Beautiful Okra

Vegetables should not be restricted to the vegetable garden. Some plants not only yield delicious vegetables to eat, but are attractive grown as ornamentals as well. A good example of a beautiful ornamental edible is okra. Okra is a member of the hibiscus family, and features tall, majestic plants with hollyhock-like white, yellow, pink, or red flowers. The flowers last only one day, but mature into the edible pods we eat.

Often thought of as a Southern crop, okra actually has African roots. When slaves brought okra to the South in the 1700's, it was soon adopted into American cooking. The mucilaginous juice in the pods helps thicken broths, making it a favorite in stews and soup recipes such as gumbo. Okra is also tasty when roasted, sauteed, and grilled. It goes well when combined with other summer vegetables such as beans, sweet corn, and tomatoes. Plus, the plant and flowers offer an attractive option in your flower garden. The tall plants are great as a backdrop to shorter perennials, and some semi-dwarf varieties can even be grown in containers.

Varieties

Most okra varieties grow between 5 and 6 feet tall and have sharp spines on the stems and pods. To make life easier on your hands, try growing spineless varieties. 'Clemson Spineless' is a standard Southern variety featuring straight, short, thick pods. 'Annie Oakley' is a hybrid version of 'Clemson Spineless'. It grows 4 feet tall and has spineless, slender pods. 'Emerald' grows only 3- to 4-feet tall and has very tender pods.

While most okra varieties have green leaves, stems and pods, there is some variation. 'Burgundy' grows 4 feet tall and features red colored stems and pods with green leaves. The okra pods even hold their red color when cooked. The red stems and pods add a striking color contrast in the garden.

Not only can okra be grown in the perennial or annual flower border, it fits well in containers too. Semi-dwarf varieties such as 'Lee' can be planted in half whiskey barrel-sized containers. They take up less room than tomatoes. You can even plant cascading flowers, such as lobelia, and greens, such as lettuce, under the okra to fill out the pot.

Preparing to Grow

Okra can be grown throughout the country as long as its needs are met. Okra loves the heat. Don't rush to plant seeds or plants in the ground until the soil temperature increases to at least 65° F. Okra seed has a hard coat and may be difficult to germinate. Soak the seed overnight in warm water to hasten germination.

In Northern areas start plants indoors 4 weeks before planting outdoors. Find a full sun location with well-drained soil. Planting in an area protected from northern and western winds will speed along okra's development. Cover the planting bed with black plastic mulch one week before planting to heat up the soil. Plant directly into holes poked in the plastic when you're ready to plant. To protect seedlings from cool night temperatures, cover the bed with a clear plastic row cover and vent it during sunny days. Set out plants or thin seedlings so plants are 1 to 2 feet apart.

Care & Feeding

Fertilize okra three times with a liquid fertilizer: after thinning; when the first pods begin to develop; and in midsummer. Even though okra can withstand dry conditions, apply 1 inch of water each week to keep the plants growing strong. It's particularly important to keep plants well watered during flowering and pod development to produce the best crop. When growing okra in a container increase the frequency of fertilizing and watering as needed. Fertilize monthly with a liquid fertilizer and water when the soil is dry 6 inches deep.

The Harvest

Most varieties begin maturing 2 to 3 months after planting. Begin harvesting when pods are 2 to 3 inches long. Pick frequently to encourage more production and to avoid producing long, tough, chewy pods. Large pods are generally inedible and should be discarded. Unless you're growing a spineless variety, wear gloves when harvesting to avoid the sharp spines. Some people should also wear long sleeved shirts if their skin is irritated by contact with okra leaves and stems. With a sharp knife, cut the pods just above the cap. Use them quickly, since they don't store well.

For more information on growing okra in your garden, go to the Food Gardening Guide on the Willhite Seed Company web site (www.willhiteseed.com)

QUESTION OF THE WEEK

Colorado Potato Beetles

Q. I've planted potatoes two years in a row and both years they've been totally destroyed by the Colorado potato beetle. What can I do to control this pest?

A. There are many ways to reduce damage from the Colorado potato beetle. Hand pick the adults and larvae when you see them. Crush the bright orange potato beetle egg clusters on the underside of the leaves. Mulch heavily between potato rows to make it hard for the emerging beetles to find the plants. Plant trap crops potato beetles love, such as nicotiana, and destroy the beetles on those plants before they migrate to your potatoes. Place nicotiana plants in the garden early before the potatoes emerge to attract the beetles.

Once potato beetles get established, the best control is to apply sprays of the organic insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis (known as B.t.). There are a number of forms of B.t. available. The one to control the Colorado potato beetle is Bacillus thuringiensis tenebrionis 'San Diego'. It is often sold under brand names such as Potato Beetle Beater. B.t. is only effective on the youngest larvae of the Colorado potato beetle, so spray early and often to control them. Clean up and destroy all the potato debris in fall to reduce the number of overwintering beetles.

Article published on June 1, 2005.

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