Growing Okra in a Backyard Vegetable Garden

okra (hibiscus esculentus 'star of david') in fruit
David Q. Cavagnaro / Getty Images

Okra plants are grown for their long, pointed seed pods, popular fried and in gumbos and soups. Okra is in the same family as cotton, hollyhocks, and hibiscus. Its flowers closely resemble hibiscus and okra makes a nice ornamental plant as well.

Okra is a tropical plant that is grown as an annual vegetable. The seed pods are especially useful for thickening stews because of their gummy mucilage. Okra plants are extremely drought and heat resistant and okra is a popular vegetable in many countries with difficult growing conditions.

  • Leaves: Palmate with 5 to 7 lobes.
  • Flowers: Yellow or white, sometimes with a reddish-purple base. 5 petals.

Botanical Name

Abelmoschus esculentus

Common Name

Okra, Gumbo, Ladyfinger, Bhindi

Hardiness Zone

Okra is grown as an annual plant, so USDA Hardiness Zones do not apply.

Exposure

You'll have the strongest plants and the most pods if you plant your okra in full sun.

Mature Size

Okra plants can reach over 4 feet tall or be top pruned and grown shorter. If given room to branch out, they can spread 3 feet wide.

Days to Harvest

You should be harvesting within 50 to 60 days. The plants keep producing pods throughout the summer. Warmer climates can plant a second crop.

Harvesting Okra

Okra plants are not pleasant to touch. Whether the spines are pronounced or hair-like, they are scratchy and irritating. Gloves and long sleeves help. It’s also easier to harvest with a pruner, rather than pulling and getting the spines in your fingers.

Okra is best when picked young. The fruits are their most tender when they’re 2 to 4 inches long and as wide as a pinkie finger. Okra can grow in the blink of an eye and usually reaches this size within 6 days of flowering.

As okra pods get larger, they become stringy and tough. However, if growing conditions are good, even larger okra can still be tender and edible. Test for tenderness by snapping off the end of a pod. If it snaps, it hasn’t become tough and fibrous yet and should still be good for eating. If not, it makes a nice addition to a flower arrangement.

As with most vegetables, okra is at its peak when freshly picked. Pods can be stored in the refrigerator for about 1 week or frozen, canned or pickled.

Suggested Varieties

[Note: Okra varieties that are labeled spineless, are less irritating, but not completely spine-free.]

  • Annie Oakley: Nice yield. Hybrid. 3 to 4 feet.
  • Burgundy: Burgundy pods (Lose some color with cooking). Heirloom. 4 feet.
  • Clemson Spineless: Good flavor. Heirloom. 4 to 5 feet.
  • Emerald: Long pods (7 to 9 inches). Spineless. Heirloom. 4 feet.
  • White Velvet: Tender, white pods. Heirloom. 5 feet.

Okra Growing Tips

Okra does best in rich, well-draining soil. It's not particular about soil pH (6.5 to 7.5), but it won’t thrive in heavy, soggy soils.

Planting Okra: Okra seeds are large and easy to handle. Some gardeners like to pre-soak their seeds the night before planting, but you should get good germination if you keep the soil moist until the plants break through.

Okra can be direct sown or started indoors and transplanted. Starting seedlings in peat pots will lessen transplant shock. Start indoor seeds 6 to 8 weeks before transplant date.

In colder climates, wait until the weather is reliably warm, about 2 weeks after your last expected frost date, before transplanting outdoors. Okra plants love heat. They kick into gear when temperatures reach 80 degrees and grow even stronger when it climbs into the 90s.

Direct sow seed 1 inch deep and 4 to 8 inches apart. Space rows 3 feet apart. Okra plants can get large and branched. Thin to 18 to 24 inches, when seedlings are 4 to 6 inches tall, to give the plants room to branch. Crowding will result in thin plants with few fruits.

Maintenance

If you have rich, organic soil, you won't need supplemental fertilizer. Side dressing with manure or foliage feeding with a seaweed/fish fertilizer will supply some extra fuel.

Water: Once okra plants are established, they can handle brief dry spells. For best yields, water well at least every 7 to 10 days.

Most okra varieties are open-pollinated and pods left on to mature and dry can be harvested for their seeds.

Pests and Problems

Okra is fairly problem free and most problems affect only the leaves, not the pods.

Aphids and stink bugs may attack the plants. Keep an eye out and spray off or remove by hand before the problem grows.