If you are looking for a vegetable that can take the heat, Okra is the one for you. Okra is a warm season vegetable. In fact the warmer the better. Don’t even think of putting it into the ground until the dirt has reached a balmy 65°F. This is one vegetable that keeps on going even through the dog days of summer. In fact, here in South Florida, it is one of the few plants we can grow in the summer. (Our gardening season is fall and winter)
Okra is thought to originate in Africa and it is related to the hibiscus. In frost free areas an okra plant can live for a full year. However it gets so tall, you may not be able to reach the pods. After 6 to 8 months you will probably either have to use a ladder to pick the pods or you will just want to pull it out and start a new one.
So how do you grow this culinary marvel? Just a few tips and you will be well on your way to adding a new dimension to your gardening repertoire.
Okra is easy to start from seeds if you know what it likes. First you will want to soak the seeds over night to soften the tough outer coating so the seed can sprout. If you live far south, like I do, you can plant the okra seeds right in the soil. However most of you will want to give your okra a head start so you can get the most out of the growing season before frost comes again. So you will want to start your seeds in pots and keep them warm. Make sure the type of “pot” you use is a biodegradable/plantable type like a Peat Pot, or check out this post on an even cheaper option. This way you can plant the whole thing. Okra has a tap root that is very delicate and does not like to be disturbed.
When planting out in the garden there are a few things to keep in mind. The okra plant gets quite large. It needs a bit of space. An area about 2 1/2′ to 3′ wide should be sufficient. Since it can grow up to 8′ tall it may need staking, especially in windy areas. And with a plant that is that tall you know it will have a large root system, so plan accordingly. I find it does great in my plant towers. They have a great loose, deep soil for the roots to grow into, and a little added support for the height. In addition they keep the roots up out of standing water, which can be a problem here in the summer.
Okra plants like moderate fertility. But since they grow for such a long season, it’s a good idea to side dress with compost or worm casting 3 or 4 times during the season. Make sure you keep them mulched to retain moisture and keep weeds from competing for the water and nutrients. They do best with moderate water too. Water them well then let them dry out for a day or two so the roots don’t get waterlogged. They can take a little drought, but it will effect the pod production.
Your plant should start bearing pods in 50-65 days, depending on the variety. When you see your first beautiful blossom get ready, as you will have to pick pods every other day for the rest of the season. The pods grow fast and you want to pick them no larger than 3″ long. Longer than that and they get very tough and stringy. Make sure you remove all the pods when you harvest, as pods left on to mature signals the plant to stop producing. If you are going on vacation for more than 4 to 5 days make sure you have someone pick your okra for you so it will continue producing the rest of the summer.
A word of caution on picking okra. All okra have spines. There is one variety “Clemson spineless” that has fewer spines, but alas I fear you will find spines on all of them to one degree or another. There are spines on the leaves and the fuzzy pods even have tiny spines. So before you venture out with your harvesting basket and your scissors or clippers, put a pair of gloves in that basket too. A long sleeved shirt is a good idea also. If you do forget the gloves and you get spines in your fingers they are easy to remove by just running a thumbnail over the offending spines. They will come right out, but it’s still not pleasant.
Most okra plants are green with green pods. It really is a very pretty plant that can look quite nice in an edible landscape. There is also a white pod variety. And the burgundy variety even has burgundy leaves. It is quite striking. There are a couple of space saving cultivars that are smaller and would be much more suited to pots.
They are susceptible to verticillium and fasurium wilt. But even here in Florida, the plant disease capital of the world, I still managed to get a great crop. A few things to help with these diseases, Rotate your crops (very important), clean up all debris (dead leaves), and if you do have a diseased plant, dispose of it in the trash or burn it. Do not compost it. I do believe that using my garden towers really helped keep mine healthy.
As far as pests go, okra is susceptible to aphids, stinkbugs and corn earworms. I always have trouble with stinkbugs and I never found one on the okra plant nor one blemish from one. Aphids are another story. However, if you keep an eye on your plants, when you find they have swooped in during the night, just hit them with a strong spray of water from the hose. Check every morning for a day or two to make sure they haven’t come back. I like this hose nozzle because it has an adjustable head so I can spray the aphids hard and my seedling gently.
Looking for what to do with okra? No problem. It is one of the most versatile vegetables there is. Okra can be cooked so many ways. The pods can be steamed, boiled, sauteed, baked, deep fried, braised, cooked into soups, and even (my favorite way) pickled. Okra makes the best pickles and it’s a great way to preserve the okra’s flavor and texture.
It can even be eaten raw, sliced in salads. It pairs well with tomatoes and the mucilaginous texture that they have helps thicken gumbos and stews. If you’re not fond of the mucilaginous texture (sliminess) you can minimize this by frying or pickling. It doesn’t eliminate it but it does reduce it.
Try adding them to your ratatouille or to a rice pilaf, marinate in a vinaigrette or serve with a dip. You can even eat the blossoms. Try stuffing them with cream cheese and baking them until the cheese is heated through. Or you can batter and deep fry them.
And it’s good for you too. Containing vitamins A & C okra is a good source of potassium, magnesium and folic acid.
Of course, as I mentioned before, my favorite way to preserve them is pickling. But if you find you have more than you can eat fresh, they will keep well in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for about 5 days. If you want to freeze them, blanch for 3 minutes, plunge into an ice bath to stop cooking. Slice them, lay them in a single layer on a cookie sheet, put them in the freezer until they are frozen and then bag and label them. Ziplock storage bags work great for short term storage. For longer storage, and to make sure no freezer burn gets to your produce, use a Vacuum Sealer. They are really awesome to seal up so many things.
I hope this inspires you to give okra a place in your garden this year. I think you will be happy you did. Send me a comment and let me know how you use okra.
Have A Ducky Week!