by Master Gardener Ellie Samuel
Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is a flowering vegetable usually thought of as a southern crop. But, if you can grow tomatoes in your garden, you can grow okra. It is in the same family as mallow, cotton, hibiscus, cocoa and hollyhock. This is evident from the distinctive flowers—commonly yellow or creamy white, but also shades of red. The large flowers have five petals, and may have a red or purple spot at the base of each petal. It is a lovely addition to an edible landscape. The young pods, leaves and flowers are edible. And, the old, fibrous pods can be dried and used for flower arrangements. What a plant!
The California Master Gardener Handbook recommends two varieties: the highly productive, early ‘Clemson Spineless’ and ‘Blondy’ which is compact with whitish pods. Other varieties suitable for our area include ‘Cajun Delight’ (an early variety which may be an option for cooler areas of the county), ‘Burgundy, ‘Red Velvet’ (with red pods and stems) and a dwarf variety, ‘Bubba Baby.’
June is an ideal month to plant starts or direct seed because this heat-loving, warm-weather vegetable requires full sun as well warm soil (75 degrees or higher). While okra likes well-composted soil, it will tolerate clay soil. Seeds must be kept uniformly moist, not wet, until germination. Once established, okra is moderately drought-resistant. But, it will produce best with regular water.
Okra starts are difficult to find—a few local nurseries carry them. Take care with the fragile roots when transplanting okra. While transplanting is recommended by SCMG’s planting guide (okra takes time to mature), seeding is not difficult (start them indoors in April or direct seed when the soil warms). Soaking seeds the night before sowing gives them a jump start (germination in less than one week vs. two or three). Seeds are sowed 3/4-inch deep in rows, mounds or pots. Okra, which grows to four to five feet, needs room to grow and may require staking. If planted in rows, it is recommended that the rows be at least 2 feet apart and the seedlings at least 12 inches apart. When planted in pots, make sure that the pot is 10 inches or larger in diameter.
Avoid planting okra in soil where tomatoes and/or eggplants were previously planted as it is susceptible to the same wilts (Fusarium and Verticillium wilt)—a good reason to practice crop rotation. In an infected plant, the leaves turn yellow and wilt. If you observe this, pull it immediately to keep it away from healthy plants. Keep plants weed free; mallow weeds can carry a rust disease that can infect okra. Seedlings can be collared to prevent earwig and cutworm damage. Insects are more prevalent when okra is water-stressed. Use a strong stream of water to wash off aphids, flea beetles and whitefly.
Side-dress okra with moderate nitrogen when it is approximately eight inches and again a few weeks later (however, the regular addition of compost will meets most of the crop’s needs). When pods set and when plants are 4-feet tall, side-dress okra with a complete fertilizer (10-10-10). Too much of a good thing should be avoided. Over-fertilization grows beautiful leaves without decent pods. Plants can be topped when they reach 9-12 inches to achieve a bushier plant.
Harvest okra three to four days after flowering, when pods are 2- to 4-inches long. Small okra pods are packed with soft, edible seeds, but the mature pods have dry, hard seeds and the pods are tough. Pick them at least every other day to encourage the plant to produce more. Okra stops bearing if you allow pods to ripen on the stems. Harvest okra pods using a clipper or a knife. Gloves should be worn as contact with the leaves and stem may cause irritation.
To prepare okra, cut off the stalk and trim around the base. Do not overcook okra or it can become slimy. Cooking okra with lemon juice, vinegar and/or tomatoes will cut the “slime” factor. Okra can be eaten fresh as well as steamed, fried (a specialty in the south), used in soups and stews, pickled, canned and frozen. Okra is the ingredient that makes gumbo authentic. Young pods can be used on a vegetable platter for dipping or diced into salads. The okra leaves can be prepared like dandelion leaves or added to salads.
Beautiful edible flowers, edible pods and leaves, moderate drought-resistance, tolerant of clay soils, high in vitamin C and folic acid along with a variety of culinary and ornamental uses—there is much to recommend okra in your garden.