There are very few vegetables that can defend
themselves, but okra is one vegetable can give you a taste
of misery in a hurry. You do not know the meaning of itch
until you harvest okra. I encourage novices to try the first
harvest in a swimsuit—after that anything will be an
Avid okra-growers claim that the 1960’s
dance craze known as
the “Twist” was first experienced by an itching
okra-picker. My wife decided she was allergic to okra "because
it made her itch." I explained to her that if you don't
itch when harvesting okra, you should call an EMS or go straight
to the morgue –you’re either dead or dying.
Why do we tolerate this "stinging"
vegetable? Because there is nothing better than fried okra
or gumbo. Both names, okra and gumbo, are of African origin.
"Gumbo" is believed to be a corruption of a Portugese
corruption, quingombo, of the quillobo, native name for the
plant in the Congo and Angola area of Africa.
Okra came to New Orleans with the African slaves,
from whom it received its common name, gombo. In Angola, the
Africans called the plant kingombo. The word was later shortened.
By 1748, okra was being grown as far north as Philadelphia,
and, in 1781, was listed by Jefferson as being grown in Virginia.
I have often made the statement "if you
can't grow okra, we can't help you," meaning that okra
is relatively easy to grow. That is true providing cool temperatures
are not predominate and soil nematodes are not present. Either
of these will stunt okra and cause it to be non-productive.
Unfortunately, I have never experienced a severe case of either,
so I have plenty of practice using a rifle to shoot pods out
of the tops of 8- to 10-foot okra plants. I have found that
it is helpful to plant crops near trees so that you can climb
the trees to harvest the okra. I also evoked the anger of
the utility company when my okra became entangled in some
Since it is a warm season crop, okra should
not be planted too early. It should be planted when the minimum
average temperature is no less than 65 degrees F. The faster
any seed germinates and the seedling emerges from the soil,
the fewer will be the problems in getting a stand. Okra seed
planted too early when the soil is cold may rot or produce
weak seedlings. At a soil temperature of 63 degrees F., 17
days are required for okra seedlings to emerge. At 77 degrees
F., 12 days are required, and at 85 degrees F. only 7 days
are required for okra seedlings to emerge when planted 1-inch
deep. This means that okra planted now will germinate and
grow faster than that planted early in the season. Now is
really the ideal time to plant.
Germination of okra seeds can be accelerated
by soaking the seeds in water for several hours prior to planting.
This tends to soften the seed coat and make emergence of young
seedlings easier. Some gardeners have reported success in
speeding okra germination by freezing the seeds thoroughly
prior to planting. The frozen seed are taken directly out
of the freezer and submerged in lukewarm water. This may break
the seed coat and accelerate germination.
Why are we discussing okra in June? Because
it is time to plant okra seed for fall gardens. Depending
on the variety, first pods are ready for harvest about 2 months
after planting. If you plant in mid-June, you will not harvest
until mid-August. If you wait until later, cool nights will
decrease production. Of course, many gardeners have okra already
growing that will continue to produce until frost. If these
plants are too tall, they should now be cut back to a height
of 4 feet so that re-branching and production will occur before
cool weather arrives. Roots of slow growing, sickly okra should
be examined for knots or a brown, rotted appearance which
indicates the presence of nematodes. Such areas should be
treated with Vapam and prepared for fall planting.
Plant okra in rows 36 to 40 inches apart. After
emergence, okra should be thinned to 10 to 12 inches between
plants. Okra should be fertilized. Pre-plant with a complete
fertilizer just as other vegetable crops grown in the home
garden. The relatively long growing season required by okra
necessitates side-dressing during the growing season. A side-dress
application of garden fertilizer should be made after the
plants begin to flower. Okra is moderately tolerant of drought
conditions. However, weekly applications of one inch of water
in absence of rainfall will greatly increase the yield and
quality of the okra pods.
The key to maintaining okra production continuously
throughout the summer is to harvest regularly. Only 3 to 4
days are required from the time the okra flower opens until
the pod reaches harvest maturity. For this reason, okra must
be harvested at least every other day during the growing season.
Failure to remove mature pods from the okra plant will cause
reduced yield and quality of pods which set on the plant later.
The pods are either cut or broken from the plant and should
be refrigerated or used as soon as possible after harvest.
Okra is an interesting plant. Actually, it
is a nutritious flower with family lineage. Okra is the species
esculentus, that is, edible hibiscus, of the Malvaceae (or
Mallow) family. Many other species of hibiscus are used as
foods in various parts of the world. In this genus belong
many species of ornamental flowering hibiscus, several of
which are natives of the United States. Cotton is the most
important economic plant belonging to the mallow family, so
okra does have family lineage that might as well be spelled
lintage because of its famous cotton cousin.
Okra can be prepared and used in many different
forms. It is easily dried for later use. A little dried okra
in prepared dishes produces much the same result as the fresh
product. In some lands the seeds rather than the whole young
pods are of most interest. When ripe, the seeds yield an edible
oil that is the equal of many other cooking oils. In Mediterranean
countries and the East, where edible oils are scarcer than
in our country, okra oil is no rarity. The ripe seeds of okra
are sometimes roasted and ground as a substitute for coffee.
Regardless of how you plan to use it, or how
tall you want it to grow, if you plan to have an abundance
of okra this fall, plant this stinging giant NOW! More about
okra can be seen at: