It is believed that okra made it’s first appearance in America during the 17th century. It was brought to the southern Colonies, where it thrived in the hot, humid summers.
The first documented accounts of okra grown in the New World were by Thomas Jefferson, who grew it in his Monticello vegetable garden during the 1780′s.
It is also believed that okra holds some medicinal purposes for helping to ease sore throat and acid reflux.
Even the beautiful hibiscus-like blooms of the okra plants are edible, and are delicious added to salads.
Follow these simple tips for an abundant crop of okra.
Okra Needs Full Sun and Warm Temperatures
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.
Okra is well known for it’s prolific production even when the mercury edges near 100°F.
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 vegetable garden can be successful, but you must be careful not to damage the long taproot.
Provide Adequate Space for the Okra Plants
It is best to space the okra plants between 18 and 24 inches apart. Okra needs some space for increased air circulation around the plants.
Provide Plenty of Mulch
Using plenty of mulch in the vegetable garden is always a good thing. It’s no different when growing okra.
Place a four to six inch thick layer of mulch around okra seedlings once they reach about twelve inches tall.
Straw mulch is probably the best mulch to place around okra, but any type of organic mulch will do.
If you are sowing the okra seeds directly in the vegetable garden, you can have mulch around in place beforehand. Just move the mulch over in the areas where you will sow the seeds when the time comes.
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 allow you to plant seeds a little sooner than without mulch.
Avoid Over-Watering Okra
Since okra comes from West Africa you automatically assume it must be 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.
Okra does best with about 1/2-inch of water per week, depending on rain fall amounts in your local area.
The great thing about growing okra is you can actually go without watering them for a month and the plants will keep on stepping.
Provide Support for Extra Tall Okra Plants
Some okra plants may need support if they begin to lean over. 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.
Even if your okra plants start to lean a bit they will probably continue to produce like normal, but you may want to stake them up to keep the vegetable a little tidier.
Harvest Okra 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.
The appropriate size for harvesting can depend on the variety you are growing, but most okra varieties are at their best when they are young and tender.
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 greater production.
Once the blooms appear on the okra plant keep a close eye on them.
The pods will be ready to harvest in a couple days. If you let them go for a week or so after the blooms appear you will find yourself with pods almost as big as bananas, and that’s not good for eating.
If you do find some very large, tough okra pods, don’t worry. You can let the pods dry out and then save the seeds for next season (if it is an open pollinated variety).
Keep a Watch for Stinkbugs and Japanese Beetles
Fortunately, okra does not have many insect pests or disease issues, but you should keep an eye out for stinkbugs and Japanese beetles.
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 them off.
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.
Japanese beetles can be found munching on the leaves of the okra plant. Just a few can be relatively harmless, but if a swarm attacks your plants the leaves can be devoured in hours.
The best defense against Japanese beetles is to hand pick them as they are found. You can also use a Japanese beetle trap nearby to trap them.