Okra is a relative of the mallow plant. It found its way to North America in early modern times, and today many people grow it in their own homes, in addition to commercial farming. The plant is prized for its edible seed pods, but the leaves can also be eaten and the seeds pressed for oil. Growing your own okra is not too difficult in the right conditions.
Given its origins in souther Asia and Africa, it should come as no surprise that okra thrives in warm weather. However, it can survive in colder climates as well, so long as gardeners are willing to wait for the soil to warm up to about 65° to 70° F, and hold off planting until at least two weeks after the last frost. People can also get a headstart by planting okra in indoor pots up to two months before the last average frost date.
Okra seeds have thick coats for protection, but this outer layer can impede germination. There are a number of methods for solving this problem. You can soak the seeds in warm water for about 24 hours, or scuff the seeds to help the taproot break free. Alternatively, some people put their seeds in the freezer overnight before planting so that the moisture inside will cause the seed coat to crack. When planting okra seeds, leave a foot to 18" between each one, as the plants grow quite large. Each row should also be three or four feet from the last.
Watering your okra won't take up too much time. Most experts recommend giving the plants about an inch of water every seven to 10 days. However, the amount of water should be increased in hotter, drier regions, or if an unexpected heatwave sets in.
Okra plants do best with full sun — up to eight hours of sunlight each day. The plants can also handle morning sun fading into the afternoon shade. It is possible for the plants to get too much direct light, however, so if they are beginning to look burnt or drooping, you can install a shield to reduce the sunlight they are receiving.
The roots of the okra plant are quite fragile, so if at all possible, avoid starting your plants in pots and replanting them later in the year, as you're likely to see some transplant loss. If you live in the kind of climate that requires planting indoors initially, consider peat pots or other containers that can be placed directly in the ground so you don't have to disturb the roots.
On the plus side, okra does well in a wide range of soils, as long as the substrate meets three basic criteria: the soil should be able to drain well — in other words, not too densely packed or with excess clay —it will ideally be rich in organic matter, and it should be slightly more acidic, with a pH between 5.8 and 7.0.
Okra isn't too susceptible to pests, but it can still benefit from some preventative measures, such as keeping the area around the plants clear of dead plant and other unnecessary matter. Check the pods regularly for aphids and stinkbugs, and the leaves for cabbage worms and flea beetles. In most cases, gardeners can remove these pests by hand or by spraying the infested plant with water.
Keep a lookout for fusarium wilt, a common fungal disease that can cause wilting, chlorosis, necrosis, stunting, and other serious problems. The cause is a hardy, soil-borne pathogen, and if it attacks an okra plant, the best resort is to completely remove the plant and carefully and completely dispose of any matter that could be affected. Fungicides may also help destroy this disease in the early stages.
Okra can be harvested starting around two months after planting. The pods are ready when they are two to three inches long. Use a knife to cut the stem just above the cap. If it is difficult to cut through, the pods may be too old and are unlikely to be edible. These ones aren't completely useless, however. Leave them on the vine until they start to crack, then open the pods and collect the seeds for planting next season. Wear gloves while harvesting okra. Most plants have tiny spines that can cause irritation.
There are many types of okra out there, so gardeners should be able to choose the variety best-suited to their needs and environment. For example, some people prefer the taste of heirloom cultivars. Meanwhile, more cold-tolerant cultivars with shorter growing seasons are suitable for colder climates. There are even spineless cultivars, which are less prickly than other varieties.