I hated pickles until I was about 23. Pickles seemed to be an acquired taste. But lately, I see kids all over the place munchin’ and crunchin’ on these salty-sour delights. This group of pickle munchers includes my own daughter. She has loved pickles since her first crunch at the age of 2. So to indulge this love of the pickled cucumber, we started a pickle patch. And by patch, I do mean a very small plot of dirt. That is all you need to start your own homegrown pickle operation.
Did I say that is all you need? Well, if you have a sunny spot, that would be best. And double digging your plot of land will really help aerate so the cucumber roots can grow deep. For smaller space gardens (and frankly for nicer looking cucumbers), go vertical. A freestanding trellis or twine hung down a wall works well for maximum climbage.
In most parts of the country, cucumber gardens can be started outdoors in April or May depending on your climate. Choose a cucumber variety that is good for pickling. We like to pick smaller varieties so they’ll fit in smaller jars. You can also go for looks. There are some types of cucumbers that just look like they are meant to be pickled like the Picklebush variety.
Once you have your plot of land picked out and aerated, you want to create mounds. Plant a few seeds in each mound. If you are using trellises, you can pop them in after you plant the seeds for easier accessibility. In the early stage of growth especially, plenty of water is important. I like to add a drip system so I don’t have to think about it, but kids love to get out the old galvanized watering can and do it the old fashioned way (for about a week). When the novelty of this wears off, plan on taking care of consistent watering yourself. (Did I mention the drip watering system?)
Here’s a DIY on a rather complex (but very useful) drip irrigation system. It’s a project in-and-of itself, but if you have a large garden, this is ultimately a time and labor saver.
Then comes every kid’s favorite waiting game. If all goes well, the sprouts should emerge in 7 to 10 days, which is like two years in kid time. But once those little plants start popping out, there will be renewed interest. Watching the vines grow is a bit like watching paint dry, but as soon as you get flowers, you know that cucumbers are on their way and things really heat up. This is a good time to teach your kids that cucumbers are actually a fruit and that all fruit come from flowers. This may seem odd to those of us who grew up in the 1970s, when almost anything green was called a vegetable, but our kids deserve to know the truth.
Cucumbers are usually ready to harvest mid to late summer. Pick them when they are small and green i.e. perfect for pickles. Then let the pickling begin. I like a really basic recipe for dill pickles that includes vinegar, dill, garlic and brine (salt water, often with sugar). You can mix it up with different flavors as long as you have your vinegar and brine. If you have never pickled before, I would suggest picking up a canning starter kit, that includes tongs and a jar lifter. You can get the jars with lids separately. Pick your jar based on the size of your largest pot. If your biggest pot is a one-quart stock pot, then you’ll need to pick up a larger pot. You can find a ceramic coated steel pot for fairly cheap. About eight quarts would be ideal for small jars.
For the actual pickle making, you can find a favorite recipe or wing it. With any recipe, making the brine comes first: Follow your recipe or use ½ cup each of sugar and salt to one quart of water and boil to mix. Add seasoning to your cleaned jars. This is where kids can really pitch in. Last year, my then 3-year-old daughter delighted in adding sprigs of dill and garlic bulbs to all the jars.
Next add the cucumbers. Again, a perfect task for little fingers. You may have to cut them down ahead of time though so they will fit. Pour the brine into each can and put the lid on loosely. Heat water in your large pot and set the jars in the pot. Heat the jar in the pot for the length of time indicated by your recipe.
Some recipes cook the pickles and some just heat it enough to seal the jars. I like the fresher versions that bring water just almost to a boil (about 15 minutes) to seal the jars. Once heated, pull the jars out and let them cool. (Careful! Watch for little fingers.) This should seal the jars. When they have cooled, test the jars for their seal. Tighten the lid down and store until ready to eat and enjoy. Homemade pickles taste much better than store-bought, so if you or your kids are on the fence about pickles, this just may be the thing to get you over the hump.