2023-2024 Conference Tips 3 – Climate Change, less usual edible plants

Carrots under shade cloth in summer.
Photo Pam Dawling

2023-2024 Conference Tips Part 3 – Climate Change, Less Usual Edible Plants

I reported earlier on good tips I got from the CFSA Conference and the VABF-SFOP Summit.  Here I’ll continue the theme.

At the VABF-SFOP Summit, I also attended workshops on Meeting the Climate Challenge with Mark Schonbeck, and Eating and Marketing the Whole Plant with Chris Smith. I’ll tell you more about those now, then move on to the Pasa Sustainable Agriculture Conference.

Meeting the Climate Challenge: Sharing Stories, Co-Creating Solutions with Mark Schonbeck

Mark’s slides and handout will be available soon on the VABF website. In our region we are experiencing hotter summer nights, which are hard on plants (and livestock, I’m sure). At 95F (35C) most crops close down completely or slow their growth. For every 1.8F (1C) in warming, 3-10% of the Organic Matter is lost (burned up) and nitrous oxide emissions may increase 18-28%. Daffodils are flowering up to 5 weeks earlier, fruit trees are budding out earlier, risking losing the fruit to freezing nights. In the spring we are getting later cold snaps below 10F (-12C) in March.

We are having a longer frost-free period, with more generations of bugs. Downy mildew of cucurbits is spreading further north than previously.

Our kale beds after heavy rain. Photo Wren Vile

In Virginia we are getting more intense and heavier rains, with more flooding. The erratic nature of the rains means we can experience flash floods, followed by droughts and wildfires. Heavy rainfall leads plants to grow shallower roots, which then die if a sudden drought follows.

Keeping living roots in the soil will increase climate resilience, as will other ways of building healthy soils, such as diversified rotations, and varied agricultural enterprises. Here’s Mark’s list of

6 Organic Principles of Soil Health:

  1. Keep the soil covered
  2. Maintain living roots
  3. Return organic residues to the soil
  4. Minimize soil disturbance
  5. Diversify crops
  6. Integrate livestock.
Teff cover crop.
Photo Wikipedia

Increasing the use of cover crops will help with 1, 2, 3 and 5. Teff can be considered as a summer cover crop in alleys between plastic mulched beds. Mixing with clover gives better soil coverage. I have not yet tried this myself. Oats/barley/peas/mustard sown in March will grow big by June, adding lots of biomass. Oats/radish/legume cover crop mix will winter-kill. Silage tarps and landscape fabrics can help hold the soil in place.

Installing terraces, berms and swales will help with water management. Installing drip irrigation will help manage droughts. Protected growing, in hoophouses or caterpillar tunnels, will help protect from many kinds of extreme weather. There are steps we can take to mitigate climate change, and more information is becoming available.

Eating and Marketing the Whole Plant with Chris Smith

Chris is the author of The Whole Okra, and part of his presentation was about the many uses of okra, beyond cooking the pods. Okra leaf chips are the latest thing he has tried. The leaves are used for soup in Nigeria. The flowers can be eaten or dried for tea. The oil from okra seeds is nutty, citrusy, a bit like olive oil, although the yield is small, at 9-20%. The oil presscake can be ground for defatted flour.

Book Edible Leaves of the Tropics by Franklin Martin, Ruth Ruberte and Laura S Meitzner

Chris showed us a remarkable book Edible Leaves of the Tropics, by Franklin Martin, Ruth Ruberte and Laura S Meitzner. Plants for a Future  has a database of 8000 plants, including edible plants.  The Book of Greens by Jenn Louis and Legume Species as Leafy Vegetables by Robert P Barrett (online) are also valuable resources on edible plants.

DIYseeds.org educational films on seed production

Go to https://www.diyseeds.org  then search for info on growing seeds.

Male squash flowers can sell at $1/flower for an 8-week season. Winter squash yields can increase if some of the early male flowers are removed! Wisteria, redbud and black locust flowers are edible. Kudzu offers many food options (eat it up!) Roots of dandelion, burdock, thistle, sassafras, daylily, dahlia, runner bean and chayote are all edible.

Soil Health, Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Planning, Rachel Schattman, Sara Keleman and Nic Cook

In February 2024, I participated in the Pasa Sustainable Agriculture Conference.  The first session I attended there was Soil Health, Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Planning, with speakers from the University of Maine Climate Science department. They reported that the NE has seen a 15% increase in Growing Degree Days since 1948, and the frost-free growing season in Maine has increased by 14 days since 1895. California has seen a 40-50 day increase in that period. In Maine the temperature changes are greater in winter than in summer. Since 2012, half of the US has shifted to the next warmer winter-hardiness zone. It is helpful to watch indicator species to determine when to plant particular crops. (See my post on Phenology). Warmer temperatures mean that the air holds more water (7% more for each C degree). This means slower storms, more storms heavier rainfall. They also experience droughts, and distinguish between agricultural drought, meteorological drought, and hydrologic drought – be sure which kind your conversations are about.

Young blueberry plant in snow. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Sea level rise is dramatic on the East coast because of past glaciation. The other main impacts they are seeing on agriculture include False Spring (fruit bud kill after a “warm snap”), winter soil erosion and rain ponding, and new pests, diseases and invasive species, warm season heat stress including crop quality deterioration, greater irrigation demands and needs for shade and ventilation (drought can decrease yields 30%), storm intensity including hail and high winds, longer power outages, soil compaction and nutrient runoff, increased rainfall leading to delayed planting and crop losses. These are all possibilities to prepare for. The silver lining is that there may be new crops we can grow, or longer seasons of familiar crops. NRCS, Extension and other resources are available. Climate-Smart Farming and Marketing is a program for farmers from Maine to South Carolina, offering financial support and technical help to farmers implementing climate-smart practices such as cover cropping, agroforestry, reduced tillage and prescribed grazing.

Prescribed grazing is the intentional use of ruminant animals (hoofed herbivores such as cows, sheep, and goats) on the landscape. Unlike conventional grazing, prescribed grazing utilizes a grazing plan that dictates the location and duration of graze periods. This plan is informed by the ecology of the grazing area.” (Community Environmental Council).

Garlic beds next to rowcovered broccoli beds, under a stormy sky.
Photo Wren Vile

We were helped through an 8-stage planning process:

  1. Risk Assessment (prioritizing which aspect of climate change to deal with first). Heavier rains, then high temperatures, wildfire and smoke, plant diseases.
  2. Vulnerability (looking at your system, climate, location, and seasonal time period). Consider both Exposure to the risk and your farm’s Adaptive Capacity.
  3. Option ID. Consider all of small, medium large and total transformation of your farming. Divide your options up into 4 quadrants on axes of cheap-expensive, difficult-easy; low Greenhouse Gas-high GHG, reducing risk-increasing risk; low impact-high impact, quick to install-takes a long time.
  4. Evaluate tradeoffs (financial, ecological, social). Rank your options and select one that meets as many of your priorities as possible.
  5. Try to meet several goals with one solution. Consider seeking advice or funding.
  6. Monitoring and assessment. How will you measure the improvements?
  7. Revising/tweaking. Reflect and assess. Consider success at each stage.
  8. Share what you learned. Don’t expect perfection, or that others will expect that from you.

Next followed a section on funding. Currently there is lots in Inflation Reduction Act coffers for efficiency increases, renewable energy, conservation practices. Try REAP (Rural Energy for America Program), USDA, NRCS, Rural Development Office for your state, SARE funding for experimentation and trials, state agriculture departments, advocacy organizations, regional non-profits, Chesapeake Bay Trust, Farmer Resource Network, county grants, Beginner Farmer grants, grants for historically under-served farmers, Ambrook Accounting software for American farms..

Take a buddy with you to the offices!

Farmer Resource Network

Okra Planting Time

Young okra plants.
Photo Wren Vile

We’ve reached mid-May, the time of year to transplant our okra. Okra is a tropical annual in the mallow family, and is widely adapted where the frost-free season is long enough. Okra is heat- and drought-tolerant and has few serious pests or diseases. Those in hot climates will need to deal with its exuberant growth in mid-summer. Those in cold climates should choose fast-maturing varieties and transplant into black plastic. In areas with cold nights, okra can only be grown in a hoophouse.

Okra Varieties

We like Cow Horn okra from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which gives good yields and sturdy plants in our zone 7a climate. It is one of a few varieties that can grow relatively large pods without their becoming tough. We are sometimes not good at finding all the pods when harvesting, so it is an advantage to us if they are still good to eat when bigger than normal. SESE has an Okra Growing Guide.

High-yielding varieties include Cow Horn (55 days), Jade (55 days), Cajun Jewel (50 days).

Spineless (easy to harvest) varieties include Clemson Spineless (56 days), and Evertender (50 days). Red-podded varieties include Burmese (58 days), a high-yielding dwarf heirloom, and Red Burgundy (49 days), reported to do well in “cooler” areas, although it will not do much until day time temperatures reach 80°F (27°C).

Close up of Cow Horn okra pods.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Crop Requirements and Yield

Okra does best in well-drained, fertile, loamy soils with high organic matter. Wet clay soils can drown the plants. It grows best with a pH between 6.5 and 7.0, although as high as 7.6 is still OK.

5 gm sows 50’ (15 m) at 6” (15 cm) spacing. Average yields are about 50-100 lb/100’ (7.6-15 kg/10 m). We grow 90’ (27 m) for 100 people, which provides enough for some pickling too.      

Sowing okra

According to Rodale’s 600 Answers, germination speed can be improved by freezing the seed overnight, then soaking in hot water for ½-1 hour before sowing. It needs to be warm enough to get your seed germinated: you can soak the seed for 8 hours in water at 88°F (31°C).

When we direct sow, we “station-sow” – we put three seeds ½-1” (1-2.5 cm) deep at each spot where we want a plant to grow. We do this on May 1, with rowcover, as this is around our last frost date, and we want to avoid disasters! Direct sow once the soil temperature averages 65°F (20°C), 3-4 weeks after last frost.

When seedlings have 3-4 leaves, we thin to the strongest seedling. Okra is sturdier if direct sown, rather than transplanted, but you work with the climate you’ve got!

Transplanting okra

Okra seedlings in a Winstrip 50-cell tray.
Photo Pam Dawling

Usually we transplant, especially if we are intercropping. For transplants we sow April 15, using soil blocks or Winstrip 50-cell flats. I was amazed to learn that at 6″ (15 cm) tall, plants could have taproots three times as long! At full maturity, the tap root could be 4½ ft (1.4 m).  To avoid stunting the taproot, get the small plants in the ground as soon as you can, carefully.

We transplant 3-4 week old starts – a plant with 3 or 4 leaves is ideal – at 18” (45 cm) spacing in a single row down the middle of a bed. We transplant May 11, 10 days later than the direct-sowing date. In the past we used wider in-row spacing, but found we could get a higher yield with the “hedge-like” closer spacing.

Some growers plant as close as 6” (15 cm) in the row, with 5’ (1.5m) between rows, or plant double rows with 12” (30 cm) between plants, and wider spacing between the beds. Thick planting requires very fertile soil, and risks diseases from poor air circulation. Wide spacing can lead to heavily branched plants, and more pods per plant, but not necessarily more pods for a given area. It may lead to a later start to the harvest, as flowering is delayed while the plant grows bigger.

Burmese okra flower.
Photo by Raddysh Acorn

Intercropping Okra

Okra is slow-growing until hot weather arrives. We sometimes take advantage of this and its upright growth habit to transplant okra into a bed of early cabbage. We transplant cabbage in two rows along a 4’ (1.2 m) bed on March 10 and the okra in a single row down the middle on May 11. We mulch the cabbage, which has the disadvantage for the okra, of cooling the soil, so don’t try this if direct sowing! At first the cabbages are relatively small, and the okra uses the open space in the middle of the bed. As the plants grow, we remove outer leaves of the cabbage that might overshadow the okra. Finally, we harvest the cabbage and leave the okra to grow to full size. This method saves space, and efficiently uses our time to help two crops with one weeding.

Okra plants can be huge by September!
Photo Pam Dawling

This post is part of what I have written about okra in my book Sustainable Market Farming. Buy the book to read the rest, including crop rotations, pests and diseases, harvesting and post-harvest care of okra.

Pickled okra, garlic scapes and beets.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

The Whole Okra

See my review of Chris Smith’s book The Whole Okra. Chris has grown 125 varieties of okra, and still counting, and cooked it in many different recipes. His book includes using the oil from the seeds, eating the leaves; making okra-stem drinking straws, okra seed tempeh, okra marshmallow delights; okra history and geography, medical and industrial uses and so much more. Here are instructions for freezing the sudden glut of okra that often arrives at some point in the summer, pickling (both by fermenting and with vinegar), drying (best when strung on dental floss). Best of all are the okra chips. Chris has a video of taste testing on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAy0pouxlME

Hear Chris Smith In Defense of Okra at Heritage Harvest Festival

Chris Smith, author of The Whole Okra

I’m a big fan of Chris Smith and his work. I reviewed his book The Whole Okra on this site and I want to tell you that you can hear him speak at the Heritage Harvest Festival.

His talk In Defense of Okra is on Friday, Sep. 20th: 1:30 3 pm at the lovely Woodland Pavilion. Click here to buy tickets.

Go if you love okra. Go if you hate it – you might change your mind!

The workshop description says:

Calling all worshippers of this much-maligned, tasty vegetable (that is technically a fruit). And okra doubters beware — we’re about to change … your … life.

Join Smith, author of the newly released book The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration, for an interactive and entertaining exploration of the culinary (and non-culinary) uses of okra. Having grown 125 varieties, Smith will share and sample many of the incredible uses of the plant, including okra kimchi, pickled and fermented okra, okra flower tea, okra-seed coffee and okra oil — not to mention the world-renowned delicacy, okra marshmallows.

Participants will learn to enjoy (yes, even LOVE) and appreciate this disparaged underdog — from pod to stem. Take home delicious recipes that will have you profusely apologizing for ever uttering the word “slimy” in its presence.

The future of okra rests on your shoulders. Do the right thing.

Cow Horn okra flower and pod.
Photo Pam Dawling

Author of The Whole Okra, expert okra enthusiast Chris Smith writes regularly for The Heirloom Gardener, the Mother Earth News blog, and the Farmers’ Almanac blog. His presentations on the versatility of okra have delighted audiences at food and farming festivals and fairs throughout the Southeast. He is the Executive Director for The Utopian Seed Project, Communications Manager for Sow True Seed in Asheville, North Carolina, and serves on the board of The People’s Seed. A native of the UK, Smith has a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Manchester. His short stories have been published in Nashville Review, Mid-American Review, and The Manchester Review.

Yes, he’s a fellow Brit. He’s very funny. He’s very knowledgeable about seeds and growing vegetables.

Monticello hosts the annual Heritage Harvest Festival

Get Info on Other Workshops here

Get Tickets here

Book Review: Book Review: The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration, by Chris Smith

 

The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration

Chris Smith, Chelsea Green, June 2019

ISBN 978-1-60358-807-2, 272 pages, $29.95

This brand new book is a lot of fun, and the photos are stunning. It has more about okra than you knew you “Wanted to Know”. Oil from the seeds, eating the leaves, okra-stem drinking straws, okra seed tempeh, okra marshmallow delights, okra history and geography, medical and industrial uses and so much more. It contains growing tips and recipes, but is not limited to the practical realm.

Chris Smith lives in North Carolina and works with Sow True Seeds in Asheville. He is also a writer, speaker and consultant. He is an immigrant farmer, like me, coming from a climate where okra does not grow. “As a white British guy, I am fully aware that okra is not part of my culture or heritage. I have, however, fallen in love with okra and have tried to approach this book with integrity, and a deep appreciation of people and food.” Fortunately for us all, he persisted beyond his encounter with soggy, slimy, greasy fried okra to discover much better ways to use this versatile vegetable.

Burmese okra flower.
Photo by Raddysh Acorn

Chris has grown 76 varieties of okra, cooked it in many different recipes, and experimented on himself and his family with “beauty” preparations and alcoholic tinctures and beverages. He is growing another 76 different varieties in 2019. The USDA Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) holds 1099 separate accessions from all over the world. India grows the most okra, by far (over 6 million tons in 2014). Nigeria is second with 2 million tons. The US is 21st in line (producing 10,000 tons in 2014). The US also imports 50,000 tons mostly from Mexico and Central America.

In his introduction, Chris says: “Not embracing okra because it’s slimy is like not visiting the Alps because you’re scared of heights.” Okra is often dismissed these days as a vegetable people don’t like, although it used to be a favorite of many. In the 1900s, the Tabasco brand of canned okra sold well.

We need resilient crops in the face of climate change; we need to grow more of our own food, eat locally, organic, and with less or no meat, to survive the uncertainties ahead. Zero food waste has become a goal of some chefs (and no doubt, some home cooks too). The Whole Okra provides help with several steps on this journey.

Early in the book, Chris embraces the S-word (slime), including some great photos of his smiling family with okra slime face masks and okra-slice eye pads, and himself with okra mucilage hair conditioner. Although Chris is only recommending things he’s tried himself, he does mention some untested ideas, like substituting okra juice for mallow juice as a tonic. A (tested) recipe for okra marshmallow delights is included. Adding acidic ingredients (think tomatoes, lemon juice) to a recipe will effectively cut through the sliminess.

Pickled garlic scapes, okra and beets.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

If you have grown okra, you will probably be familiar with the sudden glut that arrives at some (hot) point in the summer. Here are instructions for freezing okra, pickling (both by fermenting and with vinegar), drying (best when strung on dental floss). Best of all are the okra chips (season 2 pounds (907 g) of pods with oil, salt, spices, roast at 500F (260C) for 20 mins, then 170F (75C) for 2-3 hours). 4 ounces (113 g) of tasty crunchy chips! Who knew? There’s also info on pressure canning, and okra kimchi, which can be dried, powdered and used as a seasoning.

Close up of Cow Horn okra pods.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Okra can be self-pollinating, but produces more seeds per pod when pollinated by insects. There is a specialized native okra bee, Ptilothrix bombiformis. Okra is not native to North America, but rose-mallow and hibiscus are. The flowers are edible cooked, but of course you won’t get an okra pod if you’ve eaten the flower. Unlike squash, okra does not have separate female and male flowers. Flowers can be dried, used in tea blends, or in vodka for tinctures and nightcaps. Only eat flowers if you have an over-abundance of pods or you are about to go away for a long weekend and don’t want to come home to a mass of woody pods. Believe it or not, Chris has uses for woody pods too! These can often be obtained free or cheap in high summer. Don some gloves. Open the pods and shell out the immature seeds, which can be cooked and eaten then, or blanched and frozen for winter. Thoroughly dry the empty pods, then powder them, and sift through a fine mesh. The pod powder can be used as a thickening agent in place of cornstarch.

Young okra plants.
Photo Wren Vile

The young leaves make appetizing summer greens and are higher in protein than the pods. They are used (mixed with yam and other vegetables) by the Igbo people of Nigeria. Choose very young leaves, or fairly young leaves of a variety without spiny leaves. Heavy Hitter is the variety to grow for large supple spineless leaves. A close cousin of okra, abika, is used as an important leafy green in some Pacific Island nations. Seeds can be bought from Monticello, under the name Sunset Hibiscus.

Deep-fried young leaves can make crisp chips, like kale chips, but different. If you are saving okra seed, you will often have more seeds than you need to grow, you can sow those for microgreens. Chris has a small aquaponics system made from a barrel. Goldfish (and tilapia in summer) are in the bottom section of the barrel and the water is pumped to the top section which grows the microgreens.

Mature okra seed has a tough hull and a nutritious kernel which can be ground into flour and used in soups, sauces, gravies, and okra seed tofu and tempeh. Back to woody pods: they can make Christmas tree ornaments, earrings, strings of holiday lights (hint: cool LED bulbs, not fire-prone hot bulbs), and painted ornamental figurines. Crushed pods can be used to grow mushrooms. I’m waiting to find out if Chris suggests using them as mulch, or as firelighters. (My Advance Readers’ Copy doesn’t have an index).

Cow Horn okra pods and flower.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

It was known in 1874 and in 1919 that oil can be extracted from okra seeds, but forgotten since. Chris describes hand-cranking his Piteba oil press, for small yields of delicious yellow-green oil. In a comparison of okra oil with that from sunflowers, safflower, soy and sesame [why only the oils that start with S?] the yield of okra oil per hectare is second only to sunflower. The yield pf protein is the highest, beating soy. Clay Oliver makes artisanal small-batch oils, including okra. In a study by Robert Jarret, the oil content varied by variety from 9.19% to 21.56%.

Okra seed flour has high levels of protein and fat, and an impressive range of amino acids. It can be made into bread and other baked goods, mixed with cornmeal. Okra seed was used as a coffee substitute during the civil war. Chris tries everything, and reports that the roasted seeds, when ground, release an appetizing coffee aroma, and look just like coffee, but the beverage tastes nothing like coffee (and has no caffeine). So much for that!

Okra stalk fiber is next – you can make cordage or crochet a hat. Okra is related to jute, kenaf, roselle, kapok and even cotton. Paper is another option. Okra paper is beautiful, strong, and you can make your own paper or twine, following Chris’s instructions. It never caught on commercially, because supply could not meet demand.

Okra seedlings in a Winstrip tray in the greenhouse.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Naturally enough, there is a chapter on growing okra. I was amazed to learn that at about 3 weeks of age the 6″ (15 cm) tall plant could have a taproot three times as long! At full maturity, the tap root could be 4½ ft (1.4 m).  This suggests okra would be sturdier if direct sown, rather than transplanted, but you work with the climate you’ve got! To avoid stunting the taproot, get the small plants in the ground as soon as you can. But it needs to be warm enough. Bruce Adams at Furman University suggests waiting until the butterflies migrate from the South.

Here’s the info you need to get your seed germinated: Warmth, soaking the seed for 8 hours in water at 88F (31C). Get the book for all the details. There are several false rural myths out there about growing okra. Okra has naturalized in the Red River floodplain in Louisiana, and also near Durham, North Carolina, where it survived some freezing temperatures.

Our mulched Cow Horn okra plants in June.
Photo Pam Dawling

Recommendations on spacing vary a lot: as close as 6″ (15 cm) in rich soil, to 24″ (60 cm) for some of the bigger varieties elsewhere. Wider spacing leads to more branches and more pods per plant, but not necessarily more pods for a given area.

And the important matter of deciding when a pod is mature but not too fibrous receives good attention, and a helpful photo, although Chris does warn that it’s best to develop a feel for the rigidity of tough pods. You can’t tell just by length, even within a variety you know well, as the weather will change the size of a mature pod. Chris recommends snapping the end off a trial pod. A clean snap indicates a good meal ahead. A pod that doesn’t snap or that “splinters” is too woody. Three to nine days after flowering is how long it takes to mature a pod (and 40 days from flowering to mature seed). An experienced grower suggests harvesting 4 days after flowering, regardless of length. In drought it might be 2″ (5 cm) long, in warm rainy weather 6-7″ (15-18 cm) Chris includes a hilarious description comparing reactions of Americans and British family and friends being served tough okra. As a fellow Brit, I laughed aloud. Buy the book, I won’t spoil the suspense!

Store the unwashed pods in a cool damp place after removing the field heat.. I was intrigued at the description of Zero Energy Cool Chambers (ZECC) in India, but wonder which part of India, and if this would work in a humid climate.

The back of the book includes a summary of Chris’s 2018 variety trial and includes descriptions his observations, including pod spininess, branching and productivity.

And to end this review, no, Chris did not mention what great kindling dried okra pods make, nor what great long-lasting, weed-free mulch they provide. (I recognize you need to grow a lot of okra seed to produce enough mulch to write about!) Thanks Chris! An entertaining read, and lots of practical information, and inspiring photos!