Okra: here in the South, is a favorite fried, and available at many southern restaurants was not a ‘love at first sight’ kind of experience for me. As a student at the University of Tennessee, I was given a bunch of okra at the UT farm where I worked my first summer; I took it home and boiled it. For the life of me I couldn’t understand why anyone would eat such a slimy mess.
Later, perhaps when my taste buds matured and I learned various ways of cooking to avoid the slime from my native friends I came to appreciate this southern vegetable and now it is one of my favorites in the kitchen garden. I can’t imagine my garden without it.
Okra, Abelmoschus esculentus, a member of the mallow family is a sun loving plant native to Africa that is beautiful in the kitchen garden, flowerbed or even in a container.
Varieties to Try:
‘Clemson spineless’ is an old favorite that always grows well. It usually grows 3-4 feet tall. I have found this can get 5 feet tall when happy.
‘Burgundy’ is a prolific heirloom producer with beautiful red pods and stems.
‘Little Lucy’ is a dwarf variety that is only two feet tall with red-veined leaves and yellow and purple flowers. Pods are about 4 inches long and dark red; perfect for small gardens, flowerbeds or in containers.
Easy to start from seed:
After all danger of last spring frost and when the soil is warm it is time to sow seeds. Soak the large seeds in water overnight or nick the seeds with a file before planting to make germination quicker. Sow seeds about ¾ inch deep in average pH (6.0-8.0) soil rich in organic matter and compost.
Spacing: Okra is a large branching plant growing 2-6 feet tall, I usually space plants about 12 – 15 inches apart in my raised beds but I would space them 18 – 23 inches by 3 feet in a row garden. After the plants are up and set leaves I usually thin or transplant to fill in any areas needed in the bed.
Mulch: Mulch around plants as soon as they are 3 – 4 inches tall using newspaper, cardboard, straw, leaves or anything else that will keep moisture in and weeds out.
Water requirements: Okra needs regular watering to germinate seeds and to get established but after that it is drought tolerant during hot dry spells.
Fertilize: Once a month side-dress with compost or water with compost tea. Because I start with composted soil I don’t find the need to fertilize along the way.
Basil or borage
Healthy okra that has been rotated and planted in good soil seldom has pest or disease problems. Should leaves begin to yellow and wilt, your okra plants may be infected with Fusarium wilt which is a soil borne disease. If you see this happening just pull up affected plants and destroy.
Time to harvest:
In about 50-60 days pods you can start picking pods, they are best young and small (about 3 inches long) but they can be bigger as long as they are still tender.
Pick often as they grow pods quickly, I use clippers but you can use a sharp knife too. Wear sleeves and gloves when picking as contact with plants and pods can make your skin itch…even if you plant a spineless variety.
Continue harvesting regularly and you will have fresh okra until frost. Okra can be cut down to about 6” midsummer, fertilize and it will produce a second crop. I have done this when I’ve been out of town and couldn’t harvest all the pods.
Enjoying the harvest:
My favorite way of eating okra is fresh off the plant while I’m still in the garden. Dip the pods in your favorite ranch dressing or hummus or slice them into salads or on sandwiches.
Okra is great in gumbo and stew because it is a natural thickener. Freeze whole pods for use later or slice and place in a dehydrator for a healthy crunchy snack. Of course there is nothing better than fried okra. No matter how you fix (except for boiling) or eat it, okra is one vegetable no garden should ever be without it(except for boiling) or eat it, okra is one vegetable no garden should ever be without(except for boiling) or eat it, okra is one vegetable no garden should ever be without.
Resources: ‘Little Lucy’ hybrid seeds available at www.damseeds.ca
‘Burgundy’ and other heirlooms – www.rareseeds.com and www.burpee.com
Now for the rest of the story:
Here are a few things you may not know about Okra:
Okra contains: protein, niacin, riboflavin, phosphorus, zinc, copper, potasiums, Vitamins A, B6, C and K, thiamine, manganese, folate, calcium and magnesium
- Fruits or the pods can be dried and ground into powder and used to thicken soups, sauces, curries, gravies, etc.
- Young leaves can be steamed like spinach for a summer time green
- Flower buds and petals can be eaten or used to make tea
- The seeds can be dried and used like beans, especially nice added to rice dishes or ground into flour for bread
- Roasted seeds can be ground and used as a coffee substitute
- Leaves, small fruit, and even roots can be used as a poultice to relieve pain, swelling and inflammation
- A leaf tea has been used in Africa for heart pains and to help with childbirth delivery
- Decoction of okra pods has been used to treat fever, headache, arthritis, and urinary problems.
- Okra seeds may treat and prevent muscle spasm.
- Turns out all that slime is good for you, eating okra may help normalize cholesterol and blood sugar levels as well as help with asthma. The mucilage in okra binds with cholesterol and bile acids and exits the body through stools. Also acts as a lubricant and a laxative for the intestinal tract.
- Full of dietary fiber and Vitamin A, eating okra helps to clean out gastrointestinal system so your colon can work properly and help mucous membrane health in the process.
- Some folks report success in stabilizing blood sugar levels with drinking a cold infusion daily of 2 pods pierced with a fork and left to soak in cold water for few hours or overnight. Seems
- Okra helps to smooth skin, prevents pimples, repairs damage and encourages collagen formation – Boil a few pods until tender, cool and mash and apply to face for five minutes, rinse. A slimey but softening facial!
- Okra is high in Vitamin C so it has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and helps to lower homocysteine levels, which may prevent heart disease.
- May inhibit bacteria growth that might cause stomach ulcers and cancer