Around the Countryside
Marion Barnes, Senior County Extension Agent
Okra – the Versatile Vegetable
I’ve found people either like okra or hate it. You can fry it, grill it, pickle it, stew, or steam it. Those who like it have their favorite way of cooking and eating okra. This versatile vegetable can be used as an appetizer, a side, or main dish and is a staple at the dinner table, as well as in the home garden. The immature pods are the edible part of the plant and mature pods can be dried and used in flower arrangements. This warm-season vegetable, which originated in Africa, is a member of the Mallow family, which includes cotton and hibiscus.
Sites and soil
Okra can be planted on a wide range of soil types but grows best on well-drained sandy soils, high in organic matter. For greatest productivity, plant in full sun and align rows east/west to capture maximum sunlight. Optimum temperatures for seed germination are between 70 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit. If soil temperatures are less than 65 degrees at the 4-inch depth, planting should be delayed until the soil warms up, as cool soils lead to slowed growth and disease.
Planting & recommended varieties
Okra can be directly seeded in rows 3 to 6 feet apart. Many gardeners soak their seeds in water for several hours or overnight before planting to enhance germination. Sow seed 3/4 to 1 inch deep and 4 to 6 inches apart in the row. When seedlings are several inches tall, thin the row so that the remaining plants are 16 to 24 inches apart to reduce competition between plants. Spring planting dates for coastal areas of the state are April 1 through June 30 with fall seeding dates August 1 through August 30. Several different varieties (cultivars) are available to home gardeners and differ in plant size and fruiting characteristics. Some popular varieties include Clemson Spineless 80, Lee, Annie Oakley, Cajun Delight, Choppee (from the Clemson Heirloom collection), and Burgundy.
Soil testing is always the best method to determine the fertilization requirements of any crop. Information on soil testing is available in the Home Gardening Information Center publication,
HGIC 1652, Soil Testing or at: https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/soil-testing/. Okra plants have a sensitive balance between vegetation (leaf production) and reproduction (pod production). Nitrogen applications should be managed on vigorous stands to ensure the proper balance between vegetative growth and pod production occurs. Nitrogen applications will depend on rainfall and how long the okra is expected to produce.
Okra can tolerate dry conditions; however, during extended dry periods, watering may be necessary. Pod set and pod development are critical periods of development, and plants need adequate moisture during these growth stages. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation works well and should be used to provide supplemental moisture during dry periods. These methods of irrigation keep foliage dry, and target application areas, therefore conserving water.
Okra is harvested over a long period of time and season-long weed control is important, especially n the seedling stage. When mechanical cultivation is required it should be done shallow and only as often as necessary to control weeds. Organic mulches can be employed to control weeds, as well as conserve moisture.
Okra production often slows during the middle of the summer, especially during hot dry weather. If harvest tapers off and flowering ceases, home gardeners may try ratooning spring-planted okra. Ratooning is the process of cutting the stem back (usually around mid-July or early August) causing the plant to put out new growth and produce another crop into the fall. Prune okra 6 to 12 inches above the soil line and add a fertilizer containing a 1 to 2 ratio of nitrogen to potassium to stimulate new growth and flowering.
Insects and diseases
Like all vegetable crops grown in the south, okra is not without its pests’ problems. Seedling diseases are most prevalent when the crop is planted in cool wet soils. Southern stem blight and wilt are diseases that sometimes affect okra. Root-knot nematodes (small microscopic worms that live in the soil) can be a major problem, especially on sandy soils. Nematodes damage roots and cause yellowing, stunting, and loss of production. If you suspect a nematode infestation, check the roots of unhealthy plants for galling. With no chemical control methods for nematode infestations available, home gardeners must rely on crop rotation, sanitation, and removal of infected plants as a means of nematode control. Check out Clemson’s Home and Garden Information Centers publication HGIC 2216, Root-Knot Nematodes in the Home Garden or at: https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/root-knot-nematodes-in-the-vegetable-garden/. Aphids, corn earworms, stinkbugs, and leaf-footed bugs can also be a problem during the growing season. Aphids feed on the sap of the okra plant and often attract ants. Corn earworms feed on pods, and stinkbugs and leaf-footed bugs cause distorted and twisted pods.
Okra should be ready to harvest approximately 60 to 70 days after planting when pods are 2 to 3 inches long and still tender. Larger okra pods tend to more fibrous and tough. Due to the fast growth of the okra plant, pods should be harvested at least every 2 days. Allowing pods to mature on the plant will reduce total productivity by inhibiting new pod development.
For more information on growing okra in the home garden, check out HGIC Factsheet 1313, Okra at: https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/okra/ or contact your local Clemson Extension Service Office.
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