Okra: An Easy and Delicious Addition to Any Southern Garden

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There are some vegetables that are best fresh from the garden. For me, okra is one of these.

Okra is a heat-loving member of the Mallow family, to which hibiscus and Rose-of-Sharon also belong. While susceptible to a few pests and diseases, they rarely require much spraying or maintenance, other than diligent harvesting and weed control. ‘Clemson spineless’ is one of the most popular varieties, but there are many to choose from that have slightly different shapes and harvest times. ‘Annie Oakley’ is an early-maturing variety. ‘Burgundy’ has red pods and stems, and is very tender, and grows very tall. ‘Baby Bubba’ is a smaller plant that can be grown in containers.

Okra takes about 60 to 70 days to produce edible pods for harvesting, save for some early-producing varieties. Plant okra when soil temperatures are above 65F, after the danger of frost has passed. Select a site that is well drained, and be sure not to block sun to the rest of your garden with okra. It is a great plant for putting up next to a brick wall or in areas that get a lot of hot afternoon soon. If planting from seed, plant seeds 1” deep, four to six inches apart, in rows at least 3’ apart. When seedlings emerge and become several inches tall, plants should be thinned out to provide 1 ½ to 2 feet of space between each okra plant. Planting too close together often contributes to a less desirable performance as plants compete with each other. Okra can also be transplanted, but many people prefer to direct sow the seeds. Okra has a hard seed, so soaking it overnight can help with germination.

Take a soil test before planting okra or any vegetable garden to see if lime or other nutrients are needed. Fertilize according to soil test results before planting. If you do not take a soil test, incorporate approximately 1 pound of 13-13-13 or 2 pounds of an 8-8-8 per hundred feet of row and then side-dress with nitrogen fertilizer when plants reach a six to eight inch height and again two to three weeks later. Do not over-fertilize with nitrogen as too much will contribute to excessive plant growth and may reduce production. Okra tolerates dry conditions very well, so once the plants are established, watering on a regular basis is not usually needed unless an extended dry period occurs.

Pods are of best quality when small and tender, usually 3 to 4 inches long is the right size to pick. As they get bigger they will become more fibrous and tough. Plan to pick okra every day or every other day once harvest begins. Snap pods off with your hands or use snips. Okra plants have spines that can irritate the skin, so many people wear long sleeves and gloves when harvesting. After harvest, immediately transfer okra to a paper or plastic bag and refrigerate. You can also freeze okra, either by slicing into smaller pieces or freezing pods whole. If you miss a few days of harvest, take off the large pods to encourage the plant to produce more pods.

Some okra varieties, like the hybrid ‘Cajun Delight’ stay shorter in stature, while others such as the heirloom ‘Louisiana Green Velvet’ and ‘Cowhorn’ can reach 8’-14’ height late in the season. Harvest can become challenging with such tall plants. You can cut okra stems down to 3-4’ height and the okra will send out new shoots with flowers and pods at a more manageable level. Okra can be used in late fall bouquets. To create attractive okra stems for this, stop harvesting a week or two before frost. The remaining pods will become large. Once frosted and brown, cut the okra stalks when dry and place in arrangements indoors or outside.

Pests of okra include some foliar fungal diseases, and cucumber beetles. These often do not require control. Burying or removing plant debris at the end of the season and rotating crops will help reduce these. Okra are very susceptible to root knot nematodes, and will yield poorly in soils infested with them. Avoid planting in these areas.

If you are looking for an easy-to-grow plant to add to your garden, consider trying okra. Relatively easy to grow, the reward is also great as okra tastes best when fresh.