Related to hollyhocks, okra plants produce pretty yellow flowers on graceful stalks. But after the flowers fade, you're rewarded with plenty of okra pods for gumbo, frying, or pickling. These plants need plenty of heat and sunlight, so they're the perfect addition to the summer garden.
Where You Can Grow Okra
While many people think of okra as a vegetable usually grown only in very warm climates, it can really grow anywhere. It only takes about 40 to 50 days from planting to harvest, as long as the temperatures are above 70 degrees.
The most important thing to remember is that okra needs warm weather to develop a harvest. It really, really doesn't like cool weather; in fact, you shouldn't even plant it in your garden until night-time temperatures are warmer than 60 degrees F.
If you live in an area with a shorter warm season, or you just want to get a jump on the season, you can to start your okra seeds indoors under lights. It's best to start okra in peat pots, since they don't like having their roots disturbed. If starting them indoors, start the seeds four weeks before your last spring frost date. Okra seeds sprout in ten to fourteen days.
When planting out in the garden (either seeds or transplants) they should be spaced twelve to eighteen inches apart, depending on variety. Keep the seeds or seedlings well-watered and weed the area regularly.
Growing Okra in Containers
Though okra plants are generally large, and not something you'd usually think of growing in containers, it can definitely be done.
- Select the right size container. A pot at least ten inches deep and be able to hold at around ten pounds of potting soil.
- Plant two to three seeds or transplants in each pot, giving them a few inches of space.
- Place the container in an area that gets at least full sun, which is six hours or more per day.
- Keep the container well watered. Fertilize every two weeks with kelp meal or fish emulsion.
- Start harvesting regularly as soon as the pods begin ripening.
Some good okra varieties to grow in containers include 'Annie Oakley' and 'Baby Bubba.'
How to Grow Okra
Once the temperatures consistently reach 80 degrees F and higher, okra absolutely thrives. Growth and production increase, and it will keep producing pods right up until temperatures cool and frost kills the plant, though it will generally start producing fewer pods as the season goes on. You can ensure a steady, prolific okra harvest by sowing more okra two weeks after planting your first crop.
Okra can withstand a bit of drought, but the plants need a good, deep watering at least every seven days to keep producing well.
Okra isn't a very heavy feeder, but it does best in nutrient-rich soil. If you have rich soil with plenty of organic matter, you likely won't need to fertilize your okra. If not, you'll have to feed the plants every three to four weeks. There are a few ways to do this.
- Add an organic vegetable fertilizer to the soil around the plants according to the package directions.
- Side dress the plants with compost or kelp meal.
- Water and foliar feed with fish emulsion or compost tea.
Any of these methods will give your okra plants that bit of additional nutrition to keep them producing and growing happily.
Your okra plant will eventually grow to four feet tall or taller, and it will develop pretty yellow blossoms. Once the blooms fade, a seed pod will form. This is the okra pod that you'll be harvesting, and your first harvest will usually happen around eight weeks after planting.
- Check for pods that are two to three inches long.
- Check every couple of days will ensure that none of the pods get too old and fibrous.
- Harvest pods by cutting them off of the plant with a knife or pruners. If the stem attaching the pod to the plant is very woody, it's likely too tough to eat.
- Be sure to wear gloves and maybe even long sleeves, because the okra pods have tiny little spines that can poke and irritate the skin.
Okra Pests and Diseases
There aren't many pests and diseases that affect okra, but there are a few to watch out for.
Aphids reproduce quickly and puncture the stems of your plant, sucking the sap from it and weakening it over time, as well as exposing it to diseases. If you see them on your plant, try to spray them off with the hose to dislodge them. If that doesn't work or you have too many, spray the affected areas of your plants with insecticidal soap.
While commonly associated with corn, these worms are also known as "okra pod worms" because they eat the foliage and pods of okra. They burrow into the pods, making them inedible. The best way to control them is to hand-pick and destroy them when you find them, or, if you have a larger infestation, apply Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) to your okra plants, which will kill any worms in a few days.
Fusarium wilt is a soil-born fungus that affects many different garden plants. It causes the leaves to yellow and fall off, eventually leading to the death of the plant. There aren't any chemical controls for fusarium. You can try to avoid it by purchasing seed labeled "VFN" which means it's resistant to fusarium. Also, be sure to rotate your crops; don't plant okra in the same spot in your garden year after year, because if fusarium is in the soil, it'll infect future okra crops.
Select the Best Okra Variety for Your Garden
When choosing okra varieties, you'll want to look for a few things: fusarium resistance, a shorter time between planting and harvest (if you live in an area with a short warm season), and varieties that have fewer spines, so they'll be easier to harvest.
- 'Emerald' has spineless, seven to nine inch pods. The plant grows to about four feet tall.
- 'Annie Oakley II' also has spineless pods and grows to four to five feet tall.
- 'Louisiana Green Velvet' is a very vigorous variety; it grows to 6 feet tall and is very prolific. Its pods are also spineless.
- 'Clemson Spineless' is a spineless heirloom variety, prized for its flavor.
Beautiful and Prolific
It's always a happy occasion when a plant is both beautiful and productive, and okra definitely fits both of those descriptions. Whether you grow it in a container or a garden bed, okra is sure to add plenty of impact to your garden.