Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus), native to Africa and related to hibiscus, arrived in North America in the 1600s. This edible green seed pods quickly became popular in the Deep South as both a side dish and a thickening for gumbo and stews.
As a crop, oka thrives in any climate where corn will grow. The large-flowered, fast-growing plants reach 2 to 6 feet tall depending on the cultivar. Varieties with colorful stems and leaves, such as Burgundy, also make attractive garden borders.
Okra needs full sun. It will grow in ordinary garden soil but does best in fertile loam, particularly where a nitrogen-fixing crop — such as early peas — grew previously.
In the South, plant the first crop in the early spring and a second crop in June. In short-season areas, start plants indoors six weeks before setting them out (three to four weeks after the last frost date). Sow two seeds per peat pot and clip off the weaker seedling.
When seeding okra directly in the ground, wait until after the soil has warmed and the air temperature reaches at least 60 degrees. Use fresh seed soaked overnight or nick each seed coat with a file to encourage germination.
Sow the seeds 1/2 inch deep in light soil and 1 inch deep in heavy soil; spacing is 3 inches apart in rows 3 feet apart. Thin seedlings to 18 to 24 inches apart, always choosing the strongest of the young plants.
When okra is 4 inches tall, mulch to keep out weeds and conserve moisture. Water during dry spells and side-dress with compost every three to four weeks. In areas with long, hot summers, cut the plants back almost to ground level in midsummer and fertilize to produce a second crop.
Solving Common Problems
Okra seldom succumbs to pests or diseases. Hand pick any stink bugs that appear as they can cause misshapen pods. Corn earworms, cabbage loopers, aphids, and flea beetles may also become a problem.
Fusarium wilt, a soilborne disease, is sometimes an issue in hot regions. If the disease causes leaves to yellow and wilt, pull and destroy affected plants. Crop rotation is the best preventive measure.
About 50 to 60 days after planting, edible pods will start to appear. They’re tough when mature, so harvest daily with a sharp knife when they are no more than finger-sized and stems are still tender and easy to cut. Pick frequently and the plants will keep producing until killed by frost. Be sure to remove and compost any mature pods you might have missed earlier.
Many people find their skins are sensitive to the pods’ prickly spines, so wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting, or plant a spineless variety such as Clemson Spineless.