Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
September, 2008
Regional Report

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Cut, don't break, okra pods when they're less than 5 inches long for the best flavor.

Mallow Drama

Perhaps the best September plants for body and soul come from the mallow family. Okra is in its heyday now, ready for picking daily. Flowering mallows from Chinese hibiscus to Althea and Confederate Rose are abundant, diverse, and nearly storm-proof in their resilience. And, of course, the cotton harvest is on. Knowing how to grow some of these candidates informs your ability to grow the whole party.

Seeds from this family tend to be very hard shelled, and soaking them before planting certainly improves the odds. Put seed for planting tomorrow into warm water overnight, or at least for several hours before they'll make soil contact. Mallows tend to have and tolerate a few pests, but severe infestations of skeletonizers can destroy every leaf, and large numbers of thrips can prevent flowering. Both insects respond to sprays of Neem, which are necessary when you don't catch the first bugs and suddenly their numbers explode. Good garden sanitation in the year following an outbreak is the best way to prevent a rebound of the bugs.

Okra and Cotton
Among the seeds brought to America from Africa are two mallows of economic importance. While we do not grow cotton in home gardens, the fiber remains highly prized and its cultivation controversial to some. Okra, however, is a staple and widely available in groceries as breaded for frying or frozen for cooking. Neither is worth the attention of a gardener! But growing a few plants delivers plenty of tasty okra to be sauteed, steamed, pickled, or, yes, fried.

Now's when the pods start coming in droves, while not much else is at its prime. That's especially true if you remembered to top the okra stems when they reached 3 feet tall. While some okras are shorter than others, none is diminutive, and if you let them surpass 6 feet tall, keep a ladder handy. Harvest daily when small, and refrigerate for up to a week in the crisper if you cannot deal with all you've grown.

When you've had enough, leave pods on the plant to dry for seed, and to paint for decorating. Both Santa and Halloween's worst witch have been painted onto okra pods, to great effect. With a little creativity, you can see a pointy hat in the okra cap, with a wrinkled face below that, and maybe a long, white beard or a witchy grin.

A single name hardly covers the flowering mallows, but most have at least one common name that includes "hibiscus," so it's a good starting point. Yes, the tropicals are included in this group, but it is the perennials that get more attention in fall. Dull green leaves and flowers less sturdy (although usually larger) set the perennials apart from the tropical hibiscus. The shrubs run the gamut in terms of preferred conditions, from consistently damp for huge swamp mallow hibiscus to tolerably dry as favored by Texas star hibiscus.

Rose of Sharon, or Althea, is a multibranched, upright small tree with classic hibiscus flowers: trumpet shaped with prominent stamens. But Althea's grace comes in the papery petals and pastel shades most often seen as single purple, but pink and white are not uncommon. Double-flowered Althea is stunning, but as with all hibiscus, less reliable than the single-flowered types.

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