Widely grown in the southern United States, okra is commonly used in soups and stews. It can also be steamed, boiled, baked, fried, grilled, or pickled. While okra thrives in the heat of the South, it can also be successfully grown in Iowa and other Midwestern states.
Okra is a member of the Malvaceae or mallow family. Other plants in this family include cotton, hollyhock, and hibiscus.
Okra performs best in well-drained, fertile soils in full sun. Avoid wet, poorly drained sites. Soil pH is generally not a problem as okra grows well in soils that are slightly acidic to slightly alkaline (pH 6.5 to 7.5).
Okra can be established by sowing seeds directly into the garden or by setting out transplants. To enhance germination, soak okra seeds in water for several hours or overnight before sowing.
Sow okra seeds outdoors about 2 weeks after the danger of frost is past. In central Iowa, mid to late May would be an appropriate planting date. Sow seeds 1 inch deep. Space seeds 4 to 6 inches apart within the row. Rows should be spaced 3 feet apart. When seedlings are several inches tall, thin the row so the remaining plants are spaced 1 1/2 to 2 feet apart.
Okra seedlings do not transplant well. When starting plants indoors, sow okra seeds in peat pots. Plant 2 seeds in each pot. After germination, thin to one plant per pot. Sow okra seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the intended outdoor planting date.
Several okra varieties (cultivars) are available to home gardeners. These varieties differ in plant size and fruit characteristics. Most varieties produce spineless pods. Suggested okra varieties for Iowa are listed below.
- Annie Oakley II - hybrid, spineless, dark green pods, 4 1/2-foot-tall plants.
- Burgundy - open pollinated, burgundy red pods, 4-foot-tall plants.
- Cajun Delight - hybrid, spineless, dark green pods, 4-foot-tall plants.
- Clemson Spineless - open pollinated, spineless, dark green pods, 4- to 5-foot-tall plants.
Before planting, apply 1 to 2 pounds of an all-purpose garden fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, per 100 square feet. When harvesting begins, sprinkle a small amount of nitrogen around each plant. However, avoid heavy nitrogen applications, which may promote vegetative growth and reduce crop yields.
Okra can tolerate dry conditions. However, watering may be necessary during extended dry periods. Moisture is especially important during flowering and pod development. During prolonged dry periods, a deep soaking once every 7 to 10 days should be adequate.
Harvest pods when 2 to 4 inches long. (This is usually 5 to 6 days after flowering.) Use a sharp knife or hand shears. Handle the pods carefully as they bruise easily. Since the pods develop rapidly, it's often necessary to harvest pods every other day in July and August.
Pods that are more than 5 inches in length become tough and stringy. While the larger pods are still edible, their quality is usually considered unacceptable. Pods that have become too large to use should be promptly picked and discarded. Pods that are allowed to mature on the plant will reduce additional flowering and fruiting.
Some individuals are sensitive to the small spines on the okra's leaves and stems and may develop a rash or itch. Sensitive individuals should wear gloves and a long-sleeved shirt when harvesting the pods.
Okra deteriorates quickly after harvest. Pods can be stored for 7 to 10 days at a temperature of 45 to 50 F and relative humidity of 90 to 95%. Pod discoloration and decay may occur at temperatures below 45 F. Surplus may be frozen, canned, or pickled.
This article originally appeared in the 4/13/2005 issue.