It seems like a year of extremes - first, record-breaking winter cold temperatures, then a spring of extra warming sunshine. How about an in-between influence - like "cool as a cucumber"?

The National Garden Bureau has designated 1989 to be the year of the cucumber. This adaptable vegetable of many uses has been one of the five most popular garden vegetables for the past 17 years. Cucumbers are so easy to grow that they deserve a place in your garden.The cucumber is native to India where it has been grown for more than 3,000 years. It's a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes 500 or more cousins such as squash, melons, pumpkins and gourds. Contrary to popular belief, cucumbers WILL NOT cross with cantaloupes planted nearby. Even if it were possible, fruit of either crop would not be influenced, and only saving the seeds to grow another generation would produce a "melon with a cucumber flavor."

Of concern to gardeners is the bitter taste of some cucumbers. Associated with the bitterness is a social, if not digestive, problem - the burp. Plant breeders have eliminated the bitterness in many varieties and have designated them as "burpless." Most of these fruits are longer and more slender than traditional slicing types.

Taste is quite subjective, and whether a cuke is bitter may depend on the taster. When grown under stress with inadequate water and fertilizer in the heat of the summer, some may develop more bitterness. The bitterness is limited to the skin and is more concentrated in the stem end. Simply peel the fruit with a little deeper cut near the stem.

Excellent slicing varieties for this area include Euro-American, Sweet Success, Sweet Slice, Jet Set, and Amira. All these are heavy yielders with a large percentage of blossoms being female, which have the potential to produce a fruit.

Armenian is not a true cucumber but more an elongated melon. It will produce heavy yields of extra large, tender fruit with a cucumberlike, non-bitter flavor. They'll reach 30-36 inches in length but should be picked at about 16-20 inches for best eating. Some people cook them like a summer squash while still immature.

New varieties of pickling cucumbers are much more productive than old standbys like Boston, Chicago or National Pickling. You may find some bitterness in these types because the pickling process destroys that factor and isn't of any concern when they're processed. Just plan on having a slicing type for your fresh eating.

Calypso Hybrid, Wisconsin SMR18, Liberty and Green Star have produced high yields in demonstration gardens and at the USU horticultural farm in Farmington. Bush Pickle is suited for small gardens or for growing containers.

In general, cucumbers lend themselves to high production in limited spaces. They make a good vertical crop when you train them up a trellis or screen to cover a fence or wall.

Cucumbers are so easy to grow from seed that transplants aren't needed. They, squash and pumpkins often suffer from transplant shock that is a major setback in their growth. When the soil is warm around May 5-10, place seeds about 1 inch deep. Seed packages refer to planting them in a hill. This does not mean an elevation in the garden, simply a grouping of seeds. Keep the soil flat so water penetration will be more uniform and efficient. An easy way to encourage high production is to plant two seeds every foot in the row. When they emerge in a week or so, thin to one at each place if two germinate.

It's a crop you don't ignore if you expect high yields. Once cucumbers reach eating size, the cry of the season is pick, pick, pick! You'll need to harvest at least every other day. Fruit left on the vine will form seed and give the plant the message that its life's goal has been reached and production will cease.

ARBOR DAY

It's the season to plant a tree! Or maybe more. Steve Schwab, Salt Lake County forester, tells us that our area is losing trees at an alarming rate. If we are to have our fair share of the vegetation to air condition our surroundings, help purify the atmosphere and provide oxygen for the planet, tree planting is essential.

To encourage that planting, the National Arbor Day Foundation will send you 10 free Colorado blue spruce trees if you join that organization during April. Since that's the official Utah State Tree, you should avail yourself of this offer. For a $10 contribution, you'll become a member of this non-profit foundation whose aim is to encourage tree planting throughout America.

Blue spruce trees grow very well here and can be used as individual ornamentals, an energy-saving windbreak, a privacy screen or as living Christmas trees.

Keep in mind that those cute little seedlings don't remain small. Allow plenty of room from the fence or house if you leave them for mature development. You could grow them as Christmas trees at about a 5-foot spacing.

Send $10 to: Ten Blue Spruces, National Arbor Day Foundation, 100 Arbor Ave., Nebraska City, NE 68410 by April 30.

Other trees to consider for giving you shade and beauty include the Nor-way maple, tulip tree, littleleaf linden, Japanese zelkova, hackberry, thornless honey locust, red horse chestnut and Bradford pear.

COMING EVENTS

Native Plants: There's a lot of interest in plants that can survive with less water, yet will be attractive in yards. Many may be classed as natives, either here or in nearby locations.

To observe a collection of native plants in a landscaped area maintained by the Utah Native Plant Society, visit their location at Ninth South and Ninth West in Salt Lake City. The society is sponsoring an open house all day Saturday, April 29, beginning with a free sourdough pancake breakfast from 8 to 10 a.m.

Native Plant Society members will be there to answer your questions and discuss this recent trend in landscaping.

April 29, Larry Sagers will discuss lawns at 11 a.m. and flowers in the landscape at noon at the Foothill Village Shopping Center, 1400 S. Foothill Village. Classes will be in the ZCMI II Atrium.

May 6, same location, I will provide information on drip irrigation at 10 a.m. and small-space gardens at 11 a.m. At 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., I'll discuss innovative gardening techniques at the Regional Preparedness Fair going on at the Orem High School. There are many other workshops to attend on a wide range of subjects from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

PLANTS NEED WATER

From now on I'll include the water requirements for replacing what is used by plants during the previous week. For this week, it's 1.25 inches (more than usual for this time of year).