Okra is a tender, heat-loving annual best grown in very warm climates. It is grown for the peculiar, mucilaginous taste of its immature pods, commonly called gumbo.
Okra is primarily a tropical crop, but it can be grown where cucumbers or tomatoes are hardy. To produce the best, crop, however, it wants much summer heat and grows best south of zone 7.
Okra is a tall, rank grower. It grows 4 to 7 feet (1.2-2.1m) tall and produces green and sometimes red seedpods which are harvested when 3 to 5 inches (7-12cm) long; shorter is better.
Okra has prickly stems, large maple-like leaves, and large, yellow flowers with red or purplish centers that closely resemble the hibiscus flower. Many southern gardeners plant okra in the flower garden for its beautiful flowers. Northerners will find okra difficult to grow.
Okra is successful in a variety of soil. It often requires no other attention than cultivation to keep down weeds. It grows best in sandy loam but it will grow in poor soil. Too much fertilizer will result in more leaves than pods.
Here is your complete guide to growing okra.
Okra Quick Growing Tips
- Okra is a heat-loving annual plant that requires 55 to 65 frost-free days with temperatures consistently above 85°F (29°C) for full growth, flowering, and pod development.
- Sow okra seed in the garden 4 weeks after the average last frost date in spring.
- Yield: Grow 6 okra plants for each household member.
Where to Plant Okra
- Plant okra in full sun.
- Okra grows best in loose, well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter.
- Add aged compost to planting beds in early spring in advance of planting and gypsum to soil that is slow draining.
- Okra prefers a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.8.
- Okra is very cold-sensitive, In northern gardens, give okra as much wind shelter as possible, but always full sun.
Okra Planting Time
- Okra is a heat-loving annual plant that requires 55 to 65 frost-free days with temperatures consistently above 85°F (29°C for full growth, flowering, and pod development.
- Plant okra after all danger of frost has passed in spring and in early summer.
- Direct sow okra seed in the garden 4 weeks after the average last frost date in spring. Pre-warm the soil ahead of planting with plastic mulch such as black plastic sheeting.
- Yields will decrease when the air temperatures fall below 70°F (21°C).
- Set out or plant okra seed at about the same time as you would watermelon or squash.
- Okra requires warm soil and almost tropical heat for the best growth.
- Plant okra in a warm climate when dependable warm weather has arrived.
- Optimal seed germination will occur when the soil temperature reaches 75°F; pre-warm the soil with black plastic mulch to speed germination.
- Soak okra seeds in tepid water several hours before you plant them; okra has a hard seed coat. Okra will be slow to sprout if you do not soak the seed before planting.
- Sow okra seeds ½ to 1 inch (2.5cm) deep; sow seeds 3 to 6 inches (15cm) apart.
- Space rows 24 to 36 inches (61-91cm) apart.
- Thin successful seedlings from 12 to 18 inches (30-45cm) apart.
- While plants are young, keep them weeded but do not cultivate deeply because the roots can grow shallow. Once okra starts to cover the ground do not cultivate at all.
Planting Okra in Short-Season Regions
- Where summer growing season is short or not hot, start okra seeds indoors 4 to 6 weeks before transplanting seedlings to the garden.
- Sow seed in 2-inch peat pots or plug grays, 3 seeds per pot a quarter inch deep. Keep the seed starting mix temperature at 80° to 90°F for fast germination.
- Thin to one plant per pot.
- Do not disturb the roots when transplanting.
- In cool regions, you can also grow okra in a heated greenhouse or plastic tunnel from early to mid-spring before setting plants outdoors.
Okra and Day Length
- Short-day lengths stimulate the flowering of most okra cultivars.
- Flowering begins at a very stage of growth at a day length of fewer than 11 hours; flowers tend to abort when days grow longer.
More tips at: Okra Seed Starting Tips.
Planting and Spacing Okra
Okra Companion Plants
- Plant okra with basil, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, peppers, and southern peas.
Container Growing Okra
- Okra can be grown in a large 5 to 10-gallon container; it needs plenty of room to grow to maturity.
- For permanent container planting, choose a dwarf variety (dwarf okra pods are the same size as standards).
- Choose spacing-saving varieties for container growing.
- Keep okra evenly moist until established.
- Established plants can be kept on the dry side; stems rot easily in wet or cold conditions.
- In hot summer regions, give okra an inch of water each week; an inch of water is about 6.5 gallons.
- Okra needs a moderate amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
- Add aged compost to planting beds in advance of planting and as a side dressing any time during the season.
- Apply a complete organic fertilizer when the first pods. Apply a high potassium fertilizer when plants are about 48 inches tall.
- Fertilize okra twice during the growing season with fish emulsion; make one application just after flowering.
- Add gypsum if the soil is slow to drain.
- Keep the soil weed free; weeds compete with okra for nutrients and soil moisture.a
- Place a stake next to the plant when planting.
- Pinch out growing tips when the plant reaches 9 inches (23 cm) tall or encourage bushy growth.
- Pods contain a sticky sap that may be difficult to remove from clothing or tools. Wear work clothes and gloves when working with okra.
- Prickles on pods can cause an allergic reaction.
Okra Pollination and Seed Saving
- Okra is a self-fertile, insect-pollinated annual.
- Cross-pollination is possible if any other okra species are within a mile, but it’s unlikely because of okra’s self-fertilization.
- To save seeds, let pods stay on the chosen plant until they are completely mature, brown, brittle, and up to 12 inches long. In late fall, father the pods, break them open, and remove the seeds. Store the seeds dry.
- Aphids, corn earworms, flea beetles, spider mites, and root know nematodes may attack okra.
- Flea beetles, aphids, and spider mites can be knocked off of leaves with a strong stream of water, or pinch out aphid-infested vegetation.
- Aphids leave sticky, sugary excrement called honeydew which attacks ants. Contro aphids quickly.
- Stink bugs (Family Pentatomidae) are gray or green with shield-shaped backs; they suck juices from okra pods causing them to have a bumpy surface. Handpick and destroy these pests.
- Root knot nematodes are soil-dwelling microscopic worms that enter plants through the roots. They can cause okra to grow slowly and leaves to droop even when the soil is moist. Add chitin to the soil, rotate crops, and solarize the soil in the off-season.
- Use collars around transplanted okra seedlings to protect against cutworms.
- Okra is susceptible to verticillium and fusarium wilt which will cause plants to suddenly wilt, dry up, and die, usually in midsummer just as plants begin to produce. Yellow leaves and wilt are signs of fungal diseases. Remove infected plants and dispose of them in the trash.
- Keep the garden clean and free of debris. Remove and dispose of infected plants.
- Crop rotation will help prevent the buildup of soil-borne diseases.
- Okra is ready for harvest 55 to 65 days after planting.
- Okra bears pretty flowers before making fruit. A few days after the flowers, come the edible seed pods.
- Severely hot, dry weather or a harsh change in temperature, or poor drainage can cause bud drop. If growing conditions are right, green fuzzy finger-shaped pods will follow flowers. Some varieties bear flowers when only a foot high. Plants will continue to bear pods until the first frost.
- Cut seed pods with a garden pruner or sharp knife when they are 2 to 4 inches (5-10cm) long, not longer. Pods will be colored pale green, green, or purple. Smaller pods will be less gluey. Larger pods will become bitter, tough, and woody.
- Harvest pods at least every other day once flower petals fall and pods set; if pods are not picked and ripen to maturity the plant will stop producing. Use a sharp knife or pruning shears to cut pods from the plant.
- Wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting okra to prevent potential skin irritation from prickles on pods.
- Okra will produce for a year if old pods do not remain on the plant or the plant is not killed by frost.
- Okra will stop producing if not picked continuously; if seeds are allowed to mature the plant will slow or stop its production of pods.
- Pods must be picked before seeds mature.
- When okra gets too tall to harvest, cut the plants down to about 18 inches. The plants will quickly grow up again and provide another crop.
More tips at How to Harvest and Store Okra.
Okra in the Kitchen
- Use okra’s edible pods raw or cooked.
- Preserve or eat okra as soon as possible; pods will toughen quickly and turn woody if not used shortly after harvest.
- Okra can be steamed, boiled, sauteed, baked, deep-fried, braised or made into soup, or cut into a salad.
- Tender okra pods are an essential ingredient in Creole gumbo and jambalaya.
- Stew okra with tomatoes and rice, and add file powder at the last minute.
- Cook okra over low heat in a spicy sweet-and-sour sauce.
- Blanch and serve okra with chopped tomatoes, green onions, greens, and a vinegar-oil dressing.
- Dip okra in tempura batter and fry in deep fat.
- Boil okra pods in salted water until tender; drain and add butter, seasoning, and a dash of vinegar, and simmer until butter is absorbed.
- Okra is rich in vitamins A and C, as well as antioxidants.
Storing and Preserving Okra
- Okra is best used fresh or pickled.
- Pods will keep in the refrigerator for 7 days at 36 to 55°F. Keep refrigerated pods in plastic bags.
- You can also freeze, can, or dry okra pods.
- Okra freezes well. Trim off the stems, but do not cut into the pods. Steam-blanch for 2 or 3 minutes, and chill. Leave whole or slice them. Package and freeze.
- Dry pods by stringing them on a thread and hang them to dry. Hand the strings in an airy but shady place until fired. Okra can be dried on a dray in full sun; it takes a day or two to dry okra. Bring pods indoors at night.
Okra Varieties to Grow
- Recommended okra varieties: ‘Blondie’ and ‘Clemson Spineless’ which are top-performing favorites. ‘Cajun Delight’ is a short-season variety good for cooler climates. ‘Burgundy’ and ‘Red Velvet’ have red pods and stems. ‘Baby Bubba’ is a dwarf variety for small spaces.
- Green pod okra: ‘Annie Oakley’ (57 days); ‘Clemson Spineless’ (55 days); ‘Gold Coast’ (75 days); ‘Jade’ (55 days); ‘Perkins Long Pod’ (60 days).
- Space savers: ‘Dwarf Green Long Pod’ (50 days); ‘Emerald’ (56 days); ‘Perkins Dwarf Spineless’ (53 days).
- Other colors: ‘Blondie’ (50 days); ‘Burgundy’ (60 days); ‘Red Okra’ (60 days); ‘Star of David’ (61 days).
- Common name. Okra, lady’s fingers
- Botanical name. Abelmoschus esculentus or Hibiscus esculentus
- Family: Malvaceae (hibiscus family; okra is an edible relative of hibiscus and cotton)
- Type of plant: Warm-season annual
- Origin. Africa