Okra, which originated in hot African climates, is a type of hibiscus plant, Hibiscus esculentus, which is also known as gumbo and ladyfinger. Although we usually eat the green seed pods, okra is also widely used as an ingredient in soups and stews.
Our planting guide will show you when and how to plant and grow okra in your home garden.
Knowing when to plant okra is important if you want to know how to grow this unusual vegetable successfully.
When to plant okra? Okra is a hot weather crop that should be planted in spring after the last frost. It can also be planted in the fall, at least 3 months before the first frost date. It needs warm weather to grow.
Planting Okra in Different Climates
Okra is a warm weather plant that grows best in full sun. Cool weather is its number one enemy!
This means that temperature is critical to the successful production of okra pods – which is the part of the plant we eat.
Although it originated in Africa many moons ago, it is now cultivated globally in tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate regions.
All okra varieties grow best in the warmer, southern U.S. states. You should plant in spring after the last winter frost as there is no doubt that frost will kill okra.
In the north of North America, home gardeners often wait until early summer to plant seeds.
Wherever you live, you shouldn’t plant okra seeds outdoors until the soil has warmed up to at least 65-70°F (18-21°C). The evening air temperature should be in the 60s as well.
The daily air temperature should be between 70 and 85°F (21-30°C).
Temperatures in tropical climates average about 64.4°F (18°C), which is ideal for growing okra. There is also a lot of rain in tropical regions, so you’re unlikely to have to water your okra to make the plants grow.
Tropical savanna regions have less rain than other tropical regions. Even then, the driest month could have up to 2.4 inches or 60 mm of rain, which is more than enough.
Dry climates can be hot or cold, and conditions may be semi-arid or desert. Okra likes the heat, but its growth will slow down when it gets very hot and dry.
In hot, dry climates, ratooning can be a solution in summer. This involves cutting the plant stem so that it generates new growth that will produce a second crop later in the fall.
There are nine official sub-categories of temperate climates, six of which have warm or hot summer temperatures. Two of these are subtropical.
As mentioned earlier, okra is widely grown in subtropical and temperate regions, as well as in tropical climates.
Generally, continental climate regions have a similar temperature range to temperate climate regions. Although most continental climates are hot or warm, and usually humid, subarctic continental climates are cold.
Okra can be grown successfully in some continental climates. In colder areas, it’s best to start with seedlings rather than growing the plant from seed.
Polar climate temperatures average below 50°F (10°C), so this is not a good environment for okra. You will need heated grow tunnels, greenhouses, or cold frames if you do want to grow okra in a polar climate.
Choosing Okra Seeds
Even though okra grows from seedlings, it is more commonly grown from seed.
You can buy okra seed from commercial outlets, including online shops, or you can harvest the seeds from seed pods that have dried on your plants.
SELF-HARVESTED OKRA SEEDS
If you are going to harvest your own seeds, the pods must be dry on the vine. Wait until they begin to split, but don’t wait too long or they will blow away and self-seed wherever they land.
Once you have harvested your seeds, it’s a good idea to check to see if they are likely to sprout. A good way to do this is to pop them into a container filled with water.
Leave them for about 15 minutes. If they float, toss them. If they sink, you’ve got a good chance that they will grow.
COMMERCIAL OKRA SEEDS
There are many different okra varieties ranging from dwarf types to plants that grow more than a foot high.
Some pods are ridged, some are rounded, some are long, some are short, some are fuzzy, others are smooth. Take your pick!
Many okra species have spines on their branches and pods. The most popular variety is Clemson Spineless, which has very few spines.
Your location will also influence the type of okra seeds you choose.
If you live in cooler gardening zones, it’s a good idea to choose seeds that have the shortest dates to maturity. This information should be printed on the packet.
This spineless okra was developed by the horticultural research department of South Carolina’s Clemson University in the 1930s. It won an All-America Selections (AAS) award for new varieties in 1939, the year it was introduced, and it’s still going strong.
Clemson University’s Home & Garden Information Center recommends a bunch of other okra seeds. They are all specifically for Piedmont in the north and the central and coastal parts of South Carolina.
But if your climate matches these areas, you can’t go wrong. Clemson Spineless grows about 4 feet tall (1.2 m) and will produce pods in about 56 days.
OTHER POPULAR OKRA VARIETIES
Other popular okra varieties, all of which are equally easy to grow, include Burgundy, Jambalaya, and Star of David.
Burgundy is beautiful, boasting tall stems that are wine red. The leaves have interesting red veins and the pods are large, tender, and – you guessed it – crimson.
Jambalaya is a lot more compact and will be ready for harvesting in about 50 days. It’s known to be a good variety for canning.
Star of David is one of the popular heritage okra varieties. It originated in the Mediterranean region and grows very tall.
Also, Star of David grows very tall and has pretty purple leaves. On the downside, it does have spines. Cowhorn is another popular heirloom okra plant.
How to Plant Okra Seeds
Okra isn’t a fussy plant and it will grow in most types of soil.
It does, though, do best in soil that is rich in organic matter and slightly acidic, with a pH between 5.8 and 7.0. The soil should also be well-drained because waterlogged soil is likely to cause the roots to rot.
Applying a 10-10-10 fertilizer before planting will help to balance the phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium in the soil.
Okra seeds usually take about 27-30 days to germinate in soil that is 65°F (18°C). If the soil is even warmer, about 75°F (24°C), it’ll take half as long.
If you want to speed up germination, soak the seeds in cool water for about 12 hours before planting them.
A good rule of thumb is to plant okra seeds half to one inches deep and between 4-6 inches apart.
PLANTING SEEDS INDOORS
In cooler regions where the warm weather season is short, it makes sense to start seeds indoors, in a greenhouse or growing tunnel.
They need to be in the ground for about two months before the edible okra pods will be ready to harvest. So, start them indoors 3-4 weeks before the last frost date.
As okra grows it develops a deep taproot, which can make seedlings difficult to transplant. An effective solution is to plant the seeds in biodegradable peat pots
How to Water Okra
Okra will thrive in hot conditions and it is hardy enough to withstand dry spells. But you will need to keep the soil moist for optimum growth and yield.
That said, it is one of the few vegetables that doesn’t suffer in extended dry periods. But be aware that if you overwater, this can drown the plants.
It is usually best to water about an inch of water every week to 10 days, but only if it doesn’t rain.
Avoid overhead watering because wet foliage tends to become a breeding ground for fungi. Rather focus the hose at the base of your plants.
It is also best to water early in the morning so that any excess water that isn’t absorbed into the soil will be evaporated by the sun.
Farmers often use furrow irrigation in okra fields when they harvest okra. They water alternate rows of plants and walk in the dry furrow while harvesting.
It’s more practical for home gardeners to install a drip irrigation system if they don’t want to water by hand.
How to Grow Okra
Whether grown from seed directly in the ground or transplants, it is very important to control weeds while your okra plants are small. A 2-3 inch layer of organic mulch helps to retain moisture in the soil and control weed growth.
The folks at Clemson recommend side dressing with calcium nitrate 3-4 weeks after planting and then again after another 3-4 weeks. They also say that nitrogen should be added when the plants flower.
Alternatively, side dress with a seaweed fertilizer or manure.
You may not be expecting this, but before the pods develop, you will be rewarded with a beautiful display of yellow Hibiscus-like flowers! In fact, some home gardeners grow okra for its attractive flowers rather than its seed pods.
HOW TO HARVEST OKRA
Okra grows fast. You will find that your okra pods are ready to harvest 50-70 days after the seedlings pop out of the soil.
The first pods will usually be ready for harvesting about 5 or 6 days after the plants have flowered. Regular picking encourages new pods, so this will be an ongoing process that is as frequent as 2-3 times a week.
Pick the pods when they are no more than 2-3 inches long. You want the pods to be tender.
Although round-podded okra varieties grow quite large and stay tender, most varieties tend to become fibrous and tough.
Use pruning shears to harvest the pods. Unless it’s a spineless variety, wear gloves.
Ratooning encourages a second harvest in warmer climates. Prune about a third off the top of the plant in late summer so that buds along the main stem will form.
PESTS & DISEASES
Okra is relatively problem-free, and the pests and diseases that do attack tend to focus on the leaves rather than the seed pods.
One common problem is root knot nematodes, which are microscopic worms. Plants are usually stunted in growth and yellow, and if you pull the plant out of the ground you will see round, elongated swellings on large and small roots.
Crop rotation helps to control root knot nematodes. Other crops that are susceptible to nematodes include peppers, tomatoes, sweet potato, and squash, so don’t plant okra directly after you are grown these veggies in a garden bed.
Aphids, stink bugs, caterpillars, and tiny flea beetles can also be a problem.
How Long Do Okra Take to Grow?
As mentioned above, okra seeds take anything from 18 to 30 days to germinate, depending on the temperature of the soil.
Once the seedlings emerge from the soil, you will only have to wait 50-70 days until harvest time.
So, it takes 70 to 100 days for okra to grow from seed.
Okra is an ancient African plant that we produce for its edible seed pods. It’s a type of hibiscus and also produces lovely yellow flowers that will brighten up any home garden.
Our planting guide has lots of information that will help you to grow okra from seed indoors and directly in the soil. It’s best grown in warmer climates, but we have lots of tips for gardeners who want to grow this delicious veg in cooler climes.
It’s one of those vegetables that aren’t always easy to source on grocery shelves, so why not give it a go?