Okra, native to Africa and a beautiful relative of hibiscus, was brought to North America in the 1600s. This tropical plant quickly became popular in the Deep South both as a side dish and as a thickening for gumbo and stews. It can, however, thrive in any climate where corn will grow. Depending on the cultivar, the large-flowered, fast-growing plants reach 2 to 6 feet tall. Varieties with colorful stems and leaves, such as ‘Burgundy’, make attractive garden borders.
Thinking about growing okra in your garden?
Okra needs full sun. It will grow in ordinary garden soil but does best in fertile loam, particularly where a nitrogen-fixing crop, such as early peas, grew previously.
In short-season areas, start plants indoors 6 weeks before setting them out (3 to 4 weeks after the last frost date). Sow two seeds per peat pot and clip off the weaker seedling.
When seeding okra directly in the ground, wait until after the soil has warmed and the air temperature is at least 60F. Use fresh seed, and soak it overnight or nick each seed coat with a file to encourage germination. Sow seed ½ inch deep in light soil and 1 inch deep in heavy soil; spacing is 3 inches apart in rows 3 feet apart. Thin seedlings to 18 to 24 inches apart, always leaving the strongest of the young plants.
When okra in 4 inches tall, mulch to keep out weeds ad conserve moisture. Water during dry spells. Every 3 to 4 weeks, side-dress with compost or feed with compost tea. In areas with long, hot summers, cut the plants back almost to ground level in midsummer to fertilize to produce a second crop.
Okra seldom succumbs to pests or diseases. Hand-pick any stinkbugs that appear; these light green, shield-shaped bugs cause misshapen pods. Fusarium wilt, a soilborne disease, is sometimes a problem in hot regions. If the disease causes leaves to yellow and wilt, pull and destroy affected plants. Crop rotation is the best preventive measure.
About 50 to 60 days after planting, edible pods will start to appear. They are tough when mature, so harvest daily with a sharp knife when they are no more than finger sized and when stems are still tender and easy to cut. Pick frequently and the plants will keep producing until killed by frost. Be sure to remove and compost any mature pods you might have missed earlier.
Many people find their skin is sensitive to the pods’ prickly spines, so wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting, or plant a spineless variety such as ‘Clemson Spineless.’
Need a recipe?
I made this last summer with over-ripe, tough fruit and it was still yummy! I will be trying it again this summer with the fresh, tender fruit and expect an even better result.
a canning recipe from Food in Jars, Marisa McClellan
3 cups apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons pickling salt
4 lemon slices
4 Tablespoons Pickling Spice, divided
2 pounds okra, washed and trimmed
4 garlic cloves, peeled
- Prepare a boiling water bath and 4 regular-mouth 1-pint jars.
- Combine the vinegar, 3 cups water, and pickling salt in a pot and bring the brine to a boil.
- Meanwhile, put a lemon slice and 1 tablespoon pickling spice in the bottom of each sterilized jar. Then pack the okra in, first laying them in so that the points are up. Then insert another layer with the points down, so that they interlock. Nestle 1 garlic clove among the okra in each jar.
- Slowly pour the hot brine over the okra in each jar, leaving ½-inch headspace. Gently tap the jars on a towel-lined countertop to help loosen any bubbles before using a wooden chopstick to dislodge any remaining bubbles. Check the headspace again and add more brine if necessary.
- Wipe the rims, apply the lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
- Let the pickles cure for at least 1 week before eating.