By Matt Gibson
Okra, also known by the botanical name Abelmoschus esculentus or Hibiscus esculentus, and the nicknames lady fingers, or gumbo. Okra is a member of the Malvaceae, or mallow plant family, which also includes hibiscus, hollyhocks, and cotton.
Okra plants can be traced back to ancient Egypt and Ethiopia, arriving in America in the 1600’s. Okra can be cultivated as an annual in all USDA zones, but it really thrives in climates where corn is grown, in the southern US states. The immature edible seed pods of the okra plant became a staple of southern cuisines, served primarily as a side dish, or used to thicken up gumbo and stews, and are also widely used in Indian cooking.
Okra plants are extremely fast growers, and the plants can become giant, with varieties ranging from dwarf to over eight feet tall at maturity. Its large-flowers are similar to hibiscus, making it a nice ornamental plant as well. Certain varieties, such as Burgundy okra, are adorned with colorful stems and leaves that pair nicely with its big beautiful flowers, making it an attractive option for garden borders.
Okra is easy to grow, especially in warm weather climates, and it’s also a great addition to a healthy diet, as it is low in calories and rich in nutrients, namely fiber, protein, and vitamins A, C and K.
Varieties of Okra
If you live in the north, or in a cold-climate region, you will want to select an okra variety that has one of the shorter dates to maturity and you will want to start your seeds indoors to shave a couple of weeks off of the grow time before the weather turns too chilly.
Available varieties range in size from dwarf plants that grow to three or four feet tall and produce three inch pods, to tree-sized plants with pods that grow up to 14 inches long.
Okra seedlings are harder to find than seeds, but some nurseries carry them, though cultivar selection is probably very limited. Pods can be various shades of red and green, or even variegated. Different okra cultivars produce pods in various shapes and sizes as well. Pods can be long or short, fuzzy or smooth, ridged or rounded, and curved or straight.
Many gardeners who have experience growing okra have a couple of favorite cultivars that they grow each year. There are far too many varieties to compile a definitive list, so we have narrowed it down to our top picks and selected the 12 of the most popular cultivars for you to choose from.
Baby Bubba Hybrid – If you live in a cool climate area and have a relatively small garden space to work with, the Baby Bubba Hybrid might be your best option. These okra plants grow about three to four feet tall with a two foot diameter. In about 53 days after planting, you can expect to find three inch long dark green pods that are ready to harvest. The short growing time makes this hybrid okra an excellent choice for cool climates with shortened growing seasons.
Blondy – Another solid choice for both cool locations with short growing seasons, and small garden areas, the open-pollinated Blondy variety will produce plants that grow up to four feet tall. Blondy okra plants produce three-inch long, pale green, spineless pods that are ready to harvest in approximately 50 days. This is one of the only varieties that are well-suited for container gardening as well as in-ground cultivation.
Heirloom Burgundy – An especially good choice for those growing okra for ornamental purposes, the Burgundy cultivar is decorated with burgundy stems, bright green leaves, and six to eight-inch pods. This heirloom plant will reach heights of four feet and will mature in 50 to 60 days.
Clemson Spineless – One of the most popular varieties of okra available, the Clemson Spineless is considered an industry standard. Plants grow to approximately four feet high with a four foot diameter. This heirloom variety matures early, typically ready for harvest in just 55 to 60 days. The dark green pods are virtually spineless and slightly curved, growing up to nine inches long.
Cow Horn – This variety is well-suited for southern climates and is a perfect choice for ornamental purposes, if you have a large area to grow them in. This massive heirloom plant will take up to 90 days to mature, and can reach heights of 14 feet tall. Cow horn okra produces curved pods that grow up to 14 inches long.
Louisiana Green Velvet – This vigorous variety can grow up to six feet tall and is ideal for big areas. Suited for warm southern weather, the Louisiana Green Velvet produces smooth and spineless fruit.
Emerald – Developed by Campbell’s Soup Company in the 1950’s, this classic cultivar grows up to eight feet tall and produces smooth, straight, dark green pods that grow to about seven inches in length. Emerald okra plants reach maturity in around 60 days time.
Annie Oakley II – Suitable for both northern and southern climates, Annie Oakley okra grows to about 4.5 feet tall and produces bright green spineless pods. It reaches maturity in about 52 days.
Hill Country Red – Suited for southern climates, this open-pollinated heirloom variety hails from the Texas hill country. Hill Country Red okra plants grow to about six-feet tall and mature in around 64 days. The six-inch pods it produces are thick and green with red tinges
Perkins Long Pod – Suitable for both northern and southern climates, this cultivar grows to five feet high and bears four inch long straight green pods. Expect fruit to reach maturity in about 55 days.
Red Velvet – Red velvet okra grows to five feet in height with a four foot diameter, making it suitable for large containers or small garden spaces. The pods are scarlet red, slightly ribbed, and can grow up to six inches long. Red velvet okra reaches maturity in 55-60 days.
Silver Queen – Silver Queen is a variety that should never be grown in northern climates, as it is not at all tolerant to cold weather. If you live in the south however, or in a warm climate region, this heirloom variety is an excellent pick. Plants mature in 80 days, reaching six feet and producing cream-colored ivory-green pods that can grow to seven inches in length.
Growing Conditions for Okra
Okra is a warm weather plant, so it needs full sunlight exposure. It is highly adaptable, and will perform well in most soil conditions, but it thrives in well-draining soils that are rich in organic matter. Preferably, the soil should be slightly acidic for growing okra plants, with pH levels between 5.8 and 7.0.
How to Plant Okra
If you live in a cool climate area, you should always start your okra seeds indoors in peat pots. Place them in full light three or four weeks before the last spring frost. In warm climate regions, start okra directly in your garden beds three to four weeks prior to the last spring frost date and protect the plants using a grow tunnel or a cold frame until the weather becomes warm and stable.
Make sure that the covering you use is at least two to three feet tall to ensure that your plants have plenty of room to grow. If you choose not to start you okra plants early, you will have to wait until the weather is stable and warm and the soil has warmed to at least 65° or 70°F.
If you are using transplants, space them out one to two feet apart so that they each have plenty of room to grow. If you are using seeds, sow them one half to one inch deep and 12 to 18 inches apart in a row. Space your rows out three to four feet apart, as okra plants are typically quite tall and wide, requiring extra room to grow comfortably. To help speed up the germination process and soften up the seed coating, soak your okra seeds overnight in room temperature water.
Care for Okra
Eliminate all weeds in your okra beds when the plants are young and keep an eye out for weeds throughout the growing season. Applying a heavy layer of mulch can help to prevent more weeds from growing up in your okra beds and competing with your okra plants for water and nutrients. Add a mulch layer of two or three inches to avoid the competition.
For fertilization, either apply a balanced liquid fertilizer once per month, or side dress your plants with a 10-10-10 fertilizer, aged manure, or nutrient-rich compost. When seedlings reach about three inches tall, thin them out so that they are 12 to 18 inches apart from each other.
Keep your okra plants well watered, especially during the summer, providing one inch of water per week, though more will be necessary in especially hot, dry climates. After the first harvest, remove the lower leaves of your okra plant to speed up pod production.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Okra
Okra is not typically prone to pests or disease, but it is certainly possible. Practicing crop rotation will help immensely to help avoid potential issues. Using high quality seed, providing ample air circulation and appropriate moisture levels will also go a long way towards keeping your plants safe from pests and disease issues. Keep your vegetable patch clean, and promptly remove old plant debris like dead leaves and old vegetation.
Keep an eye on your garden by walking through it each day, looking closely on the underside of leaves and on lower branches and stems for aphids and stink bugs. You may also catch them feeding on the juices of emerging pods. Keep in mind that beneficial insects such as ladybugs are your friends, and should be allowed to stay.
Keep an eye out for cabbage worms and flea beetles eating your okra leaves, and check the undersides of leaves for aphids, bug eggs and whiteflies. You can hand pick insects off of your plants or douse them with a steady stream of hose water to knock them off of the plants. In most situations, a combination of hand picking and dousing is all that’s needed to avoid a serious infestation.
A fungus known as fusarium wilt may sometimes occur where there is too much water provided or insufficient drainage. You will notice it by its telltale sign, which is drooping yellow leaves. Plants that have succumbed to this fungus must be removed and destroyed immediately, to avoid spreading it to other plants.
Anthracnose fungus is another possible issue with okra plants. Its presence is noted by black spots on leaves. Again, if the plant has been compromised by the fungus, you should remove any infected plants quickly to prevent further spread in the garden.
Powdery mildew, which causes white and powdery spots on plants, may also affect okra, especially when growing in humid and overly moist conditions. Remove affected portions of the plant, prune back all plants for good airflow, and always plant in well-draining soil.
How to Harvest Okra
About two months after planting, the first harvest of okra pods should be ready. The pods should be about two to three inches long for the first harvest. Harvest the plant every other day. To harvest pods, cut the stem right above the cap using a sharp, clean knife.
If the stem is too tough to cut, the pod is probably too old and should be removed and discarded. Always wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting or handling your okra plants, as most varieties are coated with tiny spines that can irritate your skin. This is not an issue with spineless varieties, of course.
How to Store Okra
To store okra, place the uncut and uncooked pods in freezer bags or other airtight containers and keep them stored in the freezer. They can then be prepared any way you like throughout the winter. Alternatively, you can can your okra to enjoy it throughout the winter months.
Okra can be enjoyed in a large variety of ways. It can be pickled, fried, stir-fried, eaten raw, or tossed into soups, stews, and gumbos. Growing okra in your garden is relatively easy once you get the hang of it, and there’s nothing better than fresh okra right off the vine.
Okra is delicious, nutritious, and growing your own will save you lots of money on produce throughout the year. With the information provided here, you have everything you need to start growing okra in your home garden.