Okra graces our garden each year, standing tall beneath the flood of summer sunshine. With roots in ancient Africa, this crop has been the center of comfort foods for centuries. Okra is part of the mallow family, and it’s a relative of hibiscus, rose of Sharon, hollyhocks, and cotton. Surprising, isn’t it? Yet once you see okra’s beautiful blooms, the relation starts to make sense. The flowers are creamy, open, and showy, with dark, velvety centers. After the bloom, the small and tender seedpod emerges. This is the treasure we call okra.
I’ll get it right out there: I’m a big fan of okra! I also understand that it’s one of those garden crops that gets folks on different sides of the fence. The obvious culprit is okra’s characteristic texture. Okra can be kind of slimy if it’s not prepared right, and that can be a turnoff. But there are many wonderful ways to cook with this garden superstar, and I’ll share some of my favorites with you.
Okra may be quite humbly known as a vegetable, but it’s also a superfood, growing right in the garden. It’s loaded with dietary fiber and many vitamins and minerals. Speaking of the famous okra slime, this amazingly mucilaginous stuff is incredibly healthy. It helps soothe digestion.
Okra is extremely productive. My family’s hands-down favorite cultivar is ‘Clemson Spineless.’ It has a classic green pod, and it’s free of the typical thorn-like spines, which makes harvesting easier. It also oftentimes has us figuratively waving the white flag of surrender near the end of the growing season — our freezer is bursting with bags of okra! You can also find ‘Longhorn’ and ‘Evertender’ cultivars; true to its name, ‘Evertender’ seedpods stay tender for longer on the stalk. For those gardeners looking for a unique twist for their okra patch, try the atypical ‘Burgundy’ okra, a beautiful dark-purple cultivar.
In our garden, we direct-sow okra seeds in late spring after the danger of frost has passed. Optionally, soak the seeds overnight to help soften the hard outer layer and to encourage germination. (Sometimes we soak our seeds, sometimes we don’t.)
To plant, start by preparing a bed. Chop the soil with a hoe to break it up, and then rake it smooth. Add fertilizer as needed. Okra loves well-drained soil that has a neutral to slightly alkaline pH. Run a hoe through your soil bed every 8 to 12 inches to form the rows, and then drop seeds into the rows. I generally like to sow okra seeds rather thickly (at least every inch) to account for the possibility of poor germination. Cover them with soil. Tamp the soil with your hoe, and you’re done. As they germinate, thin as necessary to end up with a final plant spacing of about 8 inches apart. Okra needs moderate watering and thrives in hot summers, which is exactly what we have here in Zone 7b.
Mulch or weed okra regularly while it’s maturing to combat any competing roots, but once the okra plants get about knee-high, they’re pretty hardy. The blooms emerge near the top of the plant and are followed by the pods. Over the course of the season, the plants continue to grow taller, with most easily reaching 6 feet or more in height. The leaves and stems are prickly and will quickly irritate your skin, but some simple management can keep the pods easier to pick.
While harvesting the pods with a sharp knife, trim a leaf or two from the stalk and leave most of the leaves at the top of the plant. This will keep the stalk free from most of the side limbs and make it easier to access without getting all scratched up! As the growing season nears its end, leave some of the pods on the plant to mature and produce seeds, which you can save for the following season.
Because okra pods grow so quickly, it’s best to pick them daily. The ideal pod length is about as long as your index finger. These small pods are tender and perfect for eating. In most cultivars, as the pods grow, they develop a tough, woody structure, and at some point, you’ll hardly be able to cut them with a knife.
Now that you have a basket full of those little green pods in the kitchen, what’s next? Let’s make some comfort food!
Outstanding Okra Recipes
- Spicy Pickled Okra Recipe
- Recipes for Okra
Maggie Bullington enjoys living on her family’s homestead in rural Alabama. When she’s not writing, you may find her gardening, crafting, cooking with farm-fresh ingredients, or working with her brother, who’s the knife-maker at Lucas Forge.
Originally published as part of “Outstanding Okra: A Succulent Summer Staple” in the July/August 2023 issue of Grit magazine and regularly vetted for accuracy.