Okra was first cultivated thousands of years ago by farmers in current-day Ethiopia. From there it traveled North making its way across the fertile crescent where it became common fare in the Arab world and eventually in India. Okra was most likely brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans. During the lean times of the 1600s and 1700s, they taught French colonists how to use okra to thicken their soups. This culinary fusion led to what we now call Cajun cooking.
Today okra is eaten in a variety of ways by a number of distinct cultures. In the Southeast it is most often fried or pickled, in the deep South it’s used in gumbo, and in Arab households, it’s stewed in tomato sauce with lamb (or venison if you’re in our house). Okra is a versatile crop in the garden, and there’s truly nothing else like it. Read on to learn how to incorporate this unique and delicious plant into your vegetable garden.
Okra is in the mallow family which includes plants like cotton, cacao, hibiscus, and other well-known crops. There are a few distinct varieties of okra with different shapes and sizes, but the most commonly grown in American gardens are Clemson Spineless and Burgundy.
Clemson Spineless is a green variety that is named for having fewer itch-inducing spines on the plant. This makes for a more pleasant harvesting experience. Burgundy okra is beautiful to look at, and the pods often remain tender even at larger sizes where other varieties would become tough. There are also other less-common varieties of okra available that are characterized by unique shapes and colors that I encourage you to experiment with.
With its roots in Africa, okra likes it hot. It thrives across the Southern U.S. where it can withstand high temperatures that many other plants suffer in. It is very sensitive to cold temperatures, so make sure to wait until after the average last frost in your growing zone to plant it. You can either plant it directly from seed, or you can start it indoors and transplant the seedlings into the garden. If transplanting, be sure to plant your seedlings soon after the plants germinate as okra’s long taproot can be damaged by sitting around in a pot for too long. Okra has the potential to grow 10 feet tall so make sure to space the plants about 12 to 18 inches apart.
Okra prefers a nutrient-rich soil to support its large, leafy growth, so adding some compost and slow-release fertilizer is ideal. Okra is fairly drought tolerant once established, but if the weather is particularly hot and dry for an extended period of time, it will benefit from irrigation.
Okra plants are generally pretty low maintenance, but there are a few pests and diseases that can cause issues. The tender leaves of young okra are often a target of aphids, who can cause the leaves to shrivel and drop if there is a major infestation. By blasting the aphids off regularly with water or applying insecticidal soap, you can keep their numbers low until the plant matures and becomes less attractive to them.
Fruit and root borer caterpillars can also damage okra plants or even kill them. If you see holes in your okra stems or other signs of caterpillar damage, applying the organic pesticide Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) will control their population without damaging the populations of beneficial insects in your garden.
In heavy clay soils, okra is susceptible to verticillium wilt, which is a bacterial infection that damages the roots of the plants and causes yellowing and wilting in the plant above the ground. There is no treatment for plants that already have verticillium wilt, so it is important to cultivate soil conditions that make it less likely, such as growing your okra in well-draining soil and moving your it to a new area the following year if there is any evidence of wilt. Solarizing the top few inches of your soil by covering it in clear plastic for a few days can also reduce the number of spores in the soil and decrease the chances of your plants developing verticillium wilt.
The vast majority of gardeners in the U.S. harvest okra as an immature, tender pod for use in pickled okra, fried okra, or gumbo. Many okra varieties become fibrous and woody as they mature, so you want to make sure to harvest the pods before they get to this point. Often the pods are tender until they’re about 4 inches long, but certain varieties stay tender longer. A good rule of thumb is to bend the pod at a 90-degree angle. If it snaps and pops off, it’s tender, but if it bends and twists and needs to be cut off, it is probably a little tough.
If you miss the window to harvest the tender okra pods, you can allow them to mature fully to utilize the seeds. In some places, okra oil is pressed from the seeds and used as a cooking oil. You can also roast and grind the seeds to use as a decaffeinated coffee substitute.
Tender okra pods will last in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. I’ve found that if they are stored in plastic containers, they tend to become slimy and soft, so we store ours in paper bags. For long-term storage, you can pickle your okra pods in a vinegar brine or dehydrate them to eat as okra chips.