By Kate Torpie, Garden Guides Contributor
About OkraOkra belongs to the genus esculentus. Its popularity is worldwide. In the U.S., the okra capital is New Orleans, where it has become synonymous with gumbo, the spicy soup that has made the plant so popular. Okra is a main summer veggie in India, and it has even made its way to Japan. Not only does it have a crisp, tangy taste, but it's good for you too. It's a great source of fiber, folic acid and vitamin B6,for starters. A very versatile vegetable, any garden would benefit from its presence. Its tall stalks (3 to 6 feet) and large, hibiscus-like plants give some extra beauty, too.
Site PreparationOkra doesn't do well in cold weather. The best time to plant okra is about 2 weeks after the last frost in your area. To prepare your site, spread some good, moist potting soil.
PlantingSince okra plants do not take well to transplanting, it is better to buy seeds. Before planting them, you may want to soak them in a wet paper towel. This will help the seed germinate and make it easier to adjust to the soil. Okra does not need a deep bed. Dig 1-inch holes about 12 to 14 inches apart. Drop a few seeds in each. This allows several plants to grow from each site. When one grows to be about 3 inches tall, thin out the others at that site. Leave only the strongest. It takes about 2 months for your plant to start flowering. Each flower lasts 1 day and produces 1 pod.
CareAs long as it is warm, okra will grow. You can help by weeding in the area. However, you don't even need to water it very often. If you notice the soil is very dry, then water it. Otherwise, leave it as is. One danger that is common among okra plants is pests. You need to check regularly for cabbage worms and aphids, especially on the undersides of the leaves. As soon as a pod grows to about 2 inches, pick it and enjoy! Older pods should be picked regularly. They are taking energy away that could go to producing new pods.
Harvesting and StorageWhen picking okra pods, you may want to wear gloves, as short spiky hairs can be irritating. Use shears to make sure that you do not damage the plant. If the ends of the pod start to turn black, your pod is no longer good. To freeze okra for winter use (the plant will stop producing when the temperature drops below 50 degrees), wash the pods and cut off their stems. Place into boiling water for 2 minutes. Remove and immediately place under cold running water. Make sure that you dry the okra thoroughly, as water can make them slimy. Pack your pods in a zip-top bag, and place it in the freezer. It will provide a warm taste of summer on a cold winter's night.
Choosing a VarietyA favorite variety of okra is the Clemson Spineless. It won the AAS (All-American Selections) prize in 1939, and it is still going strong. The lack of spines makes harvesting a bit simpler. Royal Burgundy is another variety. These pods and flowers are (you guessed it!) a deep shade of burgundy. However, it doesn't produce as many pods as the Clemson Spineless.
Special FeaturesAs mentioned previously, okra is a beautiful plant that is often confused with the hibiscus flower. It has a bit of a cult following, with okra festivals popping up around the country. Okra was originally brought to America by African slaves in the south. As such, it has remained a mainstay of soul food and southern cooking.