Okra is a traditional crop in the south for good reason: it is one of a handful of veggies that not only survives, but thrives in our long, hot summers. Plant seeds directly into the garden, or transplant seedlings when the daytime temperatures are consistently above 80 and nights above 60. Plant okra in the hottest part of your garden, and you will be rewarded with a constant supply of pods until Autumn.
Where to Plant Okra
The okra patch requires full sun and fertile, well drained soil. Fitting it into your crop rotation is fairly simple. Because it’s not closely related to any other common garden vegetable, you can plug it in just about anywhere. Some gardeners like to give a home near tomatoes and/or peppers, since okra shares similar growing habits and requirements with them.
If you are planting seeds directly into the garden, soaking them in water overnight prior to planting will help to expedite germination. Transplants must be handled with care because excessive root disturbance will greatly slow the plant’s development. Ultimate plant spacing should be 12-18 inches apart. Okra plants can reach nearly eight feet tall in areas with long summers, producing pods for ten or twelve weeks. For most families, five okra plants will provide plenty of fresh pods.
Common Okra Pests
Okra is a really carefree plant. A summer cool down, especially if combined with wet weather, could lead to fusarium or verticillium wilt (both are soil-borne diseases that can severely damage or kill the plant). There are no major insect pests, although fire ants, Japanese beetles, aphids and a few others may cause a bit of damage if populations are large. Black ants are common visitors, mainly drinking nectar from the flowers.
How to Harvest Okra
When the flowers fade, allow the pods to swell to three or four inches long. Using a pair of pruners, scissors, or a sharp knife, cut the pods from the plant along with a short piece of the stem. Wear gloves to protect your hands from the small spines on the pods and leaves of the plants. Harvest every two or three days to avoid development of giant, woody pods that sap the plant’s energy. Store pods (dry and unwashed) in the refrigerator for a few days if necessary. Use them up before they begin to turn brown at the edges.
- Okra grows in the wild along the upper reaches of the Nile River, from Ethiopia to Egypt.
- Okra first arrived in (what is now) the United States, with French colonists in Louisiana.
- One serving of cooked okra contains 22% USRDA vitamin C and 40% USRDA vitamin K, along with a host of other vitamins and minerals.
- Okra has been credited with reducing effects of sugar and fat in the diet, as well as increasing brain function and improving circulation.
- Okra seeds are pressed to produce a good quality cooking oil, commonly used around the Mediterranean.
- The three favorite ways to eat okra in the South are: pickled, in “gumbo” (the word is interchangeable, meaning either the vegetable or the stew served with rice), and of course fried.