Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is a flowering plant that is grown as an annual in most regions, though the species is a perennial plant in the dry tropical regions where it is native. Okra is sometimes used as a landscape plant for its attractive flowers. However, it is usually grown as a vegetable crop for its edible seed pods that appear after the flowers bloom. These seed pods have a variety of cooking uses; they are especially useful for thickening stews because of their gummy mucilage.
The okra plant has an upright, branching growth habit; the palmate leaves have five to seven lobes, and the flowers are yellow or white, often with purplish centers. The flowers give way to elongated seed pods, up to 7 inches long, containing white seeds that fill a pentagon-shaped chambered structure.
Okra is generally planted in the spring from seeds sown directly into the garden when the soil reaches 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The plants grow quickly and will take close to two months to produce seed pods that can be harvested. In regions with short growing seasons, the seeds can be started indoors three to four weeks before the last projected frost date.
|Botanical Name||Abelmoschus esculentus|
|Common Names||Okra, gumbo, lady's finger|
|Plant Type||Annual, vegetable|
|Mature Size||3–5 ft. tall and wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Moist, fertile, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Acidic (6.0 to 6.8)|
|Flower Color||Yellow, white|
|Hardiness Zones||2–11 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Africa, Asia|
Okra seeds are large and easy to handle. Some gardeners like to soak the seeds in water the night before planting, but you should get good germination if you simply keep the soil moist until the seedlings emerge.
Okra can be direct sown or started indoors and transplanted. Starting seedlings in peat pots that can be planted in the ground will lessen transplant shock. Wait until the weather is reliably warm, about two weeks after your last projected frost date, before transplanting outdoors.
If you are direct sowing, plant the seeds 1 inch deep and 4 to 8 inches apart. Space rows 3 feet apart. Thin seedlings to 18 to 24 inches apart when they are roughly 4 to 6 inches tall to give the plants room to branch. Crowding will result in thin plants with few fruits.
The plants will keep producing pods throughout the summer, though in lessening quantities. Gardeners in warm climates can plant a second crop for harvest into the fall.
You'll have the strongest plants and the most pods if you plant your okra in full sun. This means at least six hours of direct sunlight on most days.
Okra does best in rich, well-draining soils with a slightly acidic soil pH. It won’t thrive in heavy, soggy soils.
Once okra plants are established, they can handle brief dry spells. For best yields, water well at least every seven to 10 days if you haven't had rainfall. Keep the soil of young plants evenly moist but not soggy.
Temperature and Humidity
Okra is a very important food in hot climates where many other crops falter. In cooler climates, the seed pods are often smaller but still very edible. Okra plants love the heat. They kick into gear when temperatures reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit and grow even stronger when temperatures climb above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. They also excel in dry conditions but still grow perfectly well in humid climates.
If you have organically rich soil, you won't need supplemental fertilizer. Side dressing with manure or foliage feeding with a seaweed/fish fertilizer will supply some extra fuel.
Okra varieties that are labeled spineless are less irritating to harvest, but be aware that they are not completely spine-free. Consider these okra varieties:
- 'Annie Oakley' is a hybrid plant that provides a nice yield. It grows 3 to 4 feet tall.
- 'Burgundy' is an heirloom variety that has deep reddish seed pods that lose some of the color with cooking. It grows to around 4 feet.
- 'Clemson Spineless' is an heirloom plant known for its good flavor. It is a larger variety, growing 4 to 5 feet high.
- 'Emerald' has especially long seed pods at 7 to 9 inches. It is a spineless heirloom plant that grows to around 4 feet.
- 'White Velvet' is another heirloom plant. It has tender white pods and grows to 5 feet.
The edible okra fruits—the seed pods—generally appear about 50 to 60 days after the seedlings sprout, immediately after the flowers bloom. Okra pods are best when picked young. They are most tender when they’re 2 to 4 inches long and as wide as a pinkie finger. They tend to grow in the blink of an eye and usually reach this size within six days of flowering.
As okra pods get larger, they become stringy and tough. However, if growing conditions are good, even larger okra pods 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.
Okra plants are not pleasant to touch. Whether the spines are pronounced or hair-like, they are scratchy and irritating. Wearing gloves and long sleeves helps. It’s also easier to harvest with a pruner rather than pulling with your finger and getting the spines in your skin.
As with most vegetables, okra is at its peak when freshly picked. Pods can be stored in the refrigerator for about one week, or they can be frozen, canned, or pickled.
How to Grow Okra in Pots
Okra plants need a large container that’s roughly a foot deep with a similar diameter. A dark-colored container is beneficial because it will absorb heat, which okra plants like. Make sure the container also has good drainage, and always empty the saucer right away if it fills with water. Use a quality organic potting mix, and keep the soil lightly moist but not soggy. Selecting a smaller okra variety for container growth is recommended.
Pods left on the plants to mature and dry can be harvested for their seeds. Simply store the seeds in a cool, dry spot over the winter, and plant them the following spring.
Common Pests & Diseases
Okra is relatively problem-free, and most issues affect only the leaves, not the pods. Aphids and stink bugs are known to attack the plants. Keep an eye out, and spray them off with water or remove them by hand before the infestation grows.