Abelmoschus esculentus, also known as Okra, is native to Africa, and a beautiful relative of Hibiscus was brought to North America in the 1600s. This tropical plant quickly became popular in the Deep South both as a side dish and as a thickening for gumbo and stews. It can, however, thrive in any climate where corn will grow. Depending on the cultivar, the large-flowered, fast-growing plants reach 2 to 6 feet (60 cm to 1.8 m) tall. Varieties with colorful stems and leaves, such as Abelmoschus esculentus 'Burgundy', make attractive garden borders.
Okra needs full sun. It will grow in ordinary garden soil but does best in fertile loam, particularly where a nitrogen-fixing crop, such as early peas, grew previously.
In the South, plant the first crop in the early spring and the second crop in June. In short-season areas, start plants indoors six weeks before setting them out (3 to 4 weeks after the last frost date). Sow two seeds per peat pot and clip off the weaker seedling.
When seeding Okra directly in the ground, wait until after the soil has warmed and the air temperature is at least 60°F (16°C). Use fresh seed, and soak it overnight or nick each seed coat with a file to encourage germination. Sow seed 0.5 inches (1.2 cm) deep in light soil and 1 inch (2.5 cm) deep in heavy soil; spacing is 3 inches (7.5 cm) apart in rows 3 feet (90 cm) apart. Thin seedlings to 18 to 24 inches (45 to 60 cm) apart, always leaving the strongest of the young plants.
When Okra is 4 inches (10 cm) tall, mulch to keep out weeds and conserve moisture. Water during dry spells. Every 3 to 4 weeks, side-dress with compost or feed with compost tea. In areas with long, hot summers, cut the plants back almost to ground level in midsummer and fertilize to produce a second crop.
Okra seldom succumbs to pests or diseases. Handpick any stinkbugs that appear; these light green, shield-shaped bugs cause misshapen pods. Fusarium wilt, a soilborne disease, is sometimes a problem in hot regions. If the disease causes leaves to yellow and wilt, pull and destroy affected plants. Crop rotation is the best preventive measure.
About 50 to 60 days after planting, edible pods will start to appear. They are tough when mature, so harvest daily with a sharp knife when they are no more than finger sized and when stems are still tender and easy to cut. Pick frequently, and the plants will keep producing until killed by frost. Be sure to remove and compost any mature pods you might have missed earlier.
Many people find their skins are sensitive to the pods' prickly spines, so wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting, or plant a spineless variety such as Abelmoschus esculentus 'Clemson Spineless'.
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