Okra is beloved by gardeners south of the Mason-Dixon line, mostly because it thrives in warm weather and doesn’t bolt. But, with a little patience, even northern gardeners can grow okra. Okra is an unusual garden crop. Standard varieties grow six feet tall, with showy pale flowers that resemble hollyhocks. In addition to its culinary value, it’s a handsome plant in the garden.
To grow okra, select a sunny location with well-drained soil. Okra tolerates a soil pH between 6.0 and 7.0; so if your soil is acidic, add some lime. Okra doesn’t grow well in heavy, clay soils, so use raised beds or lighten your soil with plenty of compost and manure.
Use new seed each year because okra seeds don’t remain viable long. Okra seeds are also notoriously slow to germinate. Soak them overnight or nick them with a file. Plant your seeds outdoors only after the last frost, when soil temperatures are at least sixty degrees. Okra seeds will rot in cold, wet soils. If you live in the north, start okra seeds indoors six weeks before the last expected frost. Plant the seeds one inch deep and space plants twelve inches apart. Thin large varieties to at least two feet apart. Space compact types a little closer.
Under ideal growing conditions, okra matures quickly. Keep the soil consistently moist, but not soggy. Use cloches or row covers to keep plants warm if a chill threatens. Fertilize okra every three to four weeks with a balanced fertilizer, fish emulsion, or a shovel or two of rotted manure per plant.
To harvest okra, cut the pods from the plants when they grow two to three inches long. If you wait until they’re longer, they’ll become tough. Harvest okra pods every two or three days. Remove and discard any old pods. If you stop picking, the plants will cease production and harvest ends. Older okra varieties have spines. Newer varieties are “spineless,” although they may still have a few prickles. These spines can cause skin irritation and itching, so wear garden gloves when working with okra.
Pests and Disease
Okra plants don’t have many pests or diseases, and you can easily combat most of the ones that you’ll encounter. Install collars after you transplant young seedlings to thwart cutworms. Pick off stinkbugs, beetles, cabbage loopers, or earworms and drop them in a bucket of soapy water to dispatch them. Aphids can be eliminated with a steady stream of water or a treatment of insecticidal soap.
Okra is subject to some diseases, such as virticillium wilt and fusarium. Plant disease resistant crops, keep the leaves dry, and practice crop rotation.
In the southern states, you can find young plants at your local grocery or garden center, but in the north, where okra is rare, you’ll probably have to start your own plants or sow seeds directly in the ground. In small gardens, choose compact varieties. Opt for spineless varieties if your skin gets irritated when tending your garden. You might also try some unusual types, such as red or white varieties.