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How to Grow: Okra
Now here’s a vegetable that you don’t normally think of as a Northern crop. However, it grows well here, if you have a taste for it. My family aren’t big on okra (Abelmoschus esculentus), calling it too slimy. The one way my daughter will eat it is roasted until crisp like a French fry. Then all the slime is gone. I also like it in stir-fries and soups, but that meal usually happens when I’m home alone.
If you have a sunny, hot spot in your garden, you can grow okra. The plants are beautiful so they make an ideal edible landscape plant, too. Some varieties have colorful red leaves and pods. You can grow them in the flower garden or along a south-facing garage wall or fence.
Most okra varieties are tall growing (6 feet), start producing fruits about 2 months after planting, and keep producing hibiscus-like yellow flowers and fruits until frost. I actually have to remember to keep picking my okra because the fruits can get large and woody quickly, especially during hot weather. The young fruits are easy to harvest, tender, and I’ve even slipped a few by my family at dinner time disguised with other vegetables.
When to Plant
Since okra is a heat lover, start seedlings indoors 6 weeks before the last frost date to transplant outdoors in late May or early June. Okra doesn’t like its roots disturbed so start okra seedlings in peat, cow, or coir (coconut fiber) pots. These pots are planted, container and all, in the ground. You can also sow seeds at that time, but the plants will take longer to mature.
Where to Plant
Plant this tall, thin vegetable in full sun on well drained soil on the north side of your garden so it doesn’t shade other plants. Consider planting along a south-facing garage, barn, or house to add some beauty and produce a faster crop.
How to Plant
Beside heat, okra likes water. Plant in compost amended soil. To get a jump on the season, consider laying black plastic mulch on the bed 2 weeks before planting to preheat the soil. Poke holes 2 feet apart in the plastic to transplant your seedlings or sow seeds. If your soil is consistently wet, consider growing okra in an 8-inch tall raised bed. Okra can withstand a drought, but not a flood.
Care and Maintenance
Keep okra plants well watered, but allow the soil to dry out between waterings. Add a small handful of an organic fertilizer, such as 5-5-5, monthly around plants to keep them growing strong. Okra doesn’t have any significant pests.
The key with getting someone to love okra is to pick the pods before they reach 3 inches long. There’s no surer way to turn off a potential okra fan, than to serve thick, woody, chewy pods. This may mean harvesting daily since the pods grow so fast. If you miss a few pods, cut them off with a sharp knife and compost them. If you allow pods to stay on the plant and form seeds, the plant will slow its production of new pods. The flowers are edible too, and tasty stuffed. Wear gloves to protect your hands from the spines on some varieties.
‘Clemson Spineless 80’ is a new improved version of the southern classic that only grow 3- to 4-feet tall and doesn’t have sharp spines. ‘Millionaire Hybrid’ is a fast maturing variety. ‘Red Burgundy’ features red leaves and fruits.
Text excepted from the Northeast Vegetable and Fruit Gardening book.