When to pick okra?

How to Grow Okra

Gardeners in the southern United States usually reserve a spot to grow okra, because it’s a staple in southern cooking. Northerners have come to know and enjoy its subtle taste, too. Similar in taste to eggplant, okra is used in shellfish, corn, onion and tomato dishes. It is also known as “gumbo”. When cooked, okra’s liquid commonly is gumbo’s thickening agent.

The annual, warm weather vegetable is related to hibiscus, hollyhock and rose of Sharon. Native to Africa, it is easy to grow this unique vegetable.

Growing okra

Prior to planting, soak the okra seeds in water for 12 to 18 hours to soften its hard seed coat. Soaking aids moisture absorption and germination.

Plant okra in the spring or early summer once the threat of frost has passed. To prevent the seeds from rotting, the soil should have warmed to at least 65 degrees. Gardeners in cool regions may want to start okra seeds indoors in peat pots four to six weeks before the area’s final frost date.

If buying okra plants, purchase those that are started in containers such as peat pots that can go into the ground. Disturbing okra’s roots hampers growth.

Okra can grow from three to six feet tall. Choose a garden spot where its shade will not harm other sun loving plants. Sow the seeds one inch deep in rows that are three feet apart. The seeds generally germinate in two to 12 days. Okra will grow in many soil types, so mulch and fertilize as needed.

Once the plants start to grow, thin them so they are spaced 12 to 18 inches apart.

Okra thrives in the full, hot sun. Regular watering is needed and is particularly critical during flowering and pod development. During extended dry spells, a weekly deep soaking is beneficial.

Crop rotation and good soil management help control diseases. Okra is susceptible to wilt, root knot nematode and Southern stem blight. It is not unusual for okra to attract various beetles and worms. Watch regularly for infestations and treat appropriately.

Harvesting okra

Okra reaches maturity in 50 to 65 days. The plants can produce for ten to 12 weeks. It grows and bears seed pods until frost, which quickly turns them black and kills them.

Start harvesting a few days after the okra blooms fade. At that point the seed pods should be soft and two to three inches long. Pick the pods at least every other day, as they quickly turn from tender to tough the bigger they grow. Handle okra gently. The pods bruise easily.

Remove old seed pods so they do not inhibit new pods from developing. For maximum yield, prune older limbs beneath the already harvested pods.

All okra varieties have spines, so wear gloves when picking the pods. The spineless varieties have fewer spines on the pods themselves, but spines on other parts of the plant make wearing gloves and long sleeves a good idea.

Storing and using okra

Do not wash okra. Wet pods become slimy and mold quickly. Refrigerate dry okra in perforated plastic bags. Use within a few days before the pods’ ridges and tips start to turn dark.

Because of the long growing season and hearty production, four or five plants usually produce enough okra for most families. More plants may be needed, though, to can or freeze okra for use during the winter.

While old seed pods cannot be eaten, they are perfect for dried flower arrangements.

Lady’s fingers, ochro, kopi arab, bhindi, okro, and gumbo; all pseudonyms for that quirky edible seedpod, officially known as Abelmoschus esculentus, that many of us simply call okra. Okra is nestled comfortably in the Malvaceae (mallow) family of plants, which also houses hollyhock, cotton, and hibiscus. While there is some question if okra is a fruit or vegetable, it does contain seeds all wrapped up in a nice little package we can eat. So by definition, okra is a fruit, and one that can be found in various parts of the world. From Egypt to England, Brazil to Belgium, people are enjoying all okra has to offer.

Location:

While okra can be found just about anywhere, its origin is up for debate. Some believe it was first cultivated in Ethiopia or West Africa, while others counter that South Asia has dibs. Whichever it is, we do know that okra is a hearty plant that can be planted almost anywhere, and do exceedingly well. What makes okra so hearty and grow so prolifically, is that it is drought tolerant, loves the sunshine, and while it prefers warmer climates, it can even be grown in temperate zones. As long as okra is planted about 2 weeks after the last expected frost date, after the soil has had a chance to warm a bit (> 65°F), it will be successful. If planting later in the season, just be aware that okra’s nemesis is frost.

Planting:

When planting okra in more temperate climates, this perennial plant becomes an annual and must be replanted each year. To plant okra it is best to soak the seeds overnight to improve germination. It is typical to soak seeds in water; however some do use buttermilk or a weak vinegar. The acidic nature of buttermilk and vinegar help soften its hard seed coat. Okra seeds can be planted in 1” deep hills that are about 18-24” apart. As they begin to grow, thin out the stragglers so the sturdier ones can thrive. Be sure your plants have plenty of sunshine, at least 6 hours, and are in well drained, slightly acidic to neutral soils (pH 6.5-7.5). If you find your soil is too alkaline, adding in coffee grounds can help drop the pH level, creating a more acidic environment.

Problems:

As most gardeners can attest, we are not the only ones that enjoy dining on fresh produce growing in our gardens. Aphids and certain moth larvae can become pests for okra if not managed.

Inviting ladybugs and other predatory insects can help keep pest populations under control.

If moth larvae are the problem, cover your plants at night with a light bedsheet to keep the adults from laying eggs on your plants.

Okra can also become a victim to certain fungi. To help prevent this make sure your plants are receiving plenty of sunshine. Also implementing crop rotation within your garden is extremely helpful in reducing disease and pests. If your plants do become victims of fungi, trim the affected parts and get rid of them. Do not put them in your compost pile. This will only help spread the disease.

Growing:

As your plants mature they will bloom with beautiful little whitish-yellow flowers that resemble their relative the hibiscus.

Green okra or lady finger in plant

After that point, the okra plant will begin to grow small seedpods that will be ready for the picking when they are 2-3 inches long. Picking them at this size, and picking every 1-3 days, helps ensure they will be tender. Pruning shears are best to remove seedpods. This makes a nice even cut of the stem. If you find the stem difficult to cut, then pods are too old and will not be good for eating.

If planting from seeds, the okra fruit will ready to pick within approximately 3 months. If transplants were used, the fruit will be ready in about 2 months.

Preparing Okra:

Once the harvest has ensued, the okra preparation and eating can begin. As with many vegetables, simply sautéing okra in olive oil or butter and adding seasoning is enough to make a delicious dish. However, if you would like to go beyond that, there is plenty to do with okra. Okra can be prepared immediately, or saved for later by canning or freezing. Okra will last in the refrigerator for about 5-7 days, in the freezer for about 6 months, and up to 1-2 years if sealed and canned.

If you choose to freeze okra, be sure to blanch it (and then cool it) prior to freezing. Blanching for 3 minutes should do the trick.

Okra is often thought to be sticky or slimy. This is due to the mucilage it produces. Soaking in vinegar can help reduce this. However, the mucilage is useful in cooking as it helps thicken some dishes. One such dish is gumbolaya, a mix of gumbo and jambalaya. To make this dish tryout the following recipe:

Gumbolaya:

Ingredients:

2-3 cooked chicken breasts

2-3 cups cauliflower rice*

16 oz andouille sausage (cut into ¼ inch pieces)

2-3 cloves of garlic (smashed and chopped)

1 large onion (chopped)

4 stalks of celery (chopped)

1-2 bell peppers (chopped)

2-3 cups okra (sliced)

1 28 oz can of diced tomatoes

3-5 cups broth (depending on how “soupy” you want it to be)

Salt and pepper to taste

Herbs and spices to taste. Try thyme, oregano, sage, parsley, or whatever you prefer.

Directions:

Add all ingredients to one big pot and heat to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and let cook for about 60 minutes. Stir occasionally. If you find it is drying out, add more broth.

Gumbolaya makes great leftovers. In fact, eating it the next day seems to enhance the flavor.

Shrimp can also be added to this dish (about ½ lb). Just be sure those little guys are peeled, deveined, and cooked prior to adding.

This recipe is a very forgiving recipe and one that screams “make it your own”. So feel free to add more or less of any ingredient, add spices you like, heat it up with some hot sauce, and use versions of ingredients you enjoy. You are the one eating it, so make it enjoyable to you!

* To make cauliflower rice, put cauliflower florets in a food processor and process until about the size of a rice grain. You can add this directly to your pot of gumbolaya, or sauté in butter or olive oil, prior to adding, to enhance flavor.

Goodness of Okra:

Adding okra to your diet can increase your fruit/vegetable intake which is valuable in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Adding okra to your diet can increase your intake of fiber, as well as add vitamins C, K, A, B6, folate (B9), thiamine (B1), magnesium, calcium, and potassium to your diet. Due to the fact that okra is not a starchy food, it is low in carbohydrates. It is also low in calories, as 1 cup of cooked, chopped okra comes in at ~35 calories.

With okra’s beautiful blooms, hearty growing style, numerous nutritional offerings, and easy preparation, it’s a plant worth adding to your garden and diet.

Choose My Plate.gov. October 7, 2016. US Department of Agriculture. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/tools-supertracker

The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Okra. Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Okra. https://www.almanac.com/plant/okra

Wikipedia. December 2, 2016. Okra. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okra

Okra Grows Up North

  • Photo/Illustration: Janet Jemmott
  • Okra plants relish the heat that comes with growing under black plastic.Photo/Illustration: Janet Jemmott
  • Photo/Illustration: Janet Jemmott
  • Cold frames cut the chill of a spring day, giving okra the pretense of a more tropical climate and giving us a jump on the season.Photo/Illustration: Janet Jemmott
  • Photo/Illustration: Janet Jemmott
  • An okra flower resembles hibiscus, its botanical cousin.Photo/Illustration: Janet Jemmott

by Robin Barnard
August 1998
from issue #16

Okra stumps most visitors to the garden at Arrows Restaurant in coastal Maine. It seems to be an unusual plant for a northern garden, with its beautiful, pale-yellow blooms that look a lot like hibiscus flowers.

“What plant is that?” The question is asked with genuine curiosity.

“Okra,” I respond assertively, with the same high regard one would give the beefsteak tomato.

A pause usually follows. And then, a disappointed, “Oh.” Unspoken memories of I-tried-that-gooey-okra-once-and-it-was-awful cloud their vision for a moment. The conversation usually ends. Except, of course, for the bold ones who ask, “Why would anyone plant okra?”

But lately, gardeners north and south have been hearing a lot more about okra, thanks to ‘Cajun Delight’ receiving an All-America Selection award last year.

Not just another slippery character
For anyone who appreciates the beauty of a plant, the blossoms may be reason enough to grow okra, even among other flowers. But a freshly picked harvest, prepared properly, can move okra beyond its classification of “good for gumbo” to “great for gourmets.” The patrons at Arrows Restaurant who have tried sautéed Crispy Okra with Basil Pesto and Bacon or Okra Tempura no longer cringe at the thought of those pods growing out in the garden. They may be itchy and viscous when raw, but start with freshly harvested, crisp okra, learn a couple of handling tips, and you’ll be happy to have okra in your kitchen and garden.

Growing is nearly the big easy
A native of Africa, okra prefers the warmth and sun of the South but will produce in any climate where tomatoes, corn, and melons can be grown. In warm, long-season climates, okra can be direct-seeded, with harvest beginning about two months later. Here in Maine, okra can be seeded in the garden in early- to mid-June but the harvest period, which begins in mid-August, may be cut short by a September frost. So, for the Arrows garden, I start seeds indoors.

Okra plants are rarely found in any nursery around here, another reason to start it from seeds. I buy mine from local seed companies or those that have trialed seeds in a climate similar to Maine’s. That’s especially important when I choose plants that prefer a climate different from mine. This doesn’t mean that seeds from other parts of the country won’t perform, but any information a local company provides helps predict how a variety will grow in my garden.

I grow ‘Annie Oakley’ and ‘Burgundy’, which are both productive in cooler climates. ‘Clemson Spineless’, an All-America Winner, is also a favorite of mine. ‘Cajun Delight’ is another good choice for northern climates.

Starting seeds: later is better than sooner
Time your indoor seed starting four or five weeks before the last danger of frost. Here, that usually means starting seedlings around the end of April, or about the same time as eggplants and tomatoes. Don’t push the season. Seedlings planted before the ground warms up may be stunted. If flowers form, they may not produce enough pollen to set seeds, and the resulting underdeveloped pods are apt to fall off. So plan accordingly and try to err on the side of planting a little late rather than a little early. Also, keep in mind that plants left too long in flats may remain stunted in the garden.

If you use a warming mat to start your plants, they may sprout in three or four days. If you don’t have a mat, soak the seeds overnight and expect germination in about five days at room temperature. Plant the seeds 1⁄2 in. deep in 2-in. cell trays using soilless potting mix. Place two or three seeds in each cell and once they have sprouted, keep them under grow lights or in a sunny window. Be sure to move seedlings away from windows at night if the outside temperature gets below 55˚F. When the first true leaves appear, nip off all but the strongest plant in each cell.
To cold frames and garden they go
I usually start putting my okra seedlings out into cold frames as soon as 70˚ to 80˚F temperatures can be maintained in the frame during the day. I put them out in the cold frame for an hour one day, two the next, and so on for a week. The idea is to let the plants gradually get used to bright sun and daytime temperatures.

On days when I plan to be away for awhile, I put a window screen, supported by the sides of the cold frame, over the seedlings. The screen cuts the sun’s intensity without drastically affecting temperatures. I bring the plants in at the end of the day until night temperatures are around 60˚F. If you don’t have a cold frame, keep your seedlings in a bright place until the days get warm enough to set them out.

Give okra warm soil, lots of sun, and space to spare. In the garden, okra demands a sunny spot, preferably in well-drained soil with a pH between 6 and 8. It tolerates a variety of soils but does best with lots of humus. Compost is beneficial, but don’t add too much nitrogen before the plants have set fruit or you’ll have lots of foliage at the expense of flowers.

Transplant seedlings 12 in. apart, remembering to be extra careful when doing so, as okra dislikes having its roots disturbed. If you have space, plant rows 2 ft. to 3 ft. apart. In our garden, space is limited so I plant my rows 1 ft. apart across a 3-ft. bed, staggering the inside row so I can reach the plants there without stepping on the soil around the outer plants. Expect your okra plants to grow from 3 ft. to 5 ft. tall (some varieties have been known to grow 6 ft. to 8 ft., but I wouldn’t expect that in Maine). For an average family, 6 to 12 plants will probably suffice.

Water the seedlings with a high-phosphorus solution, which helps with flower production, and fertilize monthly with a foliar fish spray. Be sure your okra plants receive an inch of water a week.

Raise the heat with row covers
To give okra the warmth it loves, use black plastic mulch and row covers. I find plastic mulch useful for direct seeding in the garden, but it can be a little awkward when transplanting. In a particularly cool climate, however, you may want to go to the trouble.

Floating row covers will raise the temperature of the bed a bit and still allow water to pass through. Clear plastic row covers raise the temperature even more, but they have to be removed to water the plants. Support either type of row cover with wire hoops and secure it with clips or clothespins. Remove the cover as the plants get bigger and the weather settles.
On cutworms, nematodes, and cutting back
In our garden, the only real pest problem is the cutworm. In a small garden, a cutworm collar placed around each seedling will usually protect the plants. In a large garden, this is a cumbersome task. So, I use another approach.
It starts with having extra seedlings on hand and involves sacrificing a few okra plants. It requires a daily morning walk through the okra patch. If I find a downed plant, severed at the base of the stem, I dig around until I find the cutworm, usually curled up around the okra stem. After disposing of the cutworm—any method’s fair game—I fill the bare spot with another seedling. If I run out of seedlings, I plant a seed there instead. It usually takes a few days before the cutworms have been thinned out. Fortunately, once the seedlings establish themselves, they rapidly outgrow the grasp of future cutworms. Root knot nematodes also afflict okra, so don’t plant it where there has been a nematode problem in the past without first treating the soil.

Some gardeners advocate pruning okra and some southern okra growers are able to cut the plants back entirely and let them grow back for an extended harvest. In our relatively short growing season, I’ve yet to experiment with either approach, but in a warmer climate, it may be worth the effort. I’ve heard that pruned plants tend to bush out, making harvesting a prickly affair.

Okra windfall
The plants soon produce beautiful flowers—okra is cousin to the hibiscus, which explains the similarity in their blossoms. Once the flower drops, a pod forms. It will be ready to pick in about 4 days, when it’s 3 in. to 4 in. for ‘Annie Oakley’, longer for other varieties, like ‘Burgundy’ and ‘Clemson Spineless’.

Ideally, the seeds will not yet have formed inside and the skins will be crisp but not tough. Tender okra makes for tasty okra. If you leave a pod on too long, it becomes tough; cut it off anyway to encourage more flowers and pods to form. Flowers and pods form until frost, and you should harvest every other day or so.
Harvesting okra can be an itchy affair. Even the spineless varieties have scratchy leaves (like squash plants) so wear long sleeves and gloves if your skin is sensitive, or use the grin-and-bear-it approach and expect the itching to last half an hour. The pods grow on fairly thick stalks so use a sharp knife or scissors to cut them off, including about an inch of stem. Be careful not to puncture the pods and let the “goop” out. If you’re using okra for gumbo or some other soup, you’ll want this liquid intact in the pod until you’re ready to use it. If you plan to slice up the pods for deep frying, do so just before you’re ready to cook. Okra is best right after picking, but it’ll keep in the fridge for a few days. Okra can also be blanched and frozen, pickled, dried, or canned. And, if none of those options appeals to you, you can always dry the pods and use them in flower arrangements.

Or save the seeds for planting next year. Remember, though, that seeds saved from hybrids, like ‘Annie Oakley’, will rarely grow out to resemble the parent plant, so it’s best to purchase new seeds if the hybrid is the variety you want. To harvest seeds, let the pods mature on the plant until they turn brown. Then dry the pods in a warm place, and shell the seeds for next year’s crop. I guarantee it’ll be a welcome regular in your garden.
Gumbo
Most people think okra seeds came to America in the hands of the Africans packed in the holds of ships and bound for slavery in the 1660s. Indeed, the word “gumbo” is the Bantu word for okra.

Okra has a long history. It was grown more than 3,000 years ago in the Nile Valley. It’s a versatile plant, with beautiful—and edible—flowers. And its pods are a good source of soluble fiber and a decent source of calcium, vitamins A, C, B-6, and thiamin, as well as magnesium, man­ganese, and potassium.

During the Civil War, Confederate troops had to substitute okra seeds for coffee beans. The seeds were roasted and ground, and probably made pretty poor coffee, though some folks still recommend it.

­Okra is best known as the main ingredient in gumbo, a stew that makes good use of the great thickening power of the gooey liquid inside the pods. Don’t cook okra in an iron, copper, or brass pot, or you’ll get a chemi­cal reaction that turns both the okra and the pot black. The result is not a pretty sight, and this beautiful, healthful plant deserves a bit more consideration.

Sources
Gurney’s
P.O. Box 4178
Greendale, IN 47025-4178
513-354-1491

RH Shumway’s
334 W Stroud St
Randolph, WI 53956
513-354-1491

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
P.O. Box 460
Mineral, VA 23117
540-894-9480

Territorial Seed
PO Box 158
Cottage Grove, OR 97424
800-626-0866

Is there any way to use oversized okra?

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Harvest okra when pods are 1 to 4 inches long. Pods are ready for harvest about 60 days after sowing.

Okra, sometimes called gumbo, is a summer and fall crop. Okra flowers bloom for just one day and pods are ready for picking two or three days later.

Harvest Okra

  • Harvest okra when the pods are 1 to 4 inches long. Pods should be soft and the seed should be only half-grown.
  • The more you pick okra the more you’ll get. When picked often, okra will keep producing until the first frost.
  • Flowers and pods first appear at the base of the plant and then keep producing upward. Okra can easily grow from 4 to 6 feet tall or taller in warm, long-summer regions. In late summer, cut the tops of tall plants back by one-third and new buds and pods will appear along the main stem to produce a late-season crop.

Okra should be harvested “cut-and-come-again”—that means pick pods every other day.

How to Harvest Okra

  • Harvest okra pods using garden pruners or scissors leaving a short stub attached to the fruit. Contact with the stiff hairs on okra leaves can cause some people to itch; wear gloves and a long-sleeved shirt when you pick okra.
  • Okra should be harvested “cut-and-come-again”—that means pick pods every other day so that you get pods when they are tender and taste best. Don’t let mature pods stay on the plant; they will become stringy and bitter, and—like summer squash—the plant will stop producing.

Use pods immediately or they will begin to lose quality and flavor.

How to Store Okra

  • Okra tastes best the day you pick it. Use pods immediately or they will begin to lose quality and flavor.
  • Okra does not store well, but if you must keep okra more than a day or two, store pods in a perforated plastic bag in the vegetable crisper section of the refrigerator.
  • Pods refrigerated for more than a day or two often suffer chilling injury and turn black.

More okra tips at: How to Grow Okra.

Home Garden Okra

Circular 941 View PDF picture_as_pdf

Robert Westerfield, Extension Horticulturist

Okra is a Southern staple in the home garden and at the dinner table and can be grown throughout the state of Georgia. It is considered a warm season vegetable and is a member of the Mallow family, which includes plants such as cotton and hibiscus. This vegetable is both easy and fun to grow and can be used in many different culinary dishes and for dried flower arrangements.

Sites and Soils

Okra prefers well-drained, sandy soils that are high in organic matter, but it can be grown in a wide variety of soils. Okra can tolerate a pH range from 5.8 to 6.8. Okra does best when planted in a full sun area. Align the rows in an east/west direction to capture maximum sunlight. Only plant when soils have warmed up to at least 65 degrees F at a 4-inch depth.

Planting

Okra can be established by sowing seeds directly into the garden. To enhance germination, soak okra seeds in water for several hours or overnight before sowing. Space rows 3-feet apart; sow seeds 1-inch deep and 4- to 6-inches apart within the row. When seedlings are several inches tall, thin the row so the remaining plants are spaced 1.5- to 2-feet apart.

Fertilization

Before planting, have the soil tested at the local County Extension office and follow any recommendations. With no soil test, a general recommendation would be to apply 2 pounds of 10-10-10 per 100 square feet and make two sidedressings of 3 ounces of 10-10-10 per 100 feet of row, beginning when plants are 6- to 8-inches tall and again two to three weeks later. Additional sidedressing may be needed if heavy rains occur. Do not over-use nitrogen, since it can cause excessive vegetative growth with poor yield.

Watering

Okra can tolerate dry conditions; however, watering may be necessary during extended dry periods. Moisture is especially important during flowering and pod development. During prolonged dry periods, a deep soaking once every seven to 10 days with 1 to 1.5 inches of water should be adequate. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation tape are the best methods for applying water.

Cultivation and Weed Control

Okra is harvested over a long period of time and full-season weed control is important. Where mechanical cultivation is necessary, it should be shallow and done only as often as required to control weeds. Organic mulches help control weeds and conserve moisture.

Harvest and Storage

Okra should be ready to harvest about 60 to 70 days after planting, when pods are 2- to 3-inches long. At this stage the pods are still tender. Larger okra pods will become too tough and fibrous. Roundpodded okra varieties remain tender at larger pod sizes and are good to use for slicing and freezing.

Okra grows very fast; therefore, it must be harvested every few days. Do not allow pods to mature on the plant because this will slow production and cause tough, fibrous pods. Handle okra carefully because the pods bruise easily.

The optimum conditions for storing okra are a moist environment and temperatures of 45 to 50 degrees F. Okra can be stored in the refrigerator for about seven days.

Insect Control

The insects found on okra vary from year to year, but various beetles (flea, Japanese, blister and cucumber beetles) and worms (mostly corn earworm) are generally the most common. Inspect plants frequently and treat with an approved product if needed.

Disease Control

The more serious okra disease pests include rootknot nematode, Southern stem blight and wilt. A combination of crop rotation and good soil management is important for controlling these diseases. Foliage blights may occur, but generally they do not reach a level that requires treatment. Blossom blight can be serious during persistent rainy periods.

Suggested Varieties

Several okra varieties (cultivars) are available to home gardeners and differ in plant size and fruit characteristics. Most varieties produce spineless pods. Some suggested varieties are listed below.

Annie Oakley II hybrid spineless dark green pods 4.5-foot-tall plants
Burgundy open pollinated burgundy red pods 4-foot-tall plants
Cajun Delight hybrid spineless dark green pods 4-foot-tall plants
Clemson Spineless open pollinated spineless dark green pods 4- to 5-foot-tall plants

Status and Revision History
Published on Aug 14, 2008
Published on May 13, 2011
Published with Full Review on Aug 01, 2014

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