Enjoy okra for meals and ornamental beauty.
Okra (also known as gumbo) is a tall-growing, warm-season, annual vegetable from the same family as hollyhock, rose of Sharon, and hibiscus. The immature pods are used for soups, canning, and stews or as a fried or boiled vegetable. The hibiscus-like flowers and upright plant (3 to 6 feet or more in height) have ornamental value for backyard gardens.
When to Plant
Because okra seeds do not germinate well in cool soils, plant seeds after the soil has warmed in the spring, probably a week to 10 days after the date of the last frost in your area.
Spacing & Depth
Sow seeds 1 inch deep in hills 12 to 24 inches apart. When the seedlings are 3 inches tall, thin all but the one strongest plant per hill. The seeds may be soaked, wrapped in moist paper toweling or in water overnight to accelerate germination.
Okra usually grows well in any good garden soil. Shallow cultivation near the plants keeps down weeds.
Summer insect pests do like okra.
- Aphids: Watch for a buildup of colonies of aphids on the undersides of the leaves.
- Japanese beetles can thrive and defoliate the okra plant depending on the growth stage of your okra plants. For most home gardens, Japanese beetles can be removed by hand every day.
- Pods may also be deformed due to the Brown Marmorated Stinkbug, which can cause your okra pods to be misshapen and twisted.
- Cabbage worms: Three species of cabbage worms (imported cabbage worms, cabbage loopers, and diamondback moth worms) commonly attack the leaves and heads of cabbage and related cole crops.
- Imported cabbage worms are velvety green caterpillars. The moth is white and commonly is seen during the day hovering over plants in the garden.
- Cabbage loopers ("measuring worms") are smooth, light green caterpillars. The cabbage looper crawls by doubling up (to form a loop) and then moving the front of its body forward. The moth is brown and is most active at night.
- Diamondback worms are small, pale, green caterpillars that are pointed on both ends. The moth is gray, with diamond-shaped markings when the wings are closed. The damage caused by diamondback larvae looks like shot holes in the leaf.
The larval or worm stages of these insects cause damage by eating holes in the leaves. The adult moths or butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves but otherwise do not damage the plants. The worms are not easy to see because they are fairly small and blend with the cabbage leaves. Cabbage worms are quite destructive and can ruin the crop if not controlled. They are even worse in fall plantings than in spring gardens because the population has had several months to increase. About the time of the first frost in the fall, moth and caterpillar numbers finally begin to decline drastically.
The pods should be picked (usually cut) while they are tender and immature (2 to 3 inches long for most varieties).
- They must be picked often—at least every other day.
- Okra plants have short hairs that may irritate bare skin.
- Wear gloves and long sleeves to harvest okra.
- Use pruning shears for clean cuts that do not harm the rest of the plant.
- When the stem is difficult to cut, the pod is probably too old to use.
- The large pods rapidly become tough and woody.
- The plants grow and bear until frost, which quickly blackens and kills them. Four or five plants produce enough okra for most families unless you wish to can or freeze some for winter use.
Selection & Storage
Gumbo is Swahili for okra. The popularity of gumbo has also brought renewed attention to okra. Okra was brought to the new world by African slaves during the slave trade.
The pods must be harvested when they are very young. Preferably two inches long although three-inch pods can also be salvaged. Harvest daily as the pods go quickly from tender to tough with increased size.
Refrigerate unwashed, dry okra pods in the vegetable crisper, loosely wrapped in perforated plastic bags. Wet pods will quickly mold and become slimy. Okra will keep for only two or three days. When the ridges and tips of the pod start to turn dark, use it or lose it. Once it starts to darken, okra will quickly deteriorate.
Questions & Answers
Q. Should I remove the old okra pods?
A. Yes. Maturing, older, tough pods sap strength that could go to keeping the plant producing new pods daily. Unless you desire ripe pods for dried arrangements or seed saving, overmature pods should be removed and composted.
Q. Why doesn't my seed germinate even after soaking?
A. Okra seed does not keep well. Buy fresh seed each season or save seed of non-hybrid varieties yourself by allowing a few pods on your best plant to mature. When the pods turn brown and begin to split at the seams, harvest them and shell the seeds from the pods. Dry seed thoroughly for several days, then store in a cool, dry place in tightly closed containers until next season.
Q. My okra plants grew over 6 feet tall and the pods were difficult to pick. What should I do?
A. Choose one of the dwarf or basal-branching varieties, such as Annie Oakley, that grow only 2-1/2 to 5 feet tall.
Q. What causes yellowing, wilting, and death of plants in midsummer?
A. These conditions are caused by either verticillium or fusarium wilt. Okra varieties, unlike certain tomato varieties, are not resistant to verticillium and fusarium wilt. Rotate crops to prevent the buildup of crop-specific strains of these diseases in your garden.