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Okra
(Abelmoschus esculentus)


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Cultivars

Okra plant.

This very fine (nearly great) vegetable is shamelessly slandered by folk who don't understand its cooking qualities. Yes, okra rapidly goes gooey when cooked with water: but, as they say in computertalk, that's a feature, not a bug. That mucilagenous quality is prized by those who appreciate its uses in gumbo, wherein it thickens up the soup considerably while adding good flavor. But the best way to enjoy okra properly--and without any gooeyness--is the old Southern way: coated with cornmeal batter and fried quick and deep. Ummm, ummm, good!

Of all the vegetables on our lists, this out-of-Africa heat-lover is doubtless the most challenging in this climate, even more so than eggplant--but the payoff for success is so high that we're more than willing to take that gamble. There are some newer hybrids that claim to be good for northern growing, but we'd rather grow nothing than hybrids; fortunately, there are also open-pollinated types that reportedly grow well in northern climes.

Not commonly stated in the literature (or catalogues) is that okra has daylength-sensitivity that varies with cultivar; most cultivars need a short daylength to initiate flowering, though there are also long-day and day-neutral cultivars. So "days to maturity" for a cultivar may not sufficiently define its usefulness--it should be explicitly labelled as suitable for northern growing.

We see on the web that some questions have been expressed about okra's daylength sensitivity. Like Will Rogers, we only know what we read in the newspapers (well, and articles). From the University of Arkansas publication "Okra Production Update for Small Acreage Growers": Flowering is day-length sensitive. Less than 11 hours promotes flowering in most cultivars. Under longer days, flow­ering buds tend to abort. However, "Clemson Spineless" is one of many cultivars that is not photo-period sensitive. Clemson Spineless has been widely accepted for growing in temperate regions where day length is long during the summer.

After reviewing countless articles on the topic, the cultivars most often mentioned always seem to start with that old classic Clemson Spineless; since it seems to combine the virtues of rapid growth, daylength neutrality, reliability, productivity, and--duh--freedom from the dreaded okra spines, the choice seems a no-brainer. (The oft-mentioned Cajun Delight is a hybrid, and, as you should know, We Just Don't Do Hybrids--except corn--and besides, its claimed virtues seem exaggerated.) If you really fancy a red okra, Burgundy is probably the best of that type. (If you explore other cultivars, watch three things: growing period in days; suitability for northern use; and spinelessness. Okra spines, discussed more down on this page, can be a real bugger, and you really, really don't want a type that isn't as spine-free as possible.)


Planting

Timing

When to plant out is critical in this climate. Avoiding too-cool nights is more of a problem than getting warm days (though both matter). Ideally, okra would like night-time lows of about 65, but we just don't get temperatures like that. It is said that "Night temperatures should be above 55° F for good growth", and that "Plants will stop growing as soon as the temperature starts dropping down below 50° F."

Well out here our very highest average nightly low temperature for the year is only 55°: we see that number (again and always, on average) from late July to early August, a span of perhaps two weeks. Even early okra nominally takes--depending on whom you believe--about 50 to 65 days from transplant to maturity. If we simplify to 60 days, and recall that our peak heat comes around August 1st, that suggests planting out around July 1st for harvest at the end of August--a period when our average daily highs run from 80° at each end to 90° in the middle, which seems satisfactory. Anyway, we hope it's satisfactory, because it's the best we can do. (As one of the links farther below says, one grower in a tough climate direct-seeded some Clemson around the 1st of July more or less as a lark, and got surprisingly good results.)

One apparently wants to start okra seedlings about 4 to 5 weeks prior to anticipated plantout, which means sowing seed around June 1st or perhaps even a week earlier.


Starting Seedlings

The minimum soil temperature for okra seed germination is about 60° F., but the optimum germination temperature is 95° F. The temperature really makes a difference: at soil temperatures of about 60°, germination takes 27 days, whereas at about 75°, germination may take only 13 days, and in ideal conditions perhaps a week. Obviously, heat mats (electric "heating pads" for use under seedling trays) are a much-wanted tool here. Many veteran okra growers recommend soaking the seed before sowing.

Okra is another of those plants that really, really doesn't want its root system joggled about, so it's almost mandatory to start seedlings in a peat pot or, as with melons, in peat pellets. Start seed about 4 to 5 weeks before the expected transplant date. For best germination, soak the seeds overnight, then plant only the swollen ones.


The Bed

Okra is shallow-rooted and will not tolerate wet or poorly drained soils, preferring light-textured, free-draining soils, though it can be grown on almost any soil with good drainage. All sources agree that okra needs particularly high potash content in the soil--so adding some is almost a necessity--but doesn't want high nitrogen content (or you will get too much vegetative growth and the expense of the wanted pods). The optimum pH range for okra is 6.2 to 6.5. Rather obviously, the bed requires a full-sun location.

Okra should not immediately precede or follow vine crops--such as squash or sweet potatoes--owing to the risk of nematode buildup in the soil.


Transplanting Out

As already noted, since okra does not like to have its root system fooled about with, if you're not experimenting with direct seeding, grow your seedlings in decent-sized peat pots and plant the whole pot.

Ideal plant spacing in a deep-dug or raised bed is probably 12 inches (that's what Jeavons recommends, and one seedsman says the same, though with greater spacing between parallel rows, a planting layout that deep-bed gardeners do not use). These fellows can in theory get pretty big (in the deep south, some cultivars can reach ten feet tall or even over), but the early varieties, especially in cooler weather, typically reach only 30 to 36 inches high.

Obviously, all the standard northern-gardener's tools for augmenting warmth--plastic mulches, row covers, cloches, Walls o' Water or water bottles--are wise choices when dealing with okra.


Growing

Okra is tolerant of water stress (irregular watering), and in fact one has to be very careful not to over-water it or it will give you nice flowers and puny pods: the equivalent of an inch a week is about right. It is best to water slowly and direct at the base of the plant, which obviously suggests drip lines or at least soaker hoses as the ideal approach (as it is for almost all vegetables).

Okra left to its own in benevolent conditions can easily grow to 8', 9', and in a few cases almost 14' in height, to the extent that it is almost a joke (and literally requires a ladder for picking). Not a few okra veterans feel that cutting okra off at some convenient height ("topping" it) not only keeps it from growing too high, but also encourages extra side growth and, arguably, an increase in net crop. If your're going to try this, you might space the plants a little farther apart, say 15" or even 18" if you have space, lest the bushiness get them to crowding out one another.

Once flowering starts, pods form very quickly, typically in 7 to 10 days. Once pods appear, watch it closely and pick daily as pods become ready--frequent picking encourages further pod formation.

Pods should be picked while they're still tender, before the seeds are half grown; as a rule, that's about 5 or 6 days after the pod first flowered. Pods with tips that will bend between the fingers without breaking have become too tough, but if you missed them before pick them anyway, to keep those new pods coming. Remember: the pods rapidly become fibrous and woody, and so must be harvested within a week of the fruit being pollinated to be edible.

Caution! Okra plants, and pods, often have numerous small spines; those can irritate anyone's skin, and moreover some people are outright allergic to them. Always pick okra wearing a long-sleeved shirt and gloves. (That's highly recommended even with so-called "spineless" okra types.) A light washing of the pods will remove the spiny hairs, and okra can then be eaten fresh (though it is usually cooked).

Fresh okra bruises very easily, the bruises blackening within a few hours. Though the defect is mostly cosmetic, take care in handling the pods during harvest.

Relevant Links

Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful.


Odds and Ends

Biology

Okra is a member of the Malvaceae, the mallow family, and is related to hibiscus and quite closely to cotton. (It is still sometimes listed, wrongly, as Hibiscus esculentus.)


History

As we often say under this heading, there's no point in re-inventing the wheel: here's a fine history of okra.


Envoi

"Gumbo" is the old African name for okra, today transferred in the English-speaking world to the name of the famous New Orleans cajun-style soup. Okra is also featured in the cuisine of India, where it is called bhindi.

Irmo, South Carolina, hosts an annual Okra Strut.

There is a "Song to Okra", whose complete words are available on line; it is unlikely that you will hear it on MTV any time soon.


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