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

 

Sweet corn, potatoes and okra

Our first sweet corn of the season (Bodacious).
Photo Pam Dawling

Sweet Corn

We sowed our first sweet corn on 4/18, eight days earlier than usual this year, because we had auspicious weather. We look at the leaves of the white oaks to decide when it is warm enough for corn planting. The oak leaves should be as big as squirrel’s ears. Phenology signs like this are especially useful when the weather is extremely variable, which we are getting more of as climate disruption has got us in its grip.

Our first sweet corn sowing is always a bit of a risk. In fact we often prepare for this by sowing some corn seeds in styrofoam Speedling flats, the same day we sow the first corn planting outdoors. Read more about this seedling technique and transplanting corn.

Our third planting of sweet corn on the left, fourth in the middle, 5th (barely emerging) on the right.
Photo Pam Dawling

We’ve been harvesting sweet corn since July 2, which is two days earlier than our target start date, so we’re very happy. Initially, of course, we got smaller amounts, but we are now harvesting three times a week and getting good amounts. We are back up to 6 sowings this year, after we had to cut back for a couple of years. For a hundred people we sow an average of 1100 ft (335m) each time we plant, with each planting intended to last us 15 days (7 or 8 pickings). Our goal is sweet corn from July 4 to mid-October (our average first frost is October 20, a 13 year average from our own records).

Three varieties of sweet corn in one planting. On the left Bodacious; in the middle, red-flowered Kandy Korn; on the right, Silver Queen not yet fully grown.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Each sowing includes several varieties (with different numbers of days to maturity) on the same day, so a planting will give us at least two weeks of delicious corn. In this photo from a previous year, you can see (from left to right): later-maturing Silver Queen, not yet at full height; red-flowered Kandy Korn; fast-maturing shorter Bodacious. Each plant is only going to provide two or three ears, so to have enough, and to have a continuous supply, it is necessary to plan ahead. See the Succession Planting section ahead.

Sowing sweet corn

We have switched to sowing corn with the EarthWay seeder, with a homemade next-row marker. This is much quicker than sowing by hand, but does rely on providing overhead irrigation consistently until the seedlings emerge. Another trade-off is that we get more weeds germinating in the (watered) aisles than we did when we only watered the furrows at planting time. Drip irrigation would be another approach.  So far we have not lost corn to crows, which was the reason we took to the handsowing-under-ropes method some 20 years ago. Back then we also sowed our fist corn with a tractor seeder, but we had to follow that with putting up ropes, or we lost it all to birds. Details of our hand-sowing method are in this post from May 2016.

Staying on top of weeds in the sweet corn

Once we get to late June, more of our time in the garden is taken up by harvesting (a sign of success), leaving less time for weeding. We have a system I like that helps us stay on top of sweet corn weeds. Each time we sow sweet corn, we hoe the previous planting (about two weeks old), thin the plants to one every 8″-12″ (20-30cm) in the row, and wheel hoe or till between the rows. We have two Valley Oak wheel hoes that we really like. The handle height is adjustable and they are available with different width hoes (and other attachments). Our tiller is a BCS 732 from Earth Tools BCS

Don’t let this happen to you! Weedy young corn.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

We also hoe the rows of the corn planting before that one (about 4 weeks old), and till between those rows and broadcast soybeans (which we till in lightly). Soybeans will grow in partial shade, handle the foot traffic of harvesting, and provide some nitrogen for the soil. For the last corn of the season, we undersow with a mix of soy and oats. After the harvest ends, we leave the patch alone, and the oats survive the first frosts (which kill the corn and the soy) and go on to be our winter cover crop for that plot. When it gets cold enough, the oats do die, and the plot becomes an easy one to bush hog and disk in the early spring for our March-planted potato crop. I like that opportunity to eliminate one round of disking, and to get a winter-killed cover crop established

As we harvest corn we pull out any pigweed that has somehow survived our earlier efforts. I learned at a Sustainable Weed Management workshop, that pigweed puts out its seeds in one big bang at the end, so pulling up huge pigweed is worthwhile, if it hasn’t yet seeded. (Actually you can see it for yourself, but before the workshop I hadn’t noticed!) Our soil has improved over the years, so it is now possible to uproot 5ft (1.5 m) pigweeds. Sometimes we have to hold the corn plant down with our feet, but we do almost always succeed in getting the weeds out, without damaging the corn.

Succession Planting for Sweet Corn

In Sustainable Market Farming I have a chapter on succession planting, and my slideshow on Succession Planting is one of my most popular ones. You can watch it right here.

I posted on Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog about Growing Sweet Corn for the Whole Summer. You can read it here:

Growing Sweet Corn for the Whole Summer – Organic Gardening

Our sweet corn sowing dates and harvests from those plantings are

  1. 4/26, harvest 7/9 (with a few ears from 7/4)
  2. 5/19, harvest 7/24
  3. 6/6, harvest 8/8
  4. 6/24, harvest 8/23
  5. 7/7, harvest 9/7
  6. 7/16, harvest 9/22

Avoid mixing types of corn.

There’s a confusing aspect of hybrid corn varieties: There are several genotypes, and if you inadvertently plant a mixture of different types, it can lead to starchy unpleasant-flavored corn. Also don’t plant Indian corn, popcorn or any kind of flint or dent corn within 600′ (180 m) of your sweet corn. For this reason we grow only sweet corn in our garden. Ignore those cryptic catalog notes at your peril!

Dealing with raccoons, skunks and curious cats in the corn

We have trapped (and then killed) raccoons in our corn most years, and the past few years we’ve tried deterring them with nightly radio broadcasts. We have the large live mammal traps, and we found for raccoons, we needed to stake the trap down to the ground. I followed suggestions from Joanna Reuter of Chert Hollow Farm, staking the traps down and smearing peanut butter high on the stake in the back of the cage. Well, the first morning I caught a small, very white skunk! I let it out carefully. The next morning I caught the same skunk again. And the third morning, again. You can read more about how I let the skunks out. I’ve also caught some of our cats by accident.

Raccoons don’t seem to like Silver Queen as much as Kandy Korn, maybe because the husks are tighter and harder to rip off. Actually I like Kandy Korn better than Silver Queen too.

Okra

Cow Horn okra flower and pod.
Photo Pam Dawling

We have started harvesting our okra. It’s 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 planted it out 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. This is why I think the problem is that we over watered rather than under-watered.

This year we are trying Carmine Splendor, a red okra from Johnny’s, as well as our usual favorite Cow Horn from Southern Exposure.

Cow Horn okra pods.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

We like Cow Horn for its tall plants, high productivity and the fact that the pods can get relatively large without getting fibrous. They are still tender at 5-6″, which is the size we used to harvest at. Some years we have attached a card to the handles of the pruners we use for this job, with a life-size drawing of a 5″ pod. This helps new crew get it right.

We do find it very hard to convince our cooks that we have specially chosen this “commune-friendly” variety so they don’t have to deal with fiddly little okra pods when cooking for 100. We’ve had to compromise and harvest at 4″. Hence the venturing-out to another variety, accepting people are hard to convince about Cow Horn!

We grow a 90′ row, with plants about 18″ apart in the row. This is enough for the hundred of us (some people never eat okra despite the cooks’ best efforts!)

Carmine Splendot okra plant.
Photo Pam Dawling

Carmine Splendor is a 51 day (from transplanting) F1 hybrid, with sturdy 5-sided pods that are deep red when small. I haven’t tasted them yet.

Potatoes

June-planted potatoes emerging from mulch in mid-July.
photo Pam Dawling

Our June-planted potatoes are starting to come up through the hay mulch, and we need to walk through and free the trapped shoots. This means we walk through investigating the spots where we expect there to be a potato plant but we don’t see one. If we find a trapped shoot, we open up the mulch to let the plant see the light. We do this same job with garlic in late November or early December.

This week we are harvesting our March planted potatoes. I just dug 30lbs for tonight’s dinner. Yes, lots of diners! The rest of the crop will be harvested using a digging machine on Thursday.

We harvested our March-planted potatoes 21 days ago, and we are in the process of sorting them and managing conditions in our root cellar to cure the potatoes and help them store well.

Crates of potatoes in our root cellar.
Photo Nina Gentle
Click here for our Root Cellar Warden” instructions from last year.

Dormancy Requirements of Potatoes

We are researching the dormancy requirements of potatoes in an effort to store ours so they don’t sprout when we don’t want them to!

What I know so far about dormancy is that potatoes need a dormancy period of 4-8 weeks after harvest before they will sprout. So if you plan to dig up an early crop and immediately replant some of the potatoes for a later crop, take this into account. Get around this problem by refrigerating them for 16 days, then chitting them in the light for 2 weeks. The company of apples, bananas or onions will help them sprout by emitting ethylene.

To avoid sprouting, keep the potatoes below 50F (10C) once they are more than a month from harvest, avoid excess moisture, and avoid “physiological aging” of the potatoes, caused by stressing them with fluctuating temperatures, among other things.

Tobacco Hornworm pupa

Just had to add this, which I dug up yesterday. These brutes are about 2″ (5 cm) long. They are heavy and they move slightly. Also, check out the comments on the last post and be sure to see SESE’s Ken Bezilla’s Instagram of a hornworm in black light.

This is the pupa of the tobacco hornworm.
Photo Pam Dawling