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vegetable garden
Published December 12, 2022 by Nicole Burke

Tips to Grow Okra in an Organic Kitchen Garden

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okra
vegetable garden
hot season vegetables
hot season
how to grow
how to harvest
okra plant

It's Okra Growing Time!

If you're from the South, you probably have some fond memories of eating fried okra or some pickled okra in the summertime. Or maybe your favorite way to enjoy okra is in a steaming bowl of gumbo.

Okra is a pretty easy crop to grow, especially if you live in an area that gets hot during the summer. Okra flowers are also incredibly beautiful. Okra is a member of the hibiscus family, so okra blooms can honestly hold their own against ornamental flowers.

Let's learn a little more about this plant and some tips to grow okra yourself.

(Prefer to listen? Check out episode 26 of the Grow Your Self podcast, "Don't Settle for Medi-Okra-Ty", for my interview with Jill McSheehy of the Beginner's Garden podcast on Apple, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or Stitcher. We discuss everything you need to know to grow your own okra.)

okra fruit

Is Okra a Fruit or Vegetable?

Okra is one of many plants that's one thing in the kitchen and another thing in the garden. If you ask a chef, okra is a vegetable that's great fried or tossed into soups and stews to add some firmness with its mucilage.

If you ask a botanist, okra is a fruit since okra pods form from flowers and contain the seeds for the plant. For our purposes, it's important to treat okra like a fruiting plant in your garden so you can grow it under its preferred conditions.

is okra fruit or vegetable?

What's the History of Okra?

Okra most likely originated in or near Ethiopia and then migrated to the middle East. It arrived in North America via slave trade ships, and Thomas Jefferson actually wrote about cultivating this plant at Monticello. A landscaper in Houston told me that enslaved people braided okra seeds in their hair and brought them over to have a piece of home—I'm not sure if that's just folklore, but it's beautiful to think of people in a horrible situation bringing a tie to their land and food with them.

Okra became a staple of Southern cuisine since it grows so well there, especially where temps reach well into the 90s.

how okra grows

Summer Is Okra Season

Okra is a hot-season plant, so you should wait to plant it until all threat of frost has passed.

When I lived in Houston, I would plant okra in early May when the temperatures were already reaching 85 degrees, and the okra plants would really start taking off in June. I'd have three good months of consistent harvesting, before the plants would slow down in September, once the day length is reduced and the temperatures become a bit more moderate.

Most okra varieties can handle both heat and humidity or more dry conditions. When everything else is struggling in the heat, okra shines.

Most of the okra grown commercially for canned soup and the frozen food industry comes from states like Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, where they can actually grow okra 10 months out of the year.

okra leaves

Is It Possible to Grow Okra in Cooler Climates?

Gardeners who live in colder climates that don't have a string of weeks well above 85 degrees in the summer may struggle to grow this plant. I have a good friend who would plant okra in Chicago for her clients just for the beautiful flowers. She said she rarely had enough hot days to end up with actual okra pods.

I talked to another gardener who manages to grow okra in Wisconsin, but he says his plants stay 2 to 3 feet tall instead of growing into small trees like they do in the South.

okra season

The Best Varieties of Okra to Grow

Okra is best started by seed. Here are some of my top recommended okra varieties:

  • Clemson Spineless Okra - This plant produces tasty green pods and has long been the standard in home gardens.
  • Burgundy Okra - This variety produces tender and delicious deep red pods that look beautiful against the green leaves.
  • Jing Orange Okra - This Chinese variety produces reddish-orange pods that are as flavorful as they are beautiful.
  • Alabama Red Okra - This Alabama heirloom variety produces fat, red-tinged pods that are perfect for frying or making gumbo.

Pick your favorite variety and save seeds for next year!

okra growing tips

Okra Growing Tips

Tip Number One: Start from Seed

While you can buy okra transplants and move them to your garden, it's super easy (and cheaper) to direct sow okra seeds in the garden. Seeds germinate really well in warm soil. Okra seeds are nice and big, so you can see where you're sowing them. Check your seed package to see whether they recommend soaking the seeds for 24 hours immediately before planting.

Tip Number Two: Space Okra Plants About a Foot Apart

You can grow okra in the ground (these plants don't even mind being grown in clay-heavy soil) or in raised beds. The looser loamy soil in raised beds does produce a larger, more healthy okra plant, but keep in mind that okra can grow tall, making the tops of mature plants difficult to reach in raised beds.

Tip Number Three: Utilize the Area Around Okra

Okra plants grow tall, so you can easily plant medium- and small-size plants around their base. You could also use okra plants as a vertical structure for pole beans to climb.

Tip Number Four: Go Easy on the Water

While your okra seedlings need water daily, once these plants are a few inches tall, they only need a deep soak about once a week.

okra nutrition

How Okra Grows

Okra plants grow tall and upright and produce beautiful white blooms that then form okra pods. These pods mature pretty quickly, like within just a few days. It's important to stay on top of harvesting these pods while they're tender and young, before they mature fully and become hard like cardboard. If you take a knife to the outside of the pod and hear a crunch, that okra is already past the point of being edible.

Early in the okra growing season, you might harvest pods every couple of days. The hotter it gets, the more often you'll need to harvest. At the peak of okra season, you should harvest pods every single day. If you don't keep an okra plant harvested, the plant will slow down its production of pods. Basically, the more you pick, the more the plant will produce. Even if a pod is past its prime, cut it from the plant to encourage more pod production.

At the end of the summer season, leave some pods that have gotten too hard on the plant and let them continue to mature and form seed. These seeds can be saved for next year or ground and roasted to make okra coffee (yep, that's a thing).

Elevate your backyard veggie patch into a sophisticated and stylish work of art

Kitchen Garden Revival guides you through every aspect of kitchen gardening, from design to harvesting—with expert advice from author Nicole Johnsey Burke, founder of Rooted Garden, one of the leading US culinary landscape companies, and Gardenary, an online kitchen gardening education and resource company.

Tips to Harvest Okra Pods

I dunno about you, but I love growing a plant where the biggest tending task is just picking often. If you're going to tax me, then tax me on the harvesting, you know? That's a good problem to have! Make sure to follow these tips when harvesting okra pods:

Tip Number One: Use Pruners

Okra pods aren't easy to snap off, so it's best to cut them with a clean pair of pruners to avoid damaging the plant.

Tip Number Two: Protect Your Skin

Make sure you wear a pair of gloves and long sleeves when harvesting because the little spines on okra can irritate the skin. Sometimes I like to think of my plants as people, and okra is like, “Don't touch me, girl! I'm keeping my pods.” She doesn't want you to harvest pods because she wants to make hundreds of seeds that will become more plants like her.

Tip Number Three: Harvest Pods When They're Young

Remove pods from the plant when they're only about 2 to 3 inches long for the best flavor and texture.

okra when to harvest

How Much Okra Can You Pick from One Okra Plant?

Even though okra is a prolific producer, you still need to grow a couple plants to harvest enough pods daily for a side dish. Each plant will typically produce between two to four pods every couple of days.

Did you know that you can also harvest and eat okra leaves? Both okra leaves and blooms are edible. Okra leaves have many nutritional benefits and work well being cut up and sautéed like you would spinach leaves. That's one of the best parts of growing a plant yourself—you get to enjoy more plant parts that don't travel or store well.

How to Store Okra from the Garden

Okra doesn't have a long shelf life, unfortunately. I struggled to find fresh (and sometimes even frozen) okra in Chicago because it's not locally grown, and even in Houston when okra was in season, the pods in the produce section were often already starting to brown.

When you pick okra from your garden, use it fresh or freeze it within a week. Store fresh okra harvests in the fridge. Store okra leaves in your fridge for up to three days.

okra health benefits

Okra Health Benefits

We should all be eating as much okra as we can get!

There are only 33 calories in 100g of okra and 7.5 carbs per serving. Each serving also has 3.8g of fiber, 2g of protein, 81mg of calcium, 57mg of magnesium, 53mg of vitamin K, and 21.1mg of vitamin C—that's 10 times the amount of vitamin C as sweet potatoes.

Did you realize how nutrient-dense okra is?

okra vegetable

Grow Your Own Okra

I can't wait to see the okra you'll pull from your garden this summer if you follow these tips! (And if you ever make coffee from okra seeds, let me know how it tastes!)

Thanks for bringing back the kitchen garden with me, one okra plant at a time!

Tips to Grow Okra in an Organic Kitchen Garden