Okra is the quintessential "Deep South" vegetable. It prefers long summers where there's plenty of heat and humidity. The good news is that with a little special attention, it can be grown even in zone 4 where the growing season is short and the summers are relatively cool. Traditional okra cultivars do require at least 70 days of very warm weather for their dunce cap pods to mature, but some newer varieties are ready to harvest in just 50 days.
The okra plant is native to Africa, and was presumably brought to this country during slavery times. Gumbo, that famous New Orleans dish, is a stew to which okra lends its rather slimy, mucilaginous texture. Locally, people say that okra "draws". In India, okra is also a much-loved vegetable that's often sautéed or battered and fried. If you haven't grown up eating okra, it might take a little getting used to.
Okra is a big plant – anywhere from 3 to 6 feet tall – that produces lovely yellow flowers with red centers that look a bit like hollyhocks or hibiscus blossoms. The seed pods are the part we eat. Unlike most veggies, which hang down from their attachment point, okra pods point straight up at the sky, their ribbed surfaces coming to a point on top.
Start okra seeds indoors four to six weeks before the last frost. Before you plant the seeds, you can freeze them for a few days in your freezer (right in their packet). This isn't essential, but it can improve germination by helping to break the seed coat. Once planted, the warmer the soil, the faster the seeds will sprout. At 75 degrees F. they should germinate in about five days. Start your okra plants in pots that are at least 3" in diameter as they hate having their roots disturbed. Plant outdoors three weeks after the last frost when the soil temperature has risen to at least 65 degrees F. In cold climates, you can preheat the soil by covering it with clear plastic and sealing the edges with soil.
Okra needs a rich, light soil. Heavy clay soils need to be amended with lots of compost or rotted manure. The plants also need full sun, especially in cooler climates. Protecting newly transplanted seedlings under a plastic cloche or cold frame early in the season will help the plants get off to a faster start.
Pods are ready to harvest when they are 2-3" long, which occurs just a couple weeks after blooming. Harvest the pods with scissors to avoid damaging the stems. Older pods get tough, just like beans do, so eat okra while it's still young and tender.
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