Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is a member of the mallow family (Malvaceae), which includes cotton, hollyhock and hibiscus. It was originally domesticated in West Africa, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years. Okra arrived in the Americas between the 16th and early 18th centuries via the African slave trade. Once on the shores of North America, okra quickly became a popular mainstay in southern gardens and a staple of many regional cuisines. Today, okra is celebrated both for its culinary versatility and beautiful yellow and purple hibiscus-like flowers.
Finding a proper site with full sun exposure and good soil is crucial for the success of your okra harvest. Okra thrives in a range of soil types, provided that the area is well-drained and high in organic matter. Excessive moisture in your soil will quickly deteriorate okra’s delicate root system. The soil pH levels should fall in the slightly acidic to nearly neutral range—a pH between 5.8 and 6.5 is ideal. Additionally, okra plants are very tall (excluding dwarf hybrids), typically growing between 4 to 6 feet tall, shading out neighboring crops.
Before planting okra seeds, consider both air and soil temperatures for optimal growth and crop yields. The upper 3 to 4 inches of garden soil should be above 65 degrees F for successful germination, with daytime air temperatures consistently around 70 degrees F or higher. In very warm zones, a second okra crop can be planted in summer for early fall harvest.
Courtesy Aayesha Siddiqui/Flickr
Okra should be directly seeded in linear rows spaced 3 to 5 feet apart. Plant seeds 3/4 inch deep and space every 3 to 4 inches initially. After the starts have emerged, thin the okra rows to one plant every 10 or 12 inches. Proper spacing between rows and plants improves air flow, which can help prevent okra pods from rotting and lessen the chances of foliage diseases.
Care For It
Okra can tolerate relatively dry conditions and should only be thoroughly watered once a week, receiving between 1 and 1½ inches water. Maintaining regular moisture is especially important during the flower-development phase, and the use of drip irrigation or soaker hoses can be helpful, too.
Weeding around the rows is especially important in the first few weeks after emergence because okra doesn’t fare well with heavy competition. As the okra matures, it will naturally shade out many of these early competitors. Consider applying mulch around your plantings to keep weeds at bay and help retain some soil moisture during the heat of summer.
Okra can be side-dressed with fertilizer once or twice during the growing season. The first application should be timed for the initial bloom period to give the okra pod production a helpful boost—approximately five to six weeks after planting, depending on the varietal and your local climate. For okra in regions with a long growing season, a second side-dressing can be applied six weeks after the initial fertilization. Do not over-fertilize okra, as excess nitrogen can lead to increased leaf growth and lower pod yields.
In the span of four to six days, okra plants can go from flowering to mature pods. This speedy maturity rate means that okra pods need to be harvested at least every other day, according to Bob Polomski, Clemson Extension horticulturist. He suggests picking okra pods when they are 2 to 4 inches long.
“Wait much longer and the pods become tough and fibrous,” he says. “[This rule of thumb] applies to any okra variety that has ribs or ridges.”
Courtesy Marg O’Connell/Flickr
The older heirloom okras with rounded pods, such as Cow Horn or Cajun Delight, are the exception to this rule and don’t become fibrous until they are much larger than the ribbed varieties, he explains.
When harvesting okra, use a sharp knife or pruners to remove pods rather than breaking them off, which can damage the brittle stems and leaves. Gloves might be helpful, as the okra plant can irritate skin. Gently handle the harvested pods because they bruise easily. Refrigerate your unwashed harvest directly after picking. In optimal conditions, freshly harvested okra pods can last up to one week. The best storage environment is around 50 degrees F, with good ventilation and humid conditions.
Freezing, drying, canning and pickling allow you to extend okra preservation throughout the year and can offer value-added products for market, depending on the food legislation in your area.
It’s important to remove any older large okra pods during harvest to encourage continued flower production from your plants. If managed properly, okra will continue producing pods throughout the heat of summer into early fall. Near the end of the growing season, consider leaving several large pods on the plant for seeds. Once the old pods dry out but before they split open, remove the pods and keep for next spring. You can store the entire dried pod for spring, or remove the seeds from the pods when they are completely dry and begin to split. Place the pods or seeds in a sealed container and store in a cool, dry location until planting season. When it’s time to plant, simply crack open the dried pods and sow them directly.
Root-knot nematode is one of the few pests that can regularly impact okra growers. Infestations of these microscopic roundworms can be identified by okra plants with stunted growth and foliage that wilts quickly. To confirm the diagnosis, pull up a suspected plant and inspect for the telltale enlarged galls or knots spread throughout the root system. Luckily, issues can be treated with annual crop-rotation practices or controlled with the use of commercial soil fumigants.
Other okra pests include some well-known troublesome species, such as aphids, stinkbugs and corn earworms. Aphids will target okra vegetation but are usually not an issue unless there is a severe infestation. The okra pods themselves are threatened by the corn earworms that eat them and stinkbugs whose sap-sucking activity on buds results in deformed pods.
Insecticidal soap sprays can help control aphids and applications of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) can help prevent corn earworm damage. Unfortunately, there are few effective controls for stinkbugs aside from environmental changes, like removing neighboring plants that the insects find attractive (fruiting plants and certain weeds) or by physical removal.
Consistent high yields and drought tolerance make okra a great crop for market in most regions of the United States. It can be a successful commodity when the harvest is stored properly and consumers are educated about the nutritional benefits and amazing culinary versatility of this Southern staple.
Get more growing advice from HobbyFarms.com:
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- Video: How to Grow Shiitake Mushrooms
- How to Grow Beans
- How to Grow Pumpkins
- How to Grow Cool-Season Pastures
About the Author: Kevin Fogle is a South Carolina-based freelance writer and photographer who has grown heirloom okra in his urban front-yard garden.