April 24, 2010

Okra loves southern heat

Question: I am a new vegetable gardener and my more experienced neighbor says it is too early to plant okra. Can you give me some advice on when to plant, what variety to grow and some general tips for a novice gardener?

Answer: Okra is an adopted southern crop because it likely originated in Africa from the area where present day Ethiopia and Eritrea are located. Okra belongs to the same plant family as cotton (Mallow or Hibiscus family) and like cotton it requires a very warm soil for seed germination. If you plant okra seed before the soil has properly warmed it will often rot in the cool wet soil. Therefore, the wise gardener will patiently wait for the soil to warm to 75 degrees.

However, the impatient gardener may wisely help the garden soil to warm faster to get a jump on their neighbor. Raised beds with lots of dark organic matter will warm faster by absorbing heat better. Covering the soil with black plastic mulch will also increase the soil temperature considerably. Apply the mulch to the loosened soil about a week before planting and then hope for sunny days. You can even get a greater jump on the season by starting the seedlings indoors about three weeks ahead of transplanting to the garden. Just remember that warm soil is still a must and a sunny location is necessary to avoid extremely spindly plants.

Once the seedlings have sprouted, you may use a light application of liquid fertilizer at about ½ the recommended rate. Regardless of whether you start seed indoors or not, it is a good idea to soak the seed over night before planting. In the absence of a soil test before planting in the garden, mix in about two pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer (or equivalent) per 100 square feet . Excessive nitrogen results in excess vegetative growth at the expense of fruit production. You may need very small amounts of extra nitrogen, but don’t use more than one ounce of 33-0-0 (diluted in warm water) per 10 feet of row at a time. This can be done every month as needed to maintain good plant color and new growth.

There are several good okra varieties available but the most common and most popular is Clemson Spineless. You may also see Annie Oakley, Emerald, Lee, Spike or even a red pod form such as the heirloom variety called “Alabama Red.” Most okra are not hybrids which means you can save your own seed from year to year very easily and expect the same kind of okra to come back each year.

Okra plants get quite large and should be allowed some space to expand. Plant individual okra plants about one foot apart in the row or plant seed about four inches apart and thin to one foot after the seedlings emerge. If you are planting in a raised bed at least four feet wide, plant two rows on the bed two feet apart. In late summer when the plants are crowding each other cut every other plant down to about one foot high and add a little fertilizer. Thin the re-growth to one or two stalks per plant and once they start to bloom repeat the process on the remaining plants. This method will greatly increase your production and keep the plants at a reasonable size for harvesting.

Okra does not have too many serious pests, but you should be on the lookout for fire ants, aphids, Japanese beetles and stink bugs. There are very few materials for controlling fire ants in the garden but the materials available are very safe. Visit www.extension.org  and search the fire ant information to get a list of products you can safely use. Ants will often be associated with aphids because ants take care and protect aphids to harvest the honeydew they secrete while feeding. An application of mild insecticidal soap or even a strong stream of water may do the trick. Although Japanese beetles can do significant damage in a short time, the plants will likely recover without treatment. Picking them off and placing them in a container of soapy water works fairly well. Stink bugs and their relatives can become a problem late in the season, so learn to identify the eggs and nymph stage so you can crush and pick them off before they build up large numbers.

Okra disease problems are mostly below ground which means rotation is crucial to avoid a buildup of nematodes and pathogens in the soil. Avoid planting in the same bed or area more often than once every four years and learn how to rotate all your vegetable crops. Visit www.aces.edu  and search “Crop Rotation” in the publication search area for a garden rotation plan.

If you follow these tips I think you will have great success with this unique vegetable that loves the southern heat.

Tony Glover
Regional Extension Agent
Alabama Cooperative Extension System