Caring for your Okra Crop

 

Carmine Splendor okra plant.
Photo Pam Dawling

Okra is a long season crop, so cultivation or mulch to keep weeds down will be needed. We hoe until hot weather arrives and then mulch with spoiled hay (avoid using organic mulches earlier in the season, as they keep the soil cool and delay the harvest). During the rest of the growing season, the okra bed becomes a useful repository for any undiseased mulch-like materials from other beds, even quite large plants like sunflowers.

Okra has a great ability to withstand drought compared to other vegetables, but for good growth and production, you’ll need to water at least 1” (2.5 cm) a week. If there is an extended dry period and you can’t water everything, okra will be the last to suffer.

Okra bed in June.
Photo Pam Dawling

Catching up

See Okra Planting Time for info on varieties, crop requirements, yield, sowing, transplanting, intercropping, and Chris Smith’s wonderful book The Whole Okra. However, if you haven’t sown your okra seed yet, time is of the essence. Okra needs 55-60 days of hot weather to produce the crop. If you are in the deep South, go ahead!

Black plastic mulch, rowcovers and transplanting can all help get the crop going earlier, as can growing in a hoophouse or caterpillar tunnel, if you are a real fan of okra. The yield per area is low, so this would be an unusual choice for the prime real estate offered by a hoophouse!

Our first Cow Horn okra pod, in late June.
Photo Pam Dawling

In Sweet corn, potatoes and okra, I reported that we started harvesting our okra that year a little later than it might have been because we had to replant. The first planting had leggy seedlings due to not enough light soon enough in their lives. Then we transplanted replacements with novice helpers, and they didn’t plant them deep enough. The feeble stems couldn’t take it. We made an attempt to hill them up to give more protection to the stems. Another mistake we made was over-watering. When we pulled up some of the dead plants for our postmortem, they reminded me of retted flax stems – the fibers were still there, with the soft tissue rotted away.

Succession Planting and Renovating Okra Plants

Generally only one planting of okra is made each year, although it is possible to sow in spring and fall in hot climates, using a fast-maturing variety for the later sowing. Or sow only in the summer for a fall crop, and don’t fight cold spring soil temperatures.

In hot climates, okra plants benefit from being rejuvenated in the middle of the summer, by cutting them back (with a machete, or tree loppers) to 6” (15 cm) stubs after the first heavy harvest (perhaps in the fifth week of harvesting) and after market prices start to decline. For large areas, use a tractor mower.

The plants will produce again in the fall, when prices have risen again, and fall yields can be higher than spring crops. Side-dressing at this stage can also boost production. As well as revitalizing the productivity, this process keeps the plants at a manageable height.

Alternatively, to avoid losing all your crop at once, lop progressively along the row, perhaps cutting 5% of the plants each day, starting after they reach shoulder height. Other growers tell of cutting back plants to a height of 4’ (1.2 m), which causes the plant to branch more.

Rotations

Okra is about the easiest vegetable to fit into a rotation as you are unlikely to have any other mallow-family crops to worry about, and you are unlikely to be growing a huge amount. Cotton, hibiscus and the fiber plant kenaf are also in the mallow family, but do not cross-pollinate with okra.

Pests and Diseases

Okra has few serious pests or diseases, if the weather is warm. In cool weather, stressed okra plants may suffer from verticillium and fusarium wilts, soil-borne diseases that cause plants to wilt and die. Fight soil-borne diseases by avoiding soil splashing onto the plants – use drip irrigation and mulch. Foliage blights may occur, but generally they do not reach serious levels. Blossom blight can be a problem in long rainy periods.

Old varieties of okra tend to have deeper root systems and are more tolerant of root-knot nematode, to which okra is very susceptible. If you have nematodes, choose heirloom varieties. Okra will do fine after grains, such as sweet corn, or following a winter rye cover crop.

Corn Earworm larvae come in many different colors. And they can bite!
(Photo: J. Obermeyer Purdue Extension)

Insect pests may include Japanese beetles, stink bugs, aphids, corn earworms, flea beetles, blister beetles and cucumber beetles. You may see ants climbing the plants to drink nectar but they don’t seem to cause damage. Grasshoppers may strip the leaves in late summer in bad grasshopper years.

Harvest

3-9 days after flowering pods will be mature (it takes 40 days from flowering to mature seed).

For maximum yields it is important to harvest at least every second day. If pods are missed, they will mature and limit the future flowering and therefore the yield.

We harvest six days a week, using pruners, or a small serrated knife. The stems are quite tough. Some people find their skin is irritated by the spiny leaves and like to wear long sleeves when harvesting. We cut Cow Horn at 5” (13 cm) or bigger. Some years we have attached a piece of card to special pruners for the job, showing the size to cut. Do not make assumptions about toughness without testing with a thumbnail, or snapping off the tip. We’ve also been surprised to find it necessary to show new people the difference between a rounded “empty” pointed flower bud, and an angular firm pod.

Our harvest starts in mid-July and runs until frost, a period of 12 weeks or so. At the end of the season, we find we need to dig out the massive trunks and consign them to a spot on the edge of the woods that we call “The End of the World.”

 

Post-Harvest

Okra does not like to be chilled! Here we need to deal with the American tendency to store almost everything in the fridge. Chilling injury of okra causes dark damp spots on the pods, which lead to pitting and slimy breakdown. Okra can be stored at 45-50°F (14-15°C) in unperforated plastic bags for up to 15 days. This compares favorably with only 2 days without a bag, or 7 days in a perforated bag. The plastic bags keep the humidity high.

 

Pickled garlic scapes, okra and beets.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Okra is very tasty pickled – if you have high yields, time to do the pickling, and a demand for off-season value-added products, go for it.

Seed Saving

Cow Horn okra plant marked for seed saving.
Photo Raddysh Acorn

Saving seed from okra for your own use is a simple matter if you are only growing one variety. We have saved seed by decorating chosen plants with colored plastic surveying tape, like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Then we don’t pick from those plants for eating. We wait until the pods are big and dry, then harvest them before they split and shed their seeds, and put them in bags or cardboard boxes indoors to dry further and until we have time to deal with them. Mature okra seeds are greenish black. For small quantities, just twist the pods and break them open over a container of some sort. Seeds can be screened out of the mixture and/or winnowed. Empty pods make good weed-free mulch.

Okra is outcrossing but can self-pollinate. Okra varieties need to be isolated from each other by 1/8 mile (200 m) for home use, or ¼-½ mile (400-800 m) or greater for seed for sale. A plant population of 10-20 plants is needed for genetic diversity, and more than 20 plants is better for seed for commercial sale. It takes 30-50 pods to provide one pound of seed (66-110/kg).

Breaking dry okra pods to release the seeds.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

 

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