed the tortoises fruits and veggies too often, but as with the lizards, I like to give them something extra special once in a while. Cucumbers are also not quite as heavy in sugar as some other types of produce. High sugar fruits and veggies are not good for the tortoises (please see my “Happy, Healthy Eating” post for more info). I even give my turtles some cucumbers to snack on once in a while. So basically everyone in my house eats them except the frogs and the tarantula.

Another future cucumber!

Another future cucumber!

The other reason is that it was also a matter of pride I suppose. I’ve always heard that cucumbers are easy to grow and I was unsuccessful so many times. My pride was wounded and I felt like a failure. I needed a win. So I hope this will help some beginners out there. Even if you’re not growing cucumbers specifically, at least understand that you shouldn’t give up. Growing your own garden is so rewarding. Regardless of whether you’re growing flowers, fruits, vegetables, etc., you will eventually get to see the fruits of your labor (sorry about the pun, but it was right there). It will give you a sense of pride to grow something so beautiful, possibly tasty, and good for the environment. As always, good luck with your garden!

Happy, Healthy Eating

Kada really digs in to her pellets

Kada really digs in to her pellets

There are many different options for feeding your tortoise.  There are commercial pelleted diets and there are more natural diets.  I’m not completely against feeding the pelleted food.  There are a lot of vitamins and minerals packed into those pellets.  Many animals, even cats and dogs, do not receive proper nutrition.  So, if pellets help you provide a balanced diet for your tortoise then go for it.  However, along with the vitamins and minerals, there is a lot of other unnecessary stuff packed into those pellets as well.  Some of them are too high in fat and protein to be fed regularly.  Because of this, I do not recommend that commercial foods be a main staple of your tortoise’s diet.  I feed my tortoises Mazuri tortoise diet about 2-3 times per month.  I feed it for two reasons.  First, simply because they love it.  My tortoises like to eat (even things that aren’t food!), but they inhale the pellets. It’s like watching a kid enjoy a giant ice cream cone.  And second, it provides an additional type of food enrichment for them.  Commercial diets should not be the only source of food for your tortoise.  Again, mine only get some a couple times a month even though I feed them 3-4 times per week.

The more natural approach (and more healthy approach in my opinion) is to feed a natural diet.  Greens, grasses, hays, weeds, flowers, and herbs are types of foods that a tortoise would eat in the wild.  Currently I am growing a variety of greens in my garden.  I have a mesclun mix, arugula, red winter kale, endive, and romaine lettuce growing.  Dark, leafy greens are more nutritious.  However, greens such as spinach are high in iron and should be fed sparingly to avoid causing any health problems.  Dandelion greens, collard greens, mustard greens, and Swiss chard are all good options that are relatively easy to find in a grocery store.  I also have hibiscus, marigolds, cilantro, dill, and parsley growing to add to the greens for enrichment.  There are several edible flowers that are relatively easy to grow at home, even on a patio or in a window box.  See my “Links” page for a list of safe plants and another list of toxic plants to stay away from.

Tambara digging into a fresh hibiscus flower

Tambara munching on a hibiscus flower

The tortoises also have access to hay every day, but I rarely observe them eating it.  I do still have to buy hay.  I definitely don’t have the means to grow any such crop on my patio, though I wish I did.  I most often feed them orchard hay, but will occasionally change it up with timothy, Bermuda, or brome hay.  You can buy bags of mixed hay at your local pet store.   If you happen to live near a feed store (supplies for larger animals like horses), check them out as you may be able to find more varieties of hay.

My little ones also get the occasional bits of vegetables as treats.  I have green beans currently sprouting.  Sulcatas and most other tortoises should not get treats like that too often though, especially anything too high in sugar.  These sweeter treats can actually damage or destroy the good gut flora in their digestive tracts.  Without this gut flora they will not be able to properly digest food which can lead to severe health problems.  The diet should be high in fiber and low in sugar.  So it’s best to avoid fruits and choose veggies carefully if you do want to give a special treat.

As far as supplements, this is a rather debatable topic among tortoise enthusiasts.  Some feel that if the tortoise is fed a proper diet, supplements are completely unnecessary.  Others believe that supplements should be added to food regularly.  I, personally, am in the middle.  The amount of supplements you add to your tortoise’s food will depend on the rest of the diet being fed.  Juveniles and females carrying eggs will need a little more calcium than adult males or females not carrying eggs.  How they get the vitamins is up to you.  I add a light dusting of Superveggie supplement powder by Repashy to their greens about 2-3 times per month.  Though I still give a supplement, it’s not too often.  Mine don’t seem to mind the powder on their food either.  I have heard from other tortoise keepers that their torts won’t eat if there is a powdered supplement on the food.  You might have to experiment a bit if you find you have a picky eater.

Garden 026

No need for a big yard…just soil, water, sunshine, seeds, and love

The main reason why I started my garden was so that I can know exactly what is going on the food while it’s growing.  One suggestion to keep in mind if you do buy greens from the grocery store is to try to buy organic.  I know it may be a bit more expensive, but it will also be much better for your tortoises’ overall health.  While the amount of pesticides and fertilizers in produce may not be toxic to a 150 lb human, the amount of those pesticides and fertilizers could be toxic to a 150 gram baby tortoise, especially if that produce is 50%-90% of its diet.  And yes, I do realize that there are organic pesticides that can be used on organic crops.  However, many of them are still safer than pesticides that are not organic.  If you have the space to start your own garden, I strongly urge you to.  You don’t even need a big yard.  You can grow lettuce in pots on your patio or even grow some microgreens in small pots inside your house or apartment.  It will be so much healthier for your tortoise and it’s fun!

Some of the most important things to remember when it comes to nutrition for your tortoise are to provide variety, focus on the healthy stuff, stay away from sweets like fruit, try to buy organic, and make sure you are providing a good balance of vitamins and minerals in their diets.  Of course, if you have any questions or concerns, you should always contact a veterinarian, preferably one that specializes in exotic pets.  Happy, healthy eating to you and your tortoise!