Here are my best tips for growing, harvesting, and storing okra!
What is Okra?
Okra is an annual vegetable that can grow very tall and thrives under warm weather conditions. It is also known by the name "gumbo" in some parts of the country. For some time, I thought there was a French connotation and relationship to that, but it is said to be a Swahili word.
Some gardeners can have trouble picking some varieties of Okra because it grows to heights that are difficult for picking. There are hybrid varieties that have helped with that problem, especially the popular Annie Oakley, which is also known for its very tender pods. These hybrids can grow anywhere from about 2.5–5 feet tall at most, making them accessible to the majority of gardeners for harvesting purposes.
Some people use the okra plant as part of their landscaping design, imputing more of an ornamental value on it than a plant that is grown for food.
When to Plant Okra
It's best to wait about a week to a week and a half after the last frost day to plant okra seed, as its germination rate is poor in cool soils.
For those that love or sell okra, this works great as it will mature at a time when people are ready to try their first batch in the summer.
How to Plant Okra
- Plant your okra seeds about an inch deep in hills that are 1–2 feet apart.
- When the seedlings reach several inches tall, thin them back to the strongest plant in each hill.
- As with other plant seeds, okra seed germination rates improve if you soak them before sowing them. That can be done in water or in a wet towel.
- Okra likes the sun so plant them in a place with a heavy, daily dose of it.
- You can also grow your own seedlings and have them ready for planting at the optimal time and to help give them a head start.
Okra Plant Care
Okra is a very hardy plant and will grow nicely in just about any decent soil. To keep down the weeds, do some shallow cultivation close to the plants as needed.
It won't hurt them to dry back some, but be sure to water in an even manner when it needs it. They shouldn't be allowed to become completely dry, even though they take the heat well.
In hotter regions, you can give your okra plants a boost by pruning the stalks of the plant back to about two inches above the secondary buds. This encourages the plant to flower for a second time as new growth emerges from the pruning. After the pruning, you can fertilize the plant to help give it a boost as well.
Okra is a part of the family of plants which includes the rose of Sharon, hibiscus, and hollyhock. As you can see from the photo above, the flower of the okra is gorgeous. That, along with the attractive foliage, is why the okra has a combination of factors that make it so compelling to those planting it.
Okra plants are susceptible to fusarium or verticillium wilt. There is little you can do to protect them other than rotating your plants from year to year. I'm not aware of any variety that has resistance to either disease.
You identify the diseases from the plants shriveling or turning yellow in the middle of summer. That's not to say disease is a big problem with okra, as they tend to do very well in that regard, although there will be exceptions to that general rule.
People tend to wait a little too long to harvest their okra, allowing it to reach five inches long or more before picking it. To get the best okra, the immature pods should be picked when they're 2 inches, and at the most 3 inches long. There are exceptions for a few varieties, but that's the general rule of thumb for most okra plants.
When to Pick Okra
Okra also should be picked on a consistent basis. Don't leave them longer than a couple of days between harvesting them, as they can grow quickly and get woody and lose their fresh flavor. To get the best results a daily picking is preferable.
If you find some larger, older pods, remove them because they take energy away from the rest of the plant. This is similar to green beans that are left on a plant too long. The pods of the okra need to be removed carefully, so it's best to have a sharp set of pruning shears to do the job.
Another practical tip is to wear long sleeves and a pair of gloves when harvesting, as okra has these short little hair-like things growing out of them which are irritating to the touch.
Okra will continue to produce pods until it frosts.
Picking Okra the Easy Way
For short-term storage, place the dry pods in a crisper in the refrigerator, wrapping them in a perforated plastic bag. Don't wrap it too tightly, rather leave it somewhat loose.
At best okra only lasts for up to three days after you pick it and place it in the refrigerator, so don't wet it at all to clean it, wait until you're ready to cook it. Wet okra is what has given it a bad name in the eyes of some people, as it turns slimy and somewhat disgusting in that condition. That's why it must be kept dry.
You know you need to cook it almost immediately when you start to see the little ridges of the post begin to darken. The tips of the plant can also start to get dark, telling you it needs to be cooked quickly if you want to salvage it.
Okra can be successfully frozen if you want it to last into the winter.
Okra may not have the versatility of other plants like onions, peppers or tomatoes as it relates to recipes and meals, but in its particular niche, it's difficult to beat.
In some places in America and around the world, people would rather eat okra than almost anything else. Add to that the beautiful flowers and great place in landscaping design, and you have a fantastic plant that provides a great view and a source for many satisfying meals. Now that's what I'm talking about!