As more gardeners discover that they really like okra, the range of this warm-natured hibiscus cousin is steadily edging northward. Okra requires warm weather, but by using seedlings, you can shave 3 weeks or more from its usual long season. As long as okra seedlings are handled gently, as if they were breakable eggs, they can be slipped into the garden – or into large containers – just as the hot season begins.
Choose your sunniest spot for okra, and wait until the weather is warm to set out your plants. Plants like it when nights are at least in the 60s and days 85 or warmer. In the North, gardeners might wait until late June to plant, since pods appear within 2 months.
Okra grows best in soil with a near-neutral pH between 6.5 and 7.0, although it will do fine in a pH as high as 7.6. Plants benefit from a generous amount of compost or other rich organic matter, which should be thoroughly mixed into the soil before planting. If your soil is not rich, you can work bagged organic fertilizer or slow-release conventional fertilizer such as 4-6-6 or 19-19-19 into the soil at the rate recommended on the package.
Okra seedlings have fragile taproots that cannot be broken. Thoroughly water your seedlings an hour before you transplant them. Gently break open the sides and bottoms of their biodegradable containers, and set them in their prepared spot only slightly deeper (about ½ inch) than they grew in their pots. Water the little plants if rain is not expected, but wait a few days before mulching to give the soil a chance to absorb the sun’s warmth. Okra is appreciated for its ability to withstand drought compared to other vegetables, but for good growth and production, you’ll need to water at least an inch a week, just like other vegetables. Just know that if you run into an extended dry period and can’t seem to water enough, okra will be the last to suffer.
The early growth of okra is often slow, but the plants grow much faster once summer starts sizzling. In addition to gaining height, okra’s leaves get bigger as the plants grow and begin producing yellow blossoms followed by tender pods. Plants are erect with a main trunk, making them look a little tree-like in the garden.
Cool weather is okra’s number-one enemy, and stressed plants may fall victim to verticillium and fusarium wilts, which are soil-borne diseases that cause them to wilt and die. Another serious pest is root knot nematode. Ants often climb up plants to steal sips of nectar but seldom cause serious damage. Fireants are the exception, as they can cause damage to developing flowers that forces them to abort. Other pests that you may run into include Japanese beetles, stink bugs, aphids, corn earworms, and flea beetles.
Warm weather helps pods grow quickly, so check plants every day once they start producing. A pod can grow from nothing to full size in 2 or 3 days. Pods first appear at the base of the plant up so that by the end of the season you could be on your tiptoes to harvest.
Pods are ideal when 2 to 4 inches long; they get very tough and stringy if allowed to stay on the plant. Always remove any that are too big to eat because they keep the plant from producing.
Use pruning shears to cut the pods with a short stub of stem attached. Some people suffer uncomfortable itching from contact with okra’s stiff leaf hairs, so you may want to wear gloves and a long-sleeved shirt when gathering your okra. If a few pods slip by you and grow into giants, cut them off to keep them from exhausting the plant.
In warm climates where summer lasts a long time, standard-sized plants can get 6 to 8 feet tall. In this case, many people prune vigorous varieties like Clemson Spineless in late summer by cutting back about one-third of the plants’ tops. Buds along the main stem then grow and produce a late crop. You can use similar techniques to rejuvenate dwarf okra varieties like red Little Lucy, which is often combined with herbs and flowers in roomy containers.
Okra is a “cut-and-come-again” vegetable. Keep cutting the pods every day or two, and they will keep on coming.
Do all okra varieties have spines?
What do you do with the extra okra plants in the planting cups when transplanting?
My okra plants are about an inch tall, but are not growing at all. What can I do to help them along?
After blooms appear on the plants, how long does it take okra to grow to harvest size?