Southern cooks have long recognized okra
(or "gumbo", as we also call it) as a staple in the
kitchen, and there's hardly a summer garden in the
Southeast that doesn't boast at least one planting of
The notion that okra can (or should) be grown only in the
South, however, is both incorrect and unfortunate.
Incorrect, because okra can be cultivated successfully as
far north as Michigan . . . and unfortunate, because a
steaming-hot bowl of shrimp gumbo would taste as delightful
in any northern home as it does in my South Carolina
And-in addition to its value as a foodbearing plant-okra
(like any other hibiscus) is also a beautiful ornamental.
(Many folks who can't spare room in their gardens for the
5'-tall standard varieties of okra make space in their
flower borders for 3'-tall dwarfs.) Few people suspect that
the burgundy-throated yellow blossoms borne by this plant
give rise to a steady harvest of edible pods throughout
summer and into the fall frosts.
Why not add a little variety to your vegetable menu (and
beauty to your garden) next season by growing some okra?
Okra culture is neither difficult nor complicated ... and
the eventual rewards-in taste, nutrition, and a prettier
garden-are well worth the small amount of effort involved.
Your first consideration, of course, must be soil
preparation. The fast-growing, woody plants of H.
esculentus require rich soil, plenty of moisture, and
abundant sunlight. You'll want to work plenty of humus into
the ground to ensure good drainage, since okra seeds tend
to rot in mucky soil . . . and if the topsoil isn't fairly
rich in nutrients, you'll want to dig manure into it, too.
It isn't necessary to spade up a large area . . . one
15-foot row is enough to keep most families in okra for a
Although you can prepare the soil any time during fall or
spring, it's best not to plant okra (which is a heat-loving
crop) until the soil is warm and all danger of frost has
passed. Sow seed thinly in the row, or plant in hills 24"
apart. When the seedlings are well along, thin them to
stand 18" to 24" apart in the row (or one plant per hill).
Afterwards, mulch the young plants heavily to conserve
moisture and discourage the growth of nutrient-robbing
Okra requires tittle further attention untilabout two
months after plantingblooms begin to appear. The
spectacular yellow blossoms are quickly followed by small
nubs which-in turn-grow rapidly into several-inchlong pods
. . . pods that are susceptible to attack by bollworms,
corn earworms, cabbage loopers, and stinkbugs. (Blister
beetles and leaf beetles sometimes attack the plant's
foliage, but seldom the pods.) These pests can usually be
controlled by handpicking ... but if insect infestation
becomes heavy you may wish to dust with rotenone. (Before
dusting, remove all pods . . . even the nubs.)
To be truthful, though, garden pests don't really bother
okra very often. In fact, okra that's been grown in rich
soil and cared for by organic methods seldom attracts many
harmful insects at all. A far bigger "problem" than insects
is how to harvest and make use of the plants' prodigious
yield of pods!
Because the nubs grow so rapidly-and because the pods
quickly become woody if they're allowed to stay on the
plantokra must be harvested at least every other day. (Cut
the pods free of the main plant with a sharp knife.) We
harvest all pods every 48 hours, leaving only the nubs to
In the kitchen, okra pods require immediate attention,
since they tend to become fibrous even after they've been
picked. The first order of business then is to cut the stem
off each pod, being careful not to slice into the pod
itself and allow juice to escape. The small pods may be
boiled whole, seasoned, and served as a side dish. The
larger pods (which can be stored in a moist, cool place for
use the following day) can either be sliced and put into
soup or stew . . . or sliced, breaded with cornmeal, and
fried till crisp.
If the crop gets ahead of you (and it probably will), there
are several ways to preserve okra. The easiest way is
simply to freeze it. Blanch the whole, small pods for about
three minutes . . . then pack 'em into containers. sea! the
containers up, and store them in the freezer. (If you wind
up with one partly filled container, set it in the freezer
and finish filling it at the next picking.)
Another way to keep okra is to cook it up into a batch of
"okra soup", a favorite Southern staple for the pantry.
(This is an especially good way to dispose of large pods.)
In a big kettle, combine tomatoes, thick slices of okra,
and corn and/or baby lima beans, in whatever proportions
you wish. Add a teaspoon of salt per quart of soup, and a
few sliced onions if desired. Cook till the vegetables are
tender, pour into sterilized jars, and seal. This soup
makes a tasty accompaniment to rice . . . and-with the
addition of meat stock and potatoes, noodles, or rice-it
becomes a hearty main dish itself. (Serve the soup with
plenty of unsweetened cornbread, if you wish to maintain
the Southern tradition.)
A third way to deal with an okra surplus is to pickle the
pods. Substitute okra for beans in your favorite "dilly
bean" recipe ... combine the pods with pickled hot peppers
... or use the following recipe: Pack three and a half
pounds of okra into hot, sterilized jars. Make a brine
consisting of one pint of white distilled vinegar, one
quart of water, one-third cup of salt, and two teaspoons of
dill seed. Bring the brine to a boil, then pour the hot
solution over the okra, leaving 112" of air space in the
lop of each jar. Finally, seal the jars, process them for
10 minutes in a boiling water bath, and store them for
several weeks before opening.
Then too, you can always dry your okra. This method of
preservation does cut okra's Vitamin A content in half, but
it leaves intact appreciable amounts of calcium,
phosphorus, and iron. Dried okra seeds can be shelled and
cooked like dried beans or peas . . . or they can even be
ground up and used as a coffee substitute.
Good flavor, good nutrition, tremendous yields, and
spectacular flowers ... you get it all when you grow
Hibiscus esculentus (plain ole okra), whether you live in
Michigan or Louisiana, or somewhere in between!