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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 improvement!

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 high wires.

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:



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