Maria is a master gardener and master of public health. She & her husband, known online as The Gardener & The Cook, live in coastal Alabama.
My Favorite Summer Veggie - and It's So Easy!!
Here in the United States, okra is typically thought of as a Southern vegetable, but it is native to Africa. It will grow anywhere you have summers with hot days and warm nights. Once established, these plants are self-sufficient, as long as there is adequate rainfall.
Stay with me, and I will share with you everything I know about growing okra, and don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be slimy.
Okra is One of the Easiest Food Sources to Grow
In Zones 7, 8, and 9, you can start your seeds indoors in January or February, or you can sow seeds directly into the ground when soil temperatures are warm. I have had success with both methods. Just remember, it is the soil temperature that counts, not the air temperature. Those early warm days can sometimes fool us into planting too early in the season.
Okra plants are usually grown from seed, but you can buy seedlings from some nurseries and those large home improvement centers. Several years ago, I wanted some okra plants, but had no space for a garden, so I bought a cell-pack of seedlings and put them in my back yard flower beds. We relocated a couple of years ago, and now have room for a nice garden. It’s small, but it’s also just right for the two of us.
You May Have Challenges From Critters
The photo below shows our newly planted garden in early spring of 2021. Notice the hardware cloth on the left side of the garden — there are feral cats in our neighborhood, and they like to dig. This is one way to protect newly seeded areas.
It Helps to Soak Okra Seeds Before Sowing
Because of the hard exterior of okra seeds, it is helpful to soak them overnight, or at least a few hours, in room temperature water. Plant your seedlings after the last chance of frost has passed; usually around March 15, but it can be mid-way through April.
If sowing seeds, cover them with about 3/4 inch (or 0.4 cm) of soil. The seeds will not germinate until the soil is warm, but when planted in warm soil, you should see them peeping out of the ground in a week to 10 days.
When your seeds have germinated, and have grown large enough to handle, thin them to at least 24 inches apart (or about 60 cm), as these plants grow quite large. My largest plants last summer (2021) reached just over 15 feet tall, and had a canopy of about 36 inches (91.44 cm). I had to bend the main stalks over very gently in order to reach the pods.
This year, I believe I will cut the main stalk when it reaches about six or eight feet. By then, the plant will have already begun putting out side shoots that will also have lots of pods.
Most Vegetable Plants are Annuals
These plants are annuals, and like any annual, removing the seed pods encourages production of more pods. The sole purpose in the life of an annual, whether ornamental or vegetable, is to flower, then have that flower wilt and die in order to produce seed for more plants for the next growing season.
If you continue removing the seed pods, (this is called pinching or deadheading when we do it to flowers) the plant will continue its attempts to produce seed. That is, until the first frost hits it.
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The Beautiful Flowers of Okra
The photo above shows the beautiful blooms found on okra plants. They remind me of the “Rose of Sharon” flowers on the shrub by that name, except for the color, of course. In fact, okra is in the same botanical family (Malvaceae) as hollyhock, Rose of Sharon, and hibiscus.
The photo below shows the pollen just waiting for a bee or butterfly to come along and feed off of it.
Watch Out, Parts of These Plants Will Make You Itch
Once the plants become large, you will probably want to wear long sleeves when cutting the okra. If you are particularly sensitive, you may even want to wear gloves — I do.
Note: you don’t “pick” okra; you cut it with a sharp knife. I use a paring knife. The leaves are a bit scratchy, and wherever the plants touch your skin, (even brush against you) you may itch for up to a half-hour afterwards. I usually wear long sleeves, but often use one of those over-the-counter cortisone creams on the back of my hands, when needed. That takes care of the itching right away.
The caps of the okra pods are prickly, but they go into the compost when you cut off the caps of each pod. This vegetable is so delicious, it’s well worth a little discomfort.
When you have cut a basket of okra, either refrigerate immediately, or wash and allow to dry, then refrigerate. It will keep in the fridge for two or three days. Much longer, and it will begin to deteriorate and lose flavor. It will keep in the freezer for up to a year.
About Those Flower Buds, Don't Kill the Ants
If you decide to grow your own okra, you may see ants on the unopened flower buds. Don’t panic, and especially don’t kill or remove the ants. They are eating the green covering of the flower bud, just as they do with the green covering on peony buds.
The okra flower will wilt a couple of days after opening, at which time you will see the okra pod beginning to grow behind the flower. The wilted blossom will soon fall off, and the pods will mature within two to three days, four at the most. These plants love hot weather, and will flourish when many other plants are withering in the oppressive summer heat.
When It Comes to Cooking Okra…
It’s almost a Goldilocks thing. Some okra pods are too large for anything but producing seed, some are too small to be tender, as well as not providing much food, and some are perfect, like the one in the next photo.
Just Right - Young and Tender
In the next photo is an okra pod that stayed in the garden about one day too long. When a pod reaches this size it is bordering on being tough. When I find that I have overlooked a pod, and let it stay on the plant too long, I use it for vegetable soup. I keep a few freezer bags of okra that are labelled “Okra for Soup”. Into these bags I put only those pods that have grown too large for any other type of cooking.
Occasionally, You Will Get One Like This
Now and then, you will find a C-shaped or S-shaped okra pod. It is usually because the blossom end was growing toward a stem or the main trunk of the plant. As the pod grew longer, it met that unmovable object, and it began to fold back on itself. No worries. They all taste the same and, besides, children love these little “wiggly” ones.
Okra Going to Seed
If I find one that escaped my knife for more than a couple of days, I leave it on the stalk, and allow it to go to seed for next year. In photo below, you can see okra pods in the stages of “going to seed”. Below are some okra pods in the stages of going to seed.
This photo shows seed pods in the stages of “going to seed”. The one at the bottom of the photo is completely ready. The middle one is probably okay, too, but is a bit behind the first one. The one at the top of the photo is an example of how they look when they reach the largest size they can become, and begin to turn a reddish color before drying to a soft brown.
If you want to save your seed, wait until late summer or early autumn, then let some of the last pods on your healthiest plant grow very large. They will eventually dry out and turn a brownish color. You should be able to hear the seeds rattling around inside.
Then cut the dried pods from the plant, and store in a cool, dark, and dry place until spring. I stored mine in the back of the pantry. If you wish, you can open the pods and save the individual seeds in an envelope.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 MariaMontgomery