In some ways, growing okra from seeds is easy. It will tolerate poor soils, little moisture, and a range of soil pH readings. That tolerance extends to the kitchen, where it is a delicious addition to soups and can be fried or stewed.
But okra is also a demanding plant when it comes to heat and sunshine. This African-born cousin of the hibiscus, hollyhock and mallow plants weakens and becomes vulnerable to pests and diseases if it’s too cool or shady, even for a short time. It just won’t bear those wonderful seed pods without abundant heat and sunlight.
Okra is also intolerant of frost. Temperatures anywhere close to freezing can destroy the plant.
These factors coupled with its relatively long season have made okra a Southern garden favorite. As this plant’s popularity has grown, many gardeners in the Midwest have tried to add this, with unpredictable results. It’s not easy, but the general rule of thumb is that if you can grow corn, you can grow okra.
A favorite Southern dish and a must for gumbo (delicious fried too), heirloom okra is a thing of beauty.
Quick Guide: Planting, Growing & Harvesting Okra
- For a successful crop, only grow in areas with warm day and evening temps during the summer
- Choose a site in full sun with healthy soil and a lot of room
- Make sure soil is loose to accommodate large roots
- Water and weed regularly
- Harvest by pulling pods from plants
- For diseases and pests, practice crop rotation. Pests and diseases include beetles, corn earworms, stink bugs, aphids, root-knot nematodes, fungus, and cabbage loopers.
Choose a variety of okra — or two — suited not only to your climate but also to your kitchen. Pod size and color are important to some cooks. Texture of the okra — with just the right slickness after cooking and the presence of okra’s characteristic ribs — are standard factors. No matter which okra you choose, harvesting the pods when young is essential.
About those growing conditions: When the description of various okra seed varieties states “58 days to harvest” it’s understood that those are 58 hot and sunny days. Most likely it will take longer to reach peak harvest. Other conditions, like moisture, will add to the days-to-harvest count, especially when plants come from seed sown directly in the garden.
Many cooks and gardeners still prefer the old standby Clemson spineless, a variety that does well across much of the south and lower Midwest. Traditionalists prefer the ribbed varieties such as the heirloom Star of David, which produces particularly fat but tender pods perfect for frying.
Cajun Delight is a green-podded hybrid variety that yields and matures early, making it the ideal selection for cooler climates. The pods are spineless with 5 sides.
Long pod varieties, including Emerald okra, are favored for soups and stewing. Red okras include Hill Country Red, a pickling favorite, and the ornamental Burgundy okra. Jing Orange is a brightly colored Asian variety that’s particularly suited to dry conditions and is good in stir-frys.
Not surprisingly, many recently discovered heirloom okra varieties are regional favorites, held for generations among families of farmers and gardeners. They’re often are named for long-gone relatives (“Grandma Edna’s Cherokee Long Pod”) and are especially adapted to their native environment. You may be able to pick up seed or starts from a neighbor or nearby farmers market that will feel right at home with the conditions in your garden.
Ideal Soil Conditions for Okra
Okra is known to grow in poor soils. But it does best in good soils with plenty of organic material that are not too rich. Too much nitrogen results in strong vegetative growth but fewer blooms, which mean fewer seed pods. Work organic compost into your soil the fall before spring planting and allow it time to age before planting. As with all garden vegetables, good water retention and drainage is important.
Work soil deeply wherever you plan to plant okra.The roots can extend four feet deep and even more under favorable conditions.
Different sources claim that okra takes to a soil pH as low as 5.8 and as high as 7.5. But again, better conditions produce better yields. A pH between 6.5 – 7.0 should be a good range for most varieties. Check your seed package for recommendations.
How to Plant Okra
Plant okra seed in the garden at least three weeks after the last frost when the soil temperature warms to 60 degrees and above. Craig R. Anderson at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, who suggests you plant okra seed 10 days after setting out tomato transplants, cautions that because plants aren’t encouraged to bloom until sunlight exposure is less than 11 hours, it’s possible that seed started too late in the spring may remain vegetative all summer until fall and its earlier sunsets arrive. His excellent guide to okra is here (PDF).
Give okra plenty of room. The plants often grow four to six feet tall and can spread just as far. Plant seed so that plants will be spaced 12 to 15 inches apart in rows at least three feet apart.
Okra seed can be difficult to germinate, so soak the seed overnight to encourage germination, which takes place after a week or more. You can can plant seed sooner in the season and encourage faster germination by covering rows with black plastic. This also encourages faster early growth.
It’s possible to get a jump on the okra season by starting seed indoors four weeks or so ahead of transplanting in the garden. Okra roots are very delicate, so don’t allow starts to get root bound in their pots, and be especially careful when relocating them into the ground. Pots that are transplanted right into the garden with its start can be helpful.
Care and Watering for Okra Plants
Despite its reputation as a plant that will survive dry conditions (see “four-foot roots” above), okra is hardier and produces more pods with adequate watering. An inch of water a week is optimum. Plants that grow on little water will produce tough pods and may be prone to afternoon wilt.
If soil is well conditioned, okra will need only light side dressings of compost during the season for best results. Foliar sprays are particularly effective. Liquid seaweed sprays can be applied two or three times during the season.
Okra is also sensitive to weeds. Keep your patch well-weeded, especially when plants are young.
Harvesting Okra as a Crop
Okra blossoms can start appearing in seven or so weeks when conditions are good. The blossoms are there for only a day — here’s hoping you have a lot of natural pollinators at work — and the pods are visible soon after. The sooner they’re picked, the better, though well cared-for plants will keep their pods tender for five days or more. Larger varieties retain their tenderness until they reach full size which can be as much as six inches or more.
The quicker you pick okra pods, the more they produce new blossoms.
Companion plants for okra include peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, tomatoes, or even herbs such as thyme, dill, sage, or chamomile.
Pest and Other Problems for Okra Plants
Okra plants can be attacked by fleas, caterpillars, Japanese and other beetles, especially when young. Spraying plants with spinosad is an organically-approved method of controlling these pests. Corn earworms are occasionally found on okra plants. They can be organically controlled by using sprays or dusts containing biological pesticide Bacillus thuringiensis.
Like many plants, okra can be attacked by root-knot nematodes. If your plants are stunted or showing a lack of vigor, pull one and examine its roots for the characteristic knots or nodes left by the tiny worms.
Aphids will also cluster on okra plants and attract ants. Well-timed placement of ladybugs can discourage infestation. If the plant is still producing, you can also treat them with insecticidal soap or oils such as neem or canola oil.
In cooler, moist climates, okra can succumb to wilt and fungus, such as fusarium wilt. If you experience a brief damp spell during your normally hot and sunny summer and begin to notice signs of disease on plant leaves, it’s time to roll into action. Remove the leaves on all infected plants as soon as the plant is dry and spray what’s left with an organically approved garden fungicide that contains sulfur.
Okra is particularly sensitive to damping off, so don’t transplant seedlings into a wet garden right after heavy rain.
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