Okra is a warm season, annual vegetable native to Africa and popular in the southern United States. Okra, or gumbo as it is sometimes called, belongs to the Mallow family, along with cotton and hibiscus. Okra can be canned, fried, boiled, or pickled. It is also used as a thickening agent in soups and stews. Although okra thrives in the heat of southern gardens, it can be grown in Iowa vegetable gardens too.
Okra prefers well-drained, organic soil that has been tilled to a depth of 8 to 10 inches. Okra does not grow well in clay or poorly drained soils. Plants can be started from seed indoors or sown directly in the garden in spring. Prior to sowing, soak okra seeds overnight in water to promote germination. Be sure to use seed packaged for the current growing season, because okra seeds only remain viable for 1 to 2 years. When starting plants indoors, sow the seeds 6 to 8 weeks before the desired outdoor planting date. Okra seedlings do not transplant well, so seeds should be started in peat pots or other biodegradable containers. Sow two seeds in each pot. When the seeds germinate, remove the weaker seedling. Plant seeds or seedlings outdoors when the soil has warmed up, which is usually mid to late May in Iowa. Sow 2 or 3 seeds about one inch deep and 12 to 24 inches apart. Water them well after planting. When the seedlings are about 3 inches tall, thin out the least vigorous plants leaving one plant per 12 to 24 inch row.
Water the plants during extended dry periods. A deep soaking every 7 days should be adequate. Okra does not require fertilizer to produce heavy crops of pods. Shallow cultivation around the plants helps keep the weeds down. Okra is generally free of serious insect and disease problems.
When fruiting beings, okra should be harvested at least every other day as the pods grow rapidly. Fruits or pods are ready for harvest when they are tender and not yet matured. Using a sharp knife or shears, remove pods that are 2 to 4 inches long. Pods that are longer than 4 inches become tough and stringy. If the stems are tough to cut, the fruit is probably not worth using. If pods mature on the plant, be sure to remove them to encourage additional fruit production. Okra plants are covered with stiff hairs that may irritate the skin during harvest. Wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting the pods.
Seeds can be saved from one year to the next if a few pods are allowed to mature towards the end of the season. When the pods are mature, remove them from the plant and allow them to dry. The seeds can be removed from the pod and saved. Compost the rest of the plant material at the end of each season. Many cultivars available today are hybrids which do not produce seed that is true to type. Plants from hybrid seeds may not produce the same color, size, or shape as the parent plant.
Some cultivars, such as 'Annie Oakley' and 'Clemson Spineless' are rather large, growing 4 to 6 feet tall. Newer cultivars like 'Burgundy', which has burgundy pods, and 'Cajun Delight', an All-America Selection winner, are smaller plants growing about 4 feet tall.