While I do enjoy a structured, planned out garden – with perennial beds here, and neat rows of vegetables over there – sometimes I long for the randomized beauty of a cottage garden. I imagine roses rambling, bee balm swaying, and even vegetables mixed in with the hardy geraniums and cosmos. Many herbs and a few veggies have a growth form that lends itself well the organized chaos of a carefully planned (so as to look completely unplanned) look of a cottage garden. Okra is one of those plants.
Okra, a full-sun veggie, originally arrived in North America from Africa in the 1600s. The first cultivars were tropical plants, and okra became a staple side dish in the South, where it was also used as a thickener for stews and gumbo. Some varieties can reach up to 6 feet tall, and with their large hibiscus-like blossoms, okra can be a great addition to a garden border or bed. A few cultivars even have colored stems- such as Gurney’s Hill Country Red Okra, an heirloom vegetable with red-orange stems and green and red pods.
If you would prefer to grow your okra as part of your vegetable garden, a raised bed will work, or a sunny spot with fertile soil. Because okra does best in very warm temperatures, wait until the soil has warmed up and the air temperature is over 60°. Prior to planting, nick the seed coats or soak them overnight to speed germination. Seeds can also be started indoors about 6 weeks before setting them outside (wait to transfer outside until 4 weeks after last frost). For direct sown okra, sow seed about half an inch deep, space 3 inches apart, and keep rows 3 feet apart- remember, okra grows fast and gets big. Thin seedlings to about 24 inches apart, keeping the strongest of the plants for highest success.
Mulch should be used to help retain soil moisture and keep out weeds, but be careful- okra plants have very fragile taproots, so care should be taken when they are transplanted and when weeding. Compared to other vegetables, okra is very drought-tolerant, but if you want good pod production, consider watering at least an inch per week, just like other vegetables. As summer heat rolls in and your other vegetables fade, okra will start to grow- fast. Tender pods follow the gorgeous blooms, and must be picked early as they get tough and stringy if they stay on the plant too long. Once your okra is producing, it’s a good idea to check it every day for any pods that might be ready for harvesting. When harvesting okra, wear gloves and long sleeves, as the stiff hairs on the leaves can cause itching. Or, opt for a spineless variety such as Clemson Spineless 80 Okra. Remember, okra is a “cut and come again” vegetable, so harvest often- and share your bounty!