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Okra, the Delicious Hibiscus

Plant seedlings now to eat well through September

Okra is the rare annual that performs best when the heat is on. I generally delay planting until late July, which allows the plants to grow at maximum speed and provides a full harvest into September.

          I sow Clemson Spineless okra seeds in four-inch diameter pots so that I can space the plants properly three feet apart in rows five feet wide. Since I also grow potatoes, the okra plants occupy the ground where the potatoes had been harvested. This rotation allows the plants to utilize the residual fertilizers left over from the potatoes.  Because I hill my potatoes with compost, the okra plants also benefit from the additional organic matter incorporated into the soil.

          Once okra plants are well established, they can tolerate some drought. However, if you intend to eat okra to your heart’s content — as pickled okra, fried okra, broiled okra and gumbo — it is best to irrigate the plants well at least weekly.

          Okra is a member of the hibiscus family. The flower petals are generally a pale yellow to white with purple to red ring markings midway down each flower petal. Bees are essential pollinators in producing a good crop of okra pods.

          I have tested numerous varieties over the years, finding no difference in taste or texture between them. But there are differences in yield. The red pod varieties are easier to harvest because the pods are clearly visible as compared to the green varieties, which are often not easily visible, especially when the pods grow straight up along the stems. This one single factor will result in higher yields.

          For maximum yield, harvest pods when they are two and a half to three inches long. When pods grow longer, they become woody and not palatable. Once the pods form, they grow rapidly. Thus you’ll need to pick at least every couple of days.

          Allow a few pods to mature and you can save seeds for next year, providing you grow one variety. However, if you grow two or more varieties in close proximity they will cross-pollinate.

          Clemson Spineless is a very vigorous variety, often reaching a height of seven feet when grown under irrigation.

          Okra pods appear when plants are about knee-high, the flowers appearing in the axis of nearly every leaf petiole. When the stems grow to five feet, the pods begin to grow fat and chubby but taste sweeter.

          If the plants are well irrigated, the pods can easily be snapped from the stem without damaging the petiole of the leaf. However, if the plants are under drought stress, it is best to harvest using a short, sharp-bladed knife. To avoid damaging the petiole of the leaf, I always use a sharp knife. Damaging the petiole of a leaf will result in that leaf dying, thus reducing the yield.