Planting & Seed Saving Notes

Okra - The Complete Guide to Growing Okra from Seed to Seed

Okra - The Complete Guide to Growing Okra from Seed to Seed

Okra, Abelmoschus esculentus

If you’re not an okra lover, read on, okra is amazing. If you are an okra lover, read on, you may not be tapping into its full potential. I’m going to tell you why okra is amazing (to get you fully on board), and then I’ll tell you how to take it from seed to seed.

From a single planting, you can extract the following yields:

Greens: Okra leaves are entirely edible, good for fresh eating in their very young stage, but more often used as a cooking green where the heat removes any spikiness. They can be used as thickeners in soups or powdered for winter storage for use in smoothies, soups and stews.

Pods: We eat the immature pods before they go ‘woody’. The number of pod preparations is astounding and I fully believe anyone who doesn’t enjoy okra just hasn’t had it cooked right. You can ferment, pickle, freeze and dry okra for winter use. Note: I have been pasteurizing the woody dried pods (once I’ve extracted the seeds) and inoculating them with oyster mushroom mycelium for a secondary crop prior to giving the spent mushroom block to my worms. The mycelium breaks down the tough okra pods to a point where the worms can turn them into vermiculture quite quickly.

Flowers: The flowers are beautiful and have an okra-y-asparagus taste. They can be prepared along the same lines as squash flowers, but are also good raw. Okra flowers are perfect (botanically), so you’ll be sacrificing pod development. Since as most okra growers complain of overproduction, eating the flowers can be a great way to slow it down! Note: the flowers are big and beautiful and attract and feed pollinators.

Seeds: Okra varieties have a variable oil content in their seeds, but I have successfully pressed them for a light, citrusy, olive oil like oil with a yellow-green hue. The mature seeds can be roasted and ground for a rich, nutty, gluten-free, high protein flour. I’ve made pie crusts, pizza bases and crackers with the flour and the flavor is excellent, almost coffee-like.

Structure: Okra has an incredibly aggressive root network, with 4.5 ft taproots at maturity and wide, dense lateral roots. The opportunity for injecting organic matter deep into the soil is huge. The top growth can support beans in season, peas during the winter (I’ve had dead stalks stand all winter) and the bast fibre makes a very strong cordage. The center of the stalk has been used to make fine quality paper.    

As I said, okra is amazing! So, how do you grow it?

Perkins Long Pod

Growing Okra

Okra is an easy to grow frost sensitive annual. It prefers to be direct seeded when the soil has had a chance to warm, and soaking the seeds overnight can improve germination rates. Because of the aggressive and expansive root system I mentioned above, 12-18” spacing will increase your yields (don’t skimp on the spacing). Okra is drought tolerant and can cope with relatively poor soils (although as with most vegetables, it will be happier with better soil).

Okra is self supporting and rarely needs staking, although some varieties are prone to lodging under heavy yields. The okra flower opens for one day only, after which a small pod will form and grow behind the dead flower. Pod production begins about 2 months after planting and, if you keep harvesting, will continue until the first frost kills the plant. In peak production it is best to harvest every other day to stay on top of production. However, if you can’t keep up, remember you can eat the flowers, or let the pods go big and woody so you can process the seeds for eating or saving.

Saving Okra Seed

Okra flowers are perfect, meaning they can fertilize themselves. As seeds savers this is good news because it keeps things pretty easy. Okra flowers are also big and beautiful, meaning they attract pollinators. This can present a challenge for seed saving because okra will cross pollinate with other okra varieties over ½ a mile!

If you are just growing one variety of okra and your near neighbors are not growing okra, then don’t worry. All the seed you save will grow true to type i.e. your Clemson Spineless okra seed will continue to grow Clemson Spineless okra. If you or your neighbor are growing another variety then you will need to bag your flowers. This is not as scary as it sounds. Sow True Seed has 2”x3” isolation bags which fit over an unopened okra flower. The flower will open inside the bag and wind or a slight tap will be enough for successful fertilization. Once the flower dies the bag can be removed and a ribbon tied around the pod’s stem so you’ll know which pods have pure seed. Bag and label a couple of pods on each of your healthiest plants and you’ll have more than enough seed for planting and trading. As with beans, the pods want to dry to full maturity on the stalk, but if rain threatens late in the process then cut the whole plant and finish drying inside.

 

Ready to get growing? Check out our full collection of okra seeds here!

 

Written by Chris Smith, author of The Whole Okra, and Executive Director of The Utopian Seed Project, follow him on Instagram at @blueandyellowmakes.

10 thoughts on “Okra - The Complete Guide to Growing Okra from Seed to Seed

  1. avatar Doug Norton says:

    Hi again Chris and others, thanks for the reply. Further data on the buds aborting: no these were not my own seeds, they were Clemson Spineless and Louisiana Green Velvet straight from the packs for 2020. Yes I will try again in 2021 with same 2 varieties, and have continued to build my soil in a few ways (limed this winter due to pH in the mid-5’s; still working in more composted chips and sandy loam to the original clayey soil; doing the epsom salts thing too). Oddly i was still losing 75%+ of the small fruits throughout late summer from plants 6 to 12 ft tall and otherwise vigorous. Hope 2021 is a different story, but if not I will keep sharing what I see with the gardening community. Thanks again!

  2. avatar Chris Smith says:

    Hey Doug, apologies for the delayed reply. I have not worked at Sow True Seed for over a year, so I don’t check this regularly. You do seem to have a curious problem – interestingly I heard a lot of reports of people struggling with their okra last year in the Asheville area (across many varieties), often with delayed/slow/poor production – I had thought that it was perhaps a symptom of the early summer cold temperatures that we experienced last year.

    I experience bud drop when I have poor pollination, which is usually when I’ve bagged flowers and they’ve failed to self-pollinate sufficiently. Some varieties do seem poorer at self-pollination than others, so it’s possible low pollinator activity caused this problem – you could test that theory if you have a repeat experience in 2021 by doing some simple hand pollination and seeing if those pods develop more reliably.

    [JANICE: a lack of seed development is also likely caused by poor pollination, although why the pods are not self-aborting is a little bit of a mystery! I see this occasionally but never consistently. Are they from seeds you saved yourself? There are pretty widely reported chromosome counts in Abelmoschus esculentus and I wonder if your experiencing something like a sterile triploid – think seedless watermelon, but with okra…!].

    Doug – I’m sorry this doesn’t give you a lot of firm answers. Given the work you’ve done with the soil, I can’t imagine it’s a nutrient deficiency – okra is pretty tenacious in most conditions where it is warm enough. Boron might be the one exception, okra has a moderate need for boron and a boron deficiency could result in poor flower and fruit set. I would go for it again and hopefully it was a weird fluke year (i.e. 2020). Good luck!

    Kathleen – okra needs to be blanched for a couple of minutes and then cooled and dried before freezing for the best quality. Whole pod or sliced is personal preference based on your end cooking goals!

  3. avatar doug norton says:

    Hey Chris, would you please answer my questions in my message of 2/26/21? Sure would like your suggestions on growing Okra in the Asheville outskirts, and whether Clemson Spineless and Louisiana Velvet are good choices? Here’s my original message again:

    Chris, congrats on a fine and enjoyable book! Although I’ve only just finished my first gardening year in Asheville (Fairview), I grew Okra for 12 years in northern VA and can’t live without it. But, my first-year okras in this area struggled badly in some ways I never encountered in the past. I wonder if you could share some thoughts about their ailments and what to do differently next year.

    I seed-started Okra (Clemson Spineless and Louisiana Velvet) in 2020 and transplanted outdoors after night temps were consistently above mid-50s. My garden site gets plenty of sun but the first-year soil was mostly pretty bad clay; I amended with sandy loam from our floodplain meadows and composted wood chips many years old, then also fertilized. Water was never too much or too little. The plants grew moderately normally and flowered regularly, but virtually every bud would yellow and drop off instead of enlarge. I searched online info about okra diseases and deficiencies and came up with nothing like it. I treated with epsom salt solutions which are helpful against bud drop but this didn’t change anything. Extension, local master gardeners, etc. had no ideas. In later summer Aug and early sept my biggest plants began setting some fruit successfully but even they would still drop most buds.

    This syndrome looked more to me like a nutrient deficiency or a blight than an insect pest, but beyond that I am stumped. Any diagnosis or suggestions would be greatly appreciated — thanks! Also, what varieties do you recommend for this area?

  4. avatar doug norton says:

    Chris, congrats on a fine and enjoyable book! Although I’ve only just finished my first gardening year in Asheville (Fairview), I grew Okra for 12 years in northern VA and can’t live without it. But, my first-year okras in this area struggled badly in some ways I never encountered in the past. I wonder if you could share some thoughts about their ailments and what to do differently next year.

    I seed-started Okra (Clemson Spineless and Louisiana Velvet) in 2020 and transplanted outdoors after night temps were consistently above mid-50s. My garden site gets plenty of sun but the first-year soil was mostly pretty bad clay; I amended with sandy loam from our floodplain meadows and composted wood chips many years old, then also fertilized. Water was never too much or too little. The plants grew moderately normally and flowered regularly, but virtually every bud would yellow and drop off instead of enlarge. I searched online info about okra diseases and deficiencies and came up with nothing like it. I treated with epsom salt solutions which are helpful against bud drop but this didn’t change anything. Extension, master gardeners, etc. had no ideas. In later summer Aug and early sept my biggest plants began setting some fruit successfully but even they would still drop most buds.

    This syndrome looked more to me like a nutrient deficiency or a blight than an insect pest, but beyond that I am stumped. Any diagnosis or suggestions would be greatly appreciated — thanks!

  5. avatar Janice Hallmark says:

    My dwarf long pod okra do not have seeds in them even when they are long enough to pick

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