Southern gardeners have known a secret for years that their northern counterparts are only just beginning to pick up on; okra is an incredibly delicious, versatile vegetable. And, growing okras is a cinch, provided you have warm enough weather. This semi-tropical plant hails from Africa and is a member of the hibiscus family, which is why okra flowers are so stunningly beautiful. Okra was brought to North America in the 1600s, and it has been a staple of southern cooking ever since.
However, you don’t need to limit your okra dreams to where it grows traditionally. The truth is that okra can grow any place you can plant corn. As long as you go out of your way to ensure you meet its needs for a warm, sunny environment. Growing okra is far easier than you probably expect, and this guide will start you towards producing your own tasty crop.
Start Growing Okras
You’ll have to decide how to plant your okra depending on the climate conditions in your region. If you have long, hot summers, you can easily direct sow your seeds, but if your summers tend to be shorter it’s a better idea to get a head start with transplants.
When and Where Should You Grow Okra?
Though okra grows best in warm climates, northern gardeners can have success if they grow dwarf varieties, start their seeds indoors, or plant it in sun-warmed containers. In general, any soil temperature above 65 degrees F should be able to grow okra.
Understanding Seed Germination for Okra
Because okra is a semi-tropical plant, it won’t tolerate any kind of cold or frost, and seeds won’t germinate in soil that hasn’t warmed up. Okra seeds tend to be difficult to get to sprout, so it’s a good idea to soak them overnight before planting to speed up the germination process.
Starting Seeds Indoors
For short-season growers, okra can be started indoors about two weeks before the last frost date to ensure that it will be ready to be planted outside six weeks later, or about a month after the frost date. Soak your seeds in water overnight and nick them with a file to make it easier for the seedlings to come out. You can sow two seeds per planting container and thin out the weaker one once the true leaves begin to form.
Preparing an Okra Bed
The key to success in choosing a location for your okra is to ensure that it is planted in full sun. Okra can’t tolerate any shade, and even partial shade will dramatically stunt the plant’s growth.
Though okra is renowned for being able to grow in just about any type of garden soil, the plant will do best when planted in a loamy soil filled with organic material. Tilling in a nitrogen-fixing crop like beans directly before planting your okra is a good way to increase your soil fertility naturally. The pH level that okra prefers is between 5.8-7, though it can still grow in conditions as high as 7.5.
You can move your okra seedlings outside once the temperature is consistently warm. The taproots on these plants are extremely fragile, and accidentally breaking one will likely kill the whole plant, so be careful when you plant them. Gently separate your seedlings from the container they grew in and set them in the garden at least 10 inches apart. Water the plants immediately after planting but wait at least a week before laying down mulch in order to give the soil a chance to be fully warmed by the sun.
In warmer climates, you can direct sow your okra seeds once temperatures have reached at least 80 degrees F. To warm up your soil more quickly, you can cover it in black plastic for a few weeks before planting. Another option is to plant your okra in a cold frame or a grow tunnel to get a jump start on the season.
To direct sow your okra, soak your seeds overnight and plant them one inch deep and four inches apart, in rows that are spaced over two feet apart. Once the plants are four inches tall, you can thin them out so that they are spaced eighteen inches apart.
For the first few weeks after being planted, okra tends to grow slowly, though the growth rate picks up quickly once the weather really heats up. You’ll notice a thick main trunk beginning to form and big yellow blossoms opening up on the branch tips.
Watering and Mulching Requirements
Okra grows best when given at least an inch of water a week in the summer, but it does surprisingly well with significantly less water, making it a drought-tolerant crop.
For the first few weeks after planting, it’s a good idea to hand weed your okra so that you don’t accidentally damage the root system. Once the plants are about six inches tall you can top dress them with organic compost and a mulch of grass clippings, wood chips or similar material.
Companion Planting and Rotation Considerations
Okra tends to be a friendly crop that does well with a wide variety of vegetable neighbors. There aren’t any plants that you should avoid planting next to your okra, but cucumbers, basil, black-eyed peas, and melons are all particularly good companion plants.
Common Pests and Diseases for Okra
The relative hardiness of okra means that it isn’t often bothered by pests or diseases. Sometimes young plants are attacked by stink bugs or other forms of beetles that can munch on the foliage and cause the okra pods to become misshapen. You can control them by hand picking them off or spraying organic pesticides during bad infestations. If you get an infestation of aphids, you can control them by introducing a ladybug population to snack on the pesky insects.
In colder climates, okra is more at risk of developing wilt or fungus problems. To keep your plants healthy, ensure that they have plenty of space between each other to breathe and remove all signs of disease immediately when you see it. Don’t be afraid to take out an entire plant if it looks like it will put your entire crop at risk of disease.
Harvesting and Storing Okra
Once the weather gets hot your okra plants will grow pods quickly, so be sure to check your plants every day to ensure that you harvest them all. Pods are best when picked young, usually between two to four inches in length. Any larger and they start to get tough and stringy.
Harvest the okra pods with pruning sheers and take care not to puncture the pod itself, as that will cause it to spoil faster. Some people find that the small hairs on okra stems bother their hands, so you might want to wear gloves when harvesting them. Okra plants will continue to produce pods throughout the growing season, but they will stop if any pod goes to seed on the plant. If you see any pods that became overripe, pick them and compost them so that the plant continues to produce.
Once you have harvested your pods, you can put them in the refrigerator and store them for about a week. Never wash the pods before storing them as this makes them more likely to grow mold. For long-term storage, you can pickle, can or freeze your pods. To freeze them successfully, blanch whole pods in boiling water for two minutes before putting them in the freezer.
Saving Okra Seeds
Okra seeds can be saved for replanting if you allow the best looking pods to go to seed on the plants. Once they become large and tan, you can cut them off and dry them indoors for several weeks. After the pods have dried completely you can shatter the pods and harvest the seeds. When stored in a cool dry place, these seeds should last for over five years.
Choosing the Best Okra Seeds for Your Climate
The type of okra you choose to grow will vary considerably on your climate conditions. Below are some of the common categories that okra plants come in.
- Early dwarf okra varieties: these varieties rarely grow taller than four feet and start producing pods only 55 days after being planted. They do best in small beds or container gardens, and some common varieties are ‘Cajun Delight‘, ‘Baby Bubba‘ and ‘Annie Oakley‘.
- Main-season okra varieties: these varieties grow best in climates with long, hot summers and are perfect for pickling or freezing. Popular varieties include ‘Stewart’s Zeebest‘ and ‘Dwark Long Pod‘.
- Red okra varieties: these plants produce scarlet-hued pods that turn green once they are cooked. Though not as productive as green varieties, they are stunning to look at and are perfect as an ornamental edible in a landscape garden. Common varieties are ‘Burgundy‘, and ‘Red Velvet‘.
Additional Growing Tips
It will take you a few years to master all the time-tested secrets of growing okra successfully, but here are some extra tips to get you started.
- Once your first pods start appearing, remove the lower leaves from the plant so that it focuses its energy on pod production instead.
- Okra roots can extend over four feet down in the soil, so be sure to work the soil deeply where ever you plant them.
- The more you pick your pods the faster they will produce more, so get out there to harvest them every day!
- If you continually have trouble getting your okra to sprout, try freezing the seeds in ice cubes and then plant the cubes. This can raise germination rates from fifty percent to over eighty percent.