Dorothy is a Master Gardener, former newspaper reporter, and the author of several books. Michael is a landscape/nature photographer in NM.
Most experts believe that okra was brought by Ethiopian slaves to America in the late 1600s or early 1700s, having originated somewhere around Ethiopia. It was first cultivated by ancient Egyptians in the 12th century B.C. and its cultivation began spreading throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The word okra is derived from the word "nkru" in West African Ashanti language.
The popular vegetable was introduced to Western Europe soon after being introduced in America. It is popular now in many areas, including Greece, Turkey, South America, India, Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, South America, and the southern United States.
When and Where to Plant Okra
Okra is a vegetable that has absolutely no tolerance to frost, so the first thing to take into consideration when planning to plant is making sure that any threat of frost has passed.
Planting the Seeds
- Soaking your okra seeds in tepid water overnight before sowing them will speed up germination.
- Approximately 3-4 weeks before the last frost date, you can begin your okra seeds indoors in peat pots as long as they are exposed to lots of light.
- If you are willing to cover your outdoor plants with a cold frame, you can also sow the seeds directly in your garden about 3-4 weeks before the last spring frost date. A grow tunnel works well, too, but you need to make sure the tunnel is tall enough to give your plants the room they need to grow.
- When your outside soil warms to above about 65 degrees Fahrenheit, you can safely plant your seeds in your garden.
- Okra needs to be planted about an inch deep in well-draining soil that receives full sun. Space your plants at least a foot apart (you might even want to space them up to two feet apart), and space the rows up to four feet apart so you have ample room to walk out and harvest your crop.
Unless you have a greenhouse at your disposal, okra can be successfully grown in USDA growing zones 5-12. Okra loves the heat!
Most varieties of okra pods are ready to be harvested in less than two months. The pods are usually harvested when they are two to three inches long, or in the very tender stage. But be aware that okra pods will turn from the tender stage to the tough (mature) stage very quickly. Once they become tough, they are not recommended for use in most recipes.
Popular Varieties of Okra
This okra takes less than two months to mature, making it extremely popular with growers. In 1939, it was the All-America Selections winner and remains the most popular variety available. Plants grow to be about four foot high, producing dark green, spineless, grooved angular pods. The pods are usually picked when tender and they are from 2.5"-3" long. Soaking the seeds in warm water overnight will help them to germinate quickly.
Annie Oakley Okra for Cooler Climates
This okra might be an excellent choice for you if you don't live in the deep south since it is productive in cooler climates where some varieties might struggle. It is spineless okra with bright green angular pods. Like others, it only takes slightly less than two months to mature.
Emerald Okra is a sturdy plant that was developed and introduced in 1950 by the Campbell Soup Company. It produces spineless pods that will remain tender even when they grow to be quite large. You will need room, however, because these plants will grow from 5-8 feet tall. The dark green velvety pods, when harvested, are usually up to about eight inches long. One point of interest about this particular variety (especially to cooks) is that it will retain its color when cooked or canned. Also, it only takes about 55 days for the plant to mature. When cut in cross sections, it resembles small, almost perfectly round wagon wheels.
Lee okra might be an excellent choice if your growing space is limited. It is a perfect choice for container gardening. This dwarf okra, developed by folks at the University of Arkansas, is a spineless type known by its deep bright green, very straight angular pods.
If you are longing to grow okra with extremely long pods, you might want to check out Chinese okra, formally known as luffa but often referred to as ladyfingers. The ideal time to harvest this variety is when the pod is from 6-8 inches long and still young and tender (this variety can grow up to a foot long). It has a spongy and slightly fibrous creamy white flesh and is considered a squash in some cultures. The flavor of the okra, however, is much like zucchini.
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Okra Affected by Stink Bugs
Okra is a heat-loving plant that requires about two months of hot temperatures to grow successfully, and as such is susceptible to many pests that thrive in the heat, such as the following:
These earworms will chew the buds and leaves of young okra plants, stunting their growth. This pest is a green, red or white worm with four prolegs. It is only about a half-inch long with a spined body. To control them, spray your plants with a light horticultural oil mixed with Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) twice, about 3-5 days apart.
If your plant's leaves are beginning to look skeletonized, you probably have some Japanese beetles chewing the leaves between the veins. These beetles are about a half-inch long and are shiny, metallic green. Their wings are a coppery-brown color. You could set up beetle traps but keep the traps at least 50 feet away from any vulnerable plants. Remove by hand any stragglers that appear on your plants. If you have an infestation that the traps can't handle, spray the plants with pyrethrum, two applications approximately 3-5 days apart.
Stink bug damage on okra manifests as pimples or wart-like growth. Stinkbugs insert their hollow mouthpart into the skin of the okra and suck out the juice. When they are done, the characteristic white bump is where the pod has healed the wound. These shield-shaped bugs get their name because of their habit of emitting a foul smell when attacked. Both larvae and adults will suck juices from plants. Stink bugs are not easy to get rid of, but controlling weeds around your garden can help reduce their populations.
Very few organic pesticides have any effect on stink bugs, so if you have an infestation, you may have to resort to the pesticides that will work but have an adverse effect on the beneficial insects in your garden.
Care and Feeding of Okra
You need to be certain that your okra receives about an inch of water every week. In the spring, apply compost or a slow-acting general-purpose fertilizer. Supplemental light feedings (side-dressings or foliar spray) should be given monthly throughout the entire growing season.
A few times during the growing season, you might also apply a foliar spray of liquid seaweed extract to increase your yield of okra.
- Herbst, Sharon Tyler (2001), The New Food Lover's Companion, Barron's Cooking Guide, Page 423
- Journal of Scientific & Industrial Research, Volume 67, December 2008, pp 1115-1117
- Crockett, James Underwood (1972), The Time-Life Book of Vegetables and Fruits, An Owl Book, Henry Holt & Company, New York, PP 98-99
- Crockett, James Underwood (1977), Crockett's Victory Garden, Little, Brown & Company, Boston/Toronto
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.
© 2019 Mike and Dorothy McKenney
Mike and Dorothy McKenney (author) from United States on August 11, 2020:
Thanks so much! Good luck and may all your okra be tender...
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 07, 2020:
Just what I needed as a starter gardener. Watching my very first okras bloom. Great feeling!
Max on July 18, 2020:
Ethiopian slaves?! Where did you get that from?!! Are you people for real?
Mike and Dorothy McKenney (author) from United States on January 30, 2019:
I can't wait to get some started this year. They grow great here in New Mexico where there's plenty of heat in the spring and summer. Thanks for reading!
Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on January 29, 2019:
Okra is one of family’s favourite but didn’t know so many details about growing it.
Very useful and informative article with excellent detailed descriptions and pictures.
Thanks for sharing!