Okra or lady’s fingers is a Southern favorite grown in backyard gardens and served up fried, baked, braised, pickled, and added to soups and stews as a thickener. Okra is nothing special to look at, it’s just a long green seed pod, but what it lacks in looks, it more than makes up for in flavor and versatility, as well as being considered by some as a superfood. Read on to find out all about growing okra at home.
Okra is a warm-season vegetable that thrives in hot weather and full sun. This is because it originates from Asia and Africa, although specifically where, nobody knows, and today it is grown throughout the world. Select a planting location that is in full sun and well-draining soil.
In the US, okra grows best in zones 2-11, although there are now also varieties that can handle cooler temperatures. You can pick the variety that grows best for your area. Although it’s a perennial (based on its native range), okra is grown as an annual in the US.
Prepare the Soil
Okra will grow into a large plant, and it’s an abundant and fast producer. It needs plenty of nutrients and steady moisture throughout its long growing season, but it will produce seed pods that can be harvested within 2 months.
Prepare the soil by working in plenty of compost, peat, or cow manure. This will increase soil fertility, increase the acidity, and improve drainage. Okra likes neutral to slightly acidic soil with pH of 6-7 ideally.
Soak Okra Seeds
Okra seeds develop in pods up to 10 inches long and have tough outer shells. Soaking them overnight will enable them to germinate quicker. Soak seeds in water 12-24 hours before planting.
When And How to Plant Okra
Wait until all danger of frost has passed in the spring and the air/soil temperature is consistently above 65 degrees F (18 °C). If the okra seeds are planted when the weather is cooler, the seeds will not germinate but rot in the ground. Instead, what you can do while conditions are still too cool is start them indoors or in a greenhouse a few weeks after the last projected frosts.
Create shallow rows that are 1/2 inch deep. Place 1 okra seed 12-inches apart in the rows. Rows need to be spaced 18-inches apart. Lightly cover seeds with soil and water thoroughly.
Mature okra plants will reach 3-6 feet tall and develop large leaves that extend 2-feet from the stalk. Prune the plants when they are 4-6 inches tall to increase the space between them, because crowding can reduce the fruit output of the plants.
Okra After Care
Keep soil moist but not soggy. Water the soil at least once every 7-10 days. When the plants are 4-inches high add a 2-inch layer of mulch around them to help the soil retain moisture. The mulch will also help prevent weed growth.
Apply a scoop of compost around each plant when the plants are about 6-weeks old. The plants will develop a large yellow bloom when they’re about 10-weeks old. The okra pod will develop right behind the bloom and will be ready to harvest when it is 2-8 inches long. The blooms are pretty, and can be ornamental. They are filled with pollen and attract a variety of pollinators.
Okra has few pests, but they can be attacked by aphids, which can cause the leaves to turn yellow or distorted. Armyworms, cabbage loopers, mites, and cucumber beetles may also attack them. For pest control, using a DIY home pesticide will usually keep them in check; planting the right companion plants also help.
Okra Companion Plants
Cucumber, melons (like honeydew), nasturtiums, and pepper plants are some good companion plants to grow alongside okra. These have similar requirements to okra, such as warm weather, good sunshine, and rain. Aromatic herbs like oregano, sage, thyme, and cilantro are also great companion plants as they repel some of the pests that attack okra.
Okra plants can cause skin irritation when the pods are being harvested. Wear long sleeves and gloves. There are cultivars that are less irritating when handled.
Use a sharp knife and cut the pod stem near the stalk when the pod is tender. Okra grows rapidly and will need to be harvested daily during mid-summer or the pods will become too tough to eat. The best time to harvest them is about 2 months after planting when the seed pods are around 3-4 inches long. You can try snapping off the ends of the pods; if it snaps easily, this means the pods are still tender enough to be consumed.
Okra plants will continue producing pods throughout the summer and you will have a steady harvest of okra for your dinner table.
Okra as Superfood
Okra is rich in dietary fiber, and vitamin K1, B6 and C. The slime of okra is called mucilage, and is a good boost for digestion as well as soothing for your body. Okra is also believed to have anti cancer properties, being rich in natural plant antioxidants like polyphenols and a protein called lectin. And frankly, nothing beats a dish of stir fried okra cooked with some chili!
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