Okra, Abelmoschus esculentus Moench, is also known as Gumbo, Bamia, or Lady’s fingers in various English-speaking countries. This plant is cultivated for its long pointed seed pods that are mostly used in soups and gumbos. It is traditionally grown in the southern states of the USA.
It belongs in the same family as Hibiscus, hollyhocks, and cotton (the mallows – Malvaceae). Okra is a tender and heat-loving plant that can grow from four to seven feet tall (120 – 210 cm) and produces a green seedpod. The dark-colored seedpods are harvested once they reach three to five inches (8 – 12 cm long or longer.
Chopped Okra by NatalieMaynor (CC: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nataliemaynor/)
Okra is an annual or perennial plant with leaves that are four to eight inches (10 – 20 cm) long, broad, and palmately lobed (with five to seven lobes). Its flowers are one to three inches (2.5 to 7.5 cm) in diameter and carry five white or yellow petals.
The okra fruit is a capsule that can grow up to seven inches (17 cm) long, and contains numerous seeds. The okra plant has a somewhat sticky and slimy taste, and is used in several dishes, and in particularly Asian cuisine. They are a rich source of dietary fiber, vitamins A, C, K, and the folates, and minerals such as magnesium, manganese, iron, and calcium.
Choose a location that has full sun. The plant grows best in sunny location with loose, rich, well-drained soil, with a soil pH of around 6.0 to 6.8. It is advisable to add organic fertilizer or aged compost two to three weeks before planting so that the soil is rich; add gypsum to soil that is slow draining.
Since okra is an annual and heat-loving plant, it should be planted only in areas with 55 to 65 days with temperatures above 85°F (29°C) for it to reach its full growth and flowering and pod development. That said seeds can be started indoors four weeks before the last frost.
Sow seeds four weeks after the last average frost date in the spring season with the temperature of the soil that should be at least 65°F (18°C). Temperatures below 70°F (21°C) can affect the plant’s future yield. It is possible to sow seeds before the last frost of you use a cold-frame.
Sow okra seed ½ to 1 inch (12 to 25 mm) deep about six inches (15 cm) apart. Rows should be spaced at about 24 to 36 inches (60 – 90 cm). Thin successful seedlings to 12 to 20 inches (30 – 50 cm).
Growing Okra plant photograph by Rich (CC: https://www.flickr.com/photos/8015367@N04/)
When started indoors, the seedlings should be transplanted out into the garden two weeks after the average last frost date. Choose a warm location that has full sun throughout the day. Add some compost and loosen the soil up for better growth. As the plant can grow quite large in size when fully grown, space the plants about two feet (60 cm) at all sides. Crowded plants will yield a reduced harvest.
Avoid planting the okra plant near pathways of the garden as it has stinging spine leaves. And since the plant can grow up to six feet (1.2 m) high, it is best to provide ample space to prevent it from shading other plants.
Always keep the soil moist by watering every week until the plant reaches its full size. Plants should be placed in dry locations as the stems can easily rot in cold or wet conditions. Aged compost should be added again at midseason, and for soils that are slow draining, add gypsum. Supply a 6 inch (15 cm) layer of mulch. Okra plants are best grown with cucumbers, southern peas, basil, peppers, melons, and eggplant as companion plants.
Aphids and flea beetles can attack okra. Knock aphids or flea beetles off plants with a strong steam of water and pinch out aphid-infested vegetation.
Always keep the garden clean and free of debris as okra is susceptible to fusarium and verticillium wilt which can cause the plant to suddenly die, dry up, or wilt. This normally happens in midsummer, just as the plants start to produce crops.
Rotate crops in to prevent the buildup of soil borne diseases.
Be on the lookout for the seedpods once the plant starts to produce flowers. Okras are at their most tender when they are a few inches long and half an inch thick.
Pods that are five inches and longer are usually tough and stringy, so it is best to harvest the crops before they reach their full size at about two months after planting.
Following the initial harvest lower leaves should be removed as this aids in further production.
For better handling, do not harvest okra in short sleeves as the leaves and pods are covered with fine hairs or spines that can irritate the skin.
Okra is best used a few days after harvest and can be added to soups and a variety of dishes. Store in a cool, dry place or in the freezer to lengthen its lifespan and to avoid rotting and ruining its texture. Uncut pods can also be stored in freezer bags and frozen.