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Okra: Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Okra Plants | The Old Farmer's Almanac

How to Grow Okra: The Complete Guide

Botanical Name
Abelmoschus esculentus
Plant Type
Sun Exposure
Bloom Time
Flower Color
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Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Okra

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Okra thrives in warm weather and is traditionally grown in the southern U.S., though there are varieties for northern growers, too. Once it’s harvest season, pick the pods every day so it doesn’t get overripe and tough. See how to plant, grow, and harvest okra.

About Okra

Many gardeners are discovering okra, and the range of this warm-weather crop has been creeping northward and gaining in popularity. This plant not only grows edible vegetables and beautiful flowers, but it is also rich in vitamin A and low in calories, which makes it a great addition to your diet. 

If you look at the flower of okra, you’ll see a resemblance to a hibiscus flower. It’s no coincidence—okra is a member of the hibiscus family!

Okra flower

Planting

Okra needs full sun and hot weather with evening temperatures that are in the 60s (Fahrenheit) or warmer. Soil needs to be fertile and well-drained neutral pH of 6.5 to 7.0. Before planting, mix aged manure and/or compost into the soil. 

When to Plant Okra

  • Sow okra directly into the garden 3 to 4 weeks before the last spring frost date and cover the plants with a 2- to 3-foot-high cold frame or grow tunnel until the weather warms up fully. Make sure that the covering is this high so that plants have room to grow. Or, to direct sow okra seeds without any protection from the cold, wait until the soil is 65° to 75°.
  • Where summers are short, especially in more northern areas, start okra seeds indoors in peat pots under full light 3 to 4 weeks before the last spring frost.

How to Plant Okra

Okra’s BB-pellet sized seeds have a hard shell. To speed germination, soak seeds for a few hours in warm water before sowing.

  • Plant okra seeds about 1/2 to 1 inch deep and 12 to 18 inches apart in a row. You can soak the seeds overnight in tepid water to help speed up germination.
  • If you are planting okra transplants, be sure to space them 1 to 2 feet apart to give them ample room to grow.
  • Okra plants are tall, so space out the rows 3 to 4 feet apart.
Growing
  • Eliminate weeds when the plants are young, then mulch heavily—4 to 8 inches—to prevent more weeds.
  • Side-dress the plants with 10-10-10, aged manure, or rich compost (1/2 pound per 25 feet of row). You could also apply a balanced liquid fertilizer monthly. Avoid too much nitrogen, which deters flowering and encourages leafy growth. Learn more about soil amendments and preparing soil for planting.
  • When the seedlings are about 3 inches tall, thin the plants so that they are 18 to 24 inches apart.
  • Keep the plants well watered throughout the summer months. One inch of water per week is ideal, but use more if you are in a hot, arid region.
  • High heat can slow the growth of okra.
  • Prune the tops of okra plants when they reach 5 to 6 feet tall. This will result in more side branches. Prune those as needed.
  • In warm regions, some growers cut plants to about 2 feet when productivity slows in summer. The plants grow back and produce another crop of okra.


Photo credit: Chunumunu/GettyImages

Note: Okra has large, hairy leaves, as well as tiny spines on its pods, both of which may cause skin irritation; consider wearing gloves and/or long sleeves when handling. “Spineless” types have pods that don’t present this problem. Regardless of type, irritation does not occur when you eat okra.

Harvesting

When you harvest okra, get out the gloves and wear a long-sleeved shirt to protect yourself from the tiny spines that can make your hands and arms itch for days. 

  • Once okra is ripe, harvest every day! The pods grow so fast and ripen within a day, so you need to pick continually. Overripe okra is too tough to eat. 
  • The best pods are only 2 to 4 inches long. This is when okra is at its softest and most digestible.
  • Cut the stem just above the cap with a knife. If the stem is too hard to cut, the pod is probably too old and should be tossed.
  • Only one pod grows beneath each leaf, so break off the leaf after harvesting the pod. 
Photo credit: fz750/GettyImages
  • Harvest often: The more you pick, the more flowers will appear, and okra goes from flowering to fruit in a few days.
  • A severe freeze can damage pods. If one is predicted and pods are drying on the plant for seeds, cut the plant and hang it indoors to dry. Put a paper bag over it so if the pods shatter, the seeds will not be lost.

In the South, regular okra plants can get too tall to harvest; if this happens, cut them back to 12 to 18 inches above the ground. This is usually done in July or August. The plants will sprout again to make a second crop. Otherwise, consider a dwarf variety!

How to Store Okra

  • To store okra, put the uncut and uncooked pods into freezer bags and keep them in the freezer. Or wash and blanch okra before freezing. 
  • Or, can okra to have it throughout the winter.
Gardening Products
Wit and Wisdom
  • Okra is sometimes called “lady’s fingers” thanks to the vegetable’s long, slender, elegant shape.
  • Thomas Jefferson determined freshness by bending the pod: If it gave, it was too old. If it broke, it was just right.
  • If an okra stem is too hard to cut, the pod is probably too old. Dry it out and use it in floral arrangements or save the seeds for next year.
  • “You can have strip pokra—Give me a nice girl and a dish of okra.” 
    –Roy Blunt, humorist (b. 1941)
Pests/Diseases
Okra Pests and Diseases
Pest/DiseaseTypeSymptomsControl/Prevention
AphidsInsectMisshapen/yellow leaves; distorted flowers/fruit; sticky “honeydew” (excrement); sooty, black moldGrow companion plants; knock off with water spray; apply insecticidal soap; put banana or orange peels around plants; wipe leaves with a 1 to 2 percent solution of dish soap (no additives) and water every 2 to 3 days for 2 weeks; add native plants to invite beneficial insects
Fusarium wiltFungusPlants wilt (sometimes on just one side) in daytime; leaves turn yellow (lower ones first); later, entire plant wilts/dies; stunting; stem cross section reveals brown discolorationDestroy infected plants; avoid excessive nitrogen; in acidic soils, raise pH to 7.0; choose resistant varieties; disinfect tools; rotate crops
Japanese beetlesInsectLeaves skeletonized (only veins remain); stems/flowers/fruit chewed; grubs feed on rootsHandpick; use row covers
Powdery mildewFungusTypically, white spots on upper leaf surfaces expand to flour-like coating over entire leaves; foliage may yellow/die; distortion/stunting of leaves/flowersDestroy infected leaves or plants; choose resistant varieties; plant in full sun, if possible; ensure good air circulation; spray plants with 1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 1 quart water; destroy crop residue
Root-knot nematodesNematodeRoots “knotty” or galled; plants stunted/yellow/wiltedDestroy crop residue, including roots; choose resistant varieties; solarize soil; add aged manure/compost; disinfect garden tools; till in autumn; rotate crops
StinkbugsInsectYellow/white blotches on leaves; scarred, dimpled, or distorted fruit/pods; shriveled seeds; eggs, often keg-shape, in clusters on leaf undersidesDestroy crop residue; handpick (bugs emit odor, wear gloves); destroy eggs, spray nymphs with insecticidal soap; use row covers; weed diligently; till soil in fall
WhitefliesInsectSticky “honeydew” (excrement); sooty, black mold; yellow/silver areas on leaves; wilted/stunted plants; distortion; adults fly if disturbed; some species transmit virusesRemove infested leaves/plants; use handheld vacuum to remove pests; spray water on leaf undersides in morning/evening to knock off pests; monitor adults with yellow sticky traps; spray with insecticidal soap; invite beneficial insects and hummingbirds with native plants; weed diligently; use reflective mulch
Cooking Notes

Okra can be consumed in a number of ways—breaded and deep-fried, pickled, stewed (in Indian cuisine), air-fried (a reader favorite), and even raw in the field! Of course, the most famous okra dish is probably gumbo. 

For a nice stewy dish, simmer fresh tomatoes and onions and perhaps some pre-fried bacon pieces. Add chopped okra. On the stove, cook for 25 minutes, and the soft insides of okra will help create a nice thick, savory broth to serve over rice.

Or, try roasting okra to bring out its natural nuttiness. Just remove the cap, split lengthwise, and roast on a baking sheet for 25 minutes; we cover with aluminum foil for the first half of cooking.

 

About The Author

Catherine Boeckmann

Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprising that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann

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