Anyone for Growing Okra?
I Learned How to Grow Okra After Moving South
By Anita B. Stone
Growing okra started with a grimace but became a garden and kitchen staple.
I remember moving from Ohio to North Carolina with my family several years ago, during which time I was looking forward to that southern home cooking everyone talked about. My neighbor qualified the staple of southern cooking when she asked if I had ever eaten okra. Being an avid gardener, I was ashamed to admit that I had never heard of okra. “What?” she hesitated. “Without okra we would starve. We just love the stuff.” She offered to cook a pot of stewed okra and one week later I decided that my desire for southern cooking was not exactly at the top of my can’t-wait-to-eat list. “It’s slimy,” I thought. Not wanting to hurt her feelings I told the neighbor how my family enjoyed okra’s unique taste. Two days later she visited us with a plate of southern fried okra. “I could tell by your facial expression that you weren’t pleased with okra stew,” she said. “Please try a small bite of fried okra.” From that day forward I have not only cooked fried okra on a weekly basis, but I have acquired a taste for the stuff in soups, stews, and casseroles, so long as I “doctored” it up.
Okra is actually a very versatile fresh, crisp vegetable that has gotten a mixed reputation. And, yet, this fast grower is one of the most heat and drought tolerant vegetable species in the world and will tolerate clay soils. Okra’s hall of fame is its magnificent yellow and purple hibiscus-like flowers. As a member of the mallow family, the showy bloom attracts natural pollinators. Its sometimes debatable taste and popular food source reigns supreme in southern gardens and has become a staple of many regional cuisines. So, if you are an okra enthusiast, you are among thousands of foodies whose diet consists of this 10-calorie productive crop plus receive the benefits of vitamins A, C and K. A good source of fiber, calcium, and potassium, okra is also known for being high in antioxidants.
In my home garden as well as the recently constructed community garden I partnered with at Eastern Wake Technical Community College, we planted okra seeds in a small 4′ by 6′ raised bed garden. Although we got a late start, within a six-day period we were amazed at the speedy growth of this vegetable, which far surpassed other crops. We planted two seeds at a time, •” deep and spaced every 3″ to 4″ per spot, in full sun and organic soil, and then offered daily doses of water to establish a healthy root system. Okra does require acidic soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5 for the average stalk to grow between four and six feet tall. In less than seven days, we thinned to one plant every 10–12 inches apart for airflow. We grew each stalk between three and five feet apart in linear rows. Because the seed pods become fibrous and woody, the growing okra fruits are harvested when immature and should be eaten before they grow too long. Surprisingly, we did not have to weed the bed, nor did we offer the crop a boost of fertilizer five to six weeks after planting. But I did not follow protocol with one of the easiest plants to grow.
Knowing the most common diseases afflicting the growing okra plant is verticillium wilt, powdery mildew leaf spots, and root-knot nematodes, I watched the plant on a daily basis, using no side dressings as fertilizer. I decided my okra was going to be organic, so there was no pesticide, herbicide or fungicide used. I also broke the rule of thumb and did not surround the plants with mulch because I assumed that an excess amount of nitrogen would lead to increased leaf growth and lower pod yields. So, I simply permitted the seeds to germinate, thinned them out and released the freedom to grow. And they did—extremely well and pest-free.
Like a mysterious hand reaching out each night, the okra seemed to grow quickly. I made certain the pods were approximately two-to-four inches long because that length made them easy and tasty when cooked, rather than wait until the pods reached a six-inch length where they became tough and fibrous. Several pounds of the crop became available every other day, which we donated to nearby charities. After all, that’s the meaning of community garden—to provide for the community. I also made sure to remove any old pods during harvest to encourage new growth.
The pod above is perfect for cooking, while the one below is too long and woody.
One of my favorite okra plants is the heirloom “Clemson Spineless,” a popular source of food for warm climate gardens and a reliably high yielding plant which grows, but does not become too fibrous. Another heirloom, “Annie Oakley,” is a quick growing okra dwarf that matures in 48 to 52 days and has spineless pods, grows to about five-feet tall in more temperate summer climates rather than in balmy southern gardens. Next year I am going to try heirloom “Burgundy,” which grows colorful crimson pods, stalks and leaves, and appears less slimy than the other varieties. An interesting heirloom named for its large rounded pods that resembles bovine horns is “Cow Horn,” which dates back to the Civil War. The pods are spineless and tender once they grow to three inches in length, and are great for stewing and soups.
If you are not a fan of okra, chances are you really haven’t tried it in a way that excites your palate. Preparation of okra can be simple. Once rolled in bread crumbs and fried, the taste becomes more like a fried zucchini or breaded squash. Chefs and cooks stew okra with onion and tomatoes with small bits of meat and corn. Some roast the vegetable with margarine. Serve it over rice, hot cornbread or grits, or even add it to ratatouille and you have a family meal.
“It’s something we grew up with,” says southern gardener Karson Turner. “If you cook it right, you can enjoy the taste whether you bread it or add garlic. It’s one of those traditional foods.” Karson went on to say, “Nowadays, anything goes. Several country clubs are serving okra as an elite entrée. Whoever would have thought our little pods would become famous?” she chuckled.
I have often been asked where okra originated. The answer comes as a surprise. There is no defined geographical origin of growing okra. Related to cotton and other mallow family plants, it is an ancient vegetable that originated in Ethiopia. Spreading across Western Africa, it became a staple cuisine for a long time and even crossed the ocean to Asia where it then spread to India and continues to be popular in Indian and Pakistani cuisine. Eventually it made its appearance in Brazil, the West Indies and reached North America in the early 18th century. The crop grew as far north as Philadelphia and was well established in Virginia. Toward the end of the 19th century, okra became popular in Japanese cuisine, served with soy sauce or as tempura. The name okra is recognized in the United States and is frequently known as “lady’s fingers” outside of Africa. With a lineage of names from Western Africa to Nigeria, we get the word “gumbo” from the island of Macau and the English name “okra.” Highly recognized, gumbo has become the most popular regional “signature” dish found throughout the Gulf Coast and is especially popular as a stew.
Growing okra in raised beds in the community garden.
Currently, Mediterranean cuisine is noted for a thick stew made from okra. Pods may be pickled or deep fried. Farmers in Nigeria have developed a multi-crop system which uses a variety of vegetables, including growing okra. In the Caribbean, okra is eaten in a variety of soups. In the Dominican Republic it is eaten along with rice and in Haiti, it is cooked with rice and maize. Because the entire plant is edible, the leaves are also eaten raw in salads or cooked in the same way as the greens of beets. The pod seeds may be roasted, pickled or ground, and sometimes used as a caffeine-free substitute for coffee. In 2009 a study revealed the potential of okra oil used as a biofuel.
Growing okra can begin with planting seeds indoors in peat pots three to four weeks before the last spring frost. You can also start okra directly in garden soil during the heat of July. The seeds or seedlings require fertile soil and full sun. As with beans, you can soak okra seeds overnight to help speed germination. Be sure to space the growing okra plants up to two feet apart.
If you select mulch, apply approximately six inches around the plant and if you wish to side-dress, you can use aged manure or compost. About two months after planting, the okra will be ready for harvest. It is best to pick when it is between two to three inches long and harvest frequently. Tiny spines may irritate your skin, so unless you have a spineless variety, make sure you wear gloves to protect your skin.
Okra is easily stored. Simply place the uncut and uncooked pods into freezer bags and keep them in the freezer. You can also bread small slices and place them in freezer bags for the winter months. Or you can parch the seeds to make a fake version of coffee just as occurred during the Civil War. At the end of the harvest, I make certain to select a few young pods and dry them during the winter months, storing them in a cool dry location. When spring arrives I open the pods and several viable seeds are ready to be planted. Once you try growing okra in the garden, you will never have to spend one cent in new purchases, unless you decide to try another variety.
Whether you live in the Gulf Coast region, North Carolina, Maryland, New York or Michigan, you can be successful growing okra. It is fast becoming an eye-catching crop, not only for its ease in growth and productivity but for its sustainability. Even during the summer months in cold states okra likes to be the “star” of the garden and may grow successfully given the right conditions. It chooses its companions carefully. It does not tolerate tomatoes but will grow well near peppers, basil, and eggplant. With increasing popularity, this vegetable has proven to be a winner from farm to fork as a major food source and continues to offer ease for farmer, gardener, and homesteader.
Have you tried growing okra? We would love to hear about it!