The origins of okra can be traced back to West Africa, and it was commonly grown by the Egyptians in the 12th and 13th centuries. Okra was then distributed throughout the Mediterranean and into Europe, and finally introduced to the southeastern U.S. in the early 18th century. It was even grown by Thomas Jefferson in his Monticello garden during the 1780's.
Okra has many culinary uses in soups and stews, but is most famous as a main ingredient in gumbo. It is also believed that okra holds some medicinal purposes for helping to ease sore throat and acid reflux.
Many gardeners grow okra for it's delicious pods and for the beautiful hibiscus-like flowers. Here in the southeast, battered with flour, or cornmeal, and fried is the preferred method for preparing okra.
If you are interested in adding this unique plant to your vegetable garden, here are eight tips for growing fantastic okra.
Give Okra Full Sun and Warm Temperatures
Growing okra requires full sun, at least six to eight hours per day, and warm temperatures. Okra thrives when temperatures get above 75°F, and continue to flourish with temperatures 90°F or higher. There are a few cultivars that grow well in cooler conditions, such as 'North & South', which can be successfully grown as far north as Maine.
Okra seeds can be started indoors four to six weeks before the last frost date, or sown directly in the garden once the soil temperatures reach between 70°F and 75°F. Transplanting okra seedlings in the garden can be successful, but you must be careful not to damage the long taproot.
Okra Needs Some Space
When planting okra, space the plants 18 to 24 inches apart. Okra needs some room to increase air circulation around the plants. Proper spacing will reduce the risk of disease, such as powdery mildew, from spreading to other plants.
Provide Thick Layers of Mulch
Place a four to six inch thick layer of mulch around okra seedlings once they reach about three inches tall. Straw mulch is probably the best mulch to place around okra, but any type of organic mulch will do. Mulch helps to suppress nutrient-robbing weeds and will raise the temperature of the soil quicker in spring. This is very important if you live in a slightly cooler region because it will help speed up the growth of the plant.
Do Not Over Water
Since okra comes from West Africa, it should be safe to say it is very drought tolerant. In fact, okra performs best when the soil is allowed to dry out some between waterings. Over watering okra can cause root rot and disfigured plants. Depending on rain fall amounts, okra does best with about 1/2-inch of water per week. The great thing about growing okra is you can actually go without watering them for a month and the plants will never miss a beat!
You may think I'm saying okra needs counseling, but what I actually mean is you may need to stake-up okra as it matures. Mature plants can grow very tall - in excess of seven feet in some varieties.
The okra pods tend to grow up as the plant grows, so it can get top-heavy once it gets above six feet in height. A stake or some type of support may be needed if the plant starts to lean over. I've had okra get so tall I needed a ladder to harvest the pods at the top.
Pick Pods Early and Often
A common mistake with growing okra is harvesting the pods too late. Many gardeners will allow the pods to grow six to eight inches long. This will cause the pods to become tough and have a woody taste.
Okra pods should be harvested once the pods reach a length of one to four inches for most varieties. Harvesting the pods early will provide you with tender, delicious pods and will promote more pod growth on your plant.
Once the blooms appear on the plant keep a close eye on them - the pods will be ready to harvest in a couple days.
Watch for Stinkbugs
Fortunately, okra does not have many insect pests or disease issues, but you should keep an eye out for stinkbugs. Stinkbugs, or Leaf-footed bugs can affect the pods of the okra plant. The stinkbugs feed on the young pods causing them to become bumpy. If the bumpiness is minor the pods are probably fine to eat, but if there are extreme cases the pods should be discarded.
If you find stinkbugs on your okra, you can use Bt spray to ward off the stinkbugs. Another remedy is using ground cayenne pepper mixed with water and apply to plant leaves. The stinkbugs get one whiff of the cayenne pepper and go elsewhere.
You Can Eat The Blooms Too!
Okra is in the same family as hibiscus and have edible flowers. The okra blooms can be added raw to salads, or battered and deep fried. Another superb way to enjoy the blooms, is by stuffing with cream cheese and baking.
Add Okra To Your Garden This Year
Okra can be a great addition to any vegetable garden and a very nutritional part of the menu. You will enjoy growing this beautiful, exotic looking plant and will love the gumbo even more!