Okra is one of those interesting vegetables like Cowpeas that for some reason you seldom discover growing in backyard vegetable gardens.
Also like those Black Eyed Peas, okra is more popular as a Southern specialty crop; however it will grow perfectly well even in Northern gardens. If you can raise tomatoes and peppers in your garden you should have no trouble growing a healthy and productive crop of okra.
Growing Okra, A Prize Southern Vegetable
My first memory of okra plants were from my grandfather’s large patch of five foot plants growing in Southern Maryland. He raised an okra variety that produced short, smooth and rounded okra pods that are rarely seen or grown by gardeners today. Most of the okra cultivated in gardens now are the slender podded varieties that have pronounced groves or ridges along the sides of the pods.
While okra pods are usually light green in color, you can also find varieties with creamy white pods and I have even raised okra plants that produce attractive velvety red colored pods. The pods mature in sizes ranging from a few inches to over a foot in length.
Most okra varieties offer the best eating quality when the pods are harvested at small sizes, but a few varieties remain tender and tasty even after growing to their full length. The okra pods are packed with seeds that are soft and edible until the pods mature which is when the seeds dry, turn hard, and the pods become tough.
Planting Okra in the Garden
I’ve seen okra transplants for sale at greenhouses and garden centers but it’s a better idea to start your own plants from seed sown directly into the garden. Plant the large, green, round seeds about three quarters of an inch deep after the soil has warmed in mid spring.
Okra plants prefer warm temperatures and grow quickly so there’s no rush to plant them before the weather has settled. Okra can be planted in rows twelve to eighteen inches apart and thinned to stand six inches apart in the row. Or plant the seeds in raised beds using a matrix spacing allowing six to eight inches between the plants in each direction.
A well fertilized or composted bed will supply all the nutrients that the okra plants need to grow and bear a productive harvest of delicious pods. Provide water as needed to support the plants growth and keep the weeds under control until the okra plants are established and tall enough to shade the ground and prevent additional weeds from germinating.
Cultivating and Harvesting Okra
Okra will grow very quickly and before you know it your plants will be over four feet tall with some varieties reaching seven or eight feet in height by the time they are fully grown. Take care to position the plants in an area of the garden where they won’t cast a shadow over shorter neighboring plants.
Keep an eye out for the large pinkish or yellow blossoms that will be produced along the tips of the plants. These attractive flowers will soon be followed by the edible okra pods. It’s important to harvest the okra when the pods are young as they become tough, woody, and inedible if left on the plant until they mature.
To harvest the okra use a knife or a pair of pruners to cut the pods from the stem connecting them to the plant. Some varieties have small spines protruding from the leaves and stems that can cause irritation so protect your hands or wear gloves during harvesting. Each plant will continue to produce numerous pods over the long growing season and by keeping the pods picked you will encourage additional production.
For those growing okra for the first time, the next entry will highlight a few okra varieties that are perfect for the home garden.
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