A semi-tropical member of the hibiscus family, okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) produces edible flowers, pods and seeds. Okra grows best where both days and nights stay warm in summer, and it is among the easiest summer crops to grow in the humid Southeast. Where growing seasons are cooler, dwarf varieties can be grown in containers. Okra requires full sun and soil temperatures above 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Types of Okra
Early dwarf okra varieties suitable for small beds and large containers include fast-maturing hybrids such as ‘Annie Oakley II,’ ‘Cajun Delight’ and ‘Baby Bubba.’ These varieties seldom grow more than 4 feet tall, and they start producing pods about 55 days after planting.
Main-season okra varieties include super-productive ‘Clemson Spineless’ and numerous tall heirlooms such as ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ and ‘Perkins Long Pod,’ which mature about 60 days after planting. These are the good choices if you are growing okra for pickling or freezing.
Red okra varieties produce dramatic orange to burgundy pods, which turn green when cooked. They are not as productive as green-podded varieties, but red okras such as ‘Burgundy,’ ‘Red Velvet’ and ‘Hill Country Red’ make beautiful edible ornamentals.
How to Plant Okra
Okra will grow in a range of soil types provided the pH is between 5.8 and 6.8. Maximize sun exposure when growing okra, because this crop cannot tolerate shade. Loosen the soil to at least 12 inches, and mix in a 1 inch layer of compost along with a standard application of a balanced organic fertilizer. Plant okra in late spring or early summer, two weeks or more after your last frost has passed. Soak hard okra seeds in plain water overnight before planting, and discard any seeds that float to the top. Plant okra seeds 1 inch deep and 4 inches apart, spacing rows at least 30 inches apart. When okra seedlings are 4 inches tall, thin them to at least 18 inches apart.
Dwarf okra varieties can be grown in containers that are at least 12 inches in diameter. Three plants will fit into a planter made out of a modified plastic storage bin.
For recommended planting dates for your local climate — and to design your garden beds — try our Vegetable Garden Planner.
Weed by hand for the first few weeks after planting okra. After the soil becomes summer-warm, install a soaker hose down the row and cover it with a mulch of grass clippings or wood chips. During dry periods, deeply soak the bed once per week.
After the first big harvest of pods, top-dress the plants with a balanced organic fertilizer, gently mixed into the top half-inch of soil. After fertilizing, water thoroughly with a hose to soak the fertilizer into the soil.
Harvesting and Storing Okra
You can begin harvesting okra three to four days after each flower fades. After plants start blossoming, pods should be harvested every other day. Use pruning shears or a sharp knife to gather pods with a small stub of stem attached. Pods more than 5 inches long may be tough, though long-podded varieties often produce pods that stay tender to 8 inches long. Immediately refrigerate pods after harvesting okra, and wait until just before cooking to rinse clean and pat dry.
For long-term storage, whole pods can be pickled, steamed and frozen, or, for frying later, cut into slices, tossed in seasoned corn meal, and frozen.
You can save okra seed for replanting by leaving several nice pods on the plants until they become large and tan. Cut them from the plants, and allow them to continue drying indoors for a couple of weeks. Shatter the pods to harvest the dry seeds. Under good conditions, okra seeds will store for five years or more.
For growing advice for many more garden crops, check out our complete Crops at a Glance Guide.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.