Derek Fell is a writer and photographer with a number of garden books in print, including Vertical Gardening (Rodale Books). He gardens at a 1-acre property he owns on Sanibel Island, Florida. A sample copy of his monthly on-line newsletter, The Avant Gardener can be seen at

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by Derek Fell       #Edibles   #Plant Profile   #Vegetables

Pods of the dwarf hybrid okra variety ‘Annie Oakley’ showing correct size that pods should be harvested for good flavor and tenderness.


Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is a staple of many Florida gardens. This native of North Africa is related to tropical hibiscus and enjoys our hot, humid weather. Indeed, okra is an important commercial crop for Florida, mostly centered on Dade County, estimated at 1,500 acres.

A fast-growing, self-pollinating annual, it produces white, hibiscus-like flowers followed by succulent, edible pods. The more you pick the pods, the more the plant continues to produce, eventually reaching a height of 8 feet. However, the pods must be picked before they exceed 4 inches in length, otherwise they turn fibrous and eventually dry into a horn shape.

Popular in Southern and Indian cuisine, okra is frequently used in gumbo and as a side dish with Indian curries, either boiled, steamed, fried, or roasted. Okra pods also make delicious pickles. The glutinous substance in okra pods is used to thicken soups.

Edible pods begin to appear within 60 days of direct seeding. The flowers last only a day, but dozens of flowers will form all along the stalk. Pick the pods by cutting the stem with a sharp knife close to the base of the pod. If left to mature, the pod turns woody and brittle and the seeds will turn brown and get hard as a bullet.

Before sowing, soak the seed overnight in lukewarm water to hasten germination. Wait until the soil has warmed and there is no danger of frost. Plant 1⁄2 inch deep, spacing plants 6 inches apart in rows 3 feet wide. Alternatively, start seed indoors three weeks before outdoor planting to gain healthy transplants. Choose a sunny location and a fertile soil that drains well. Sandy soils suit okra just fine, providing the soil pH is close to neutral. Adding compost and general-purpose, slow-release organic 10-10-10 fertilizer will improve yields. While okra is famously drought tolerant and heat resistant, do not let a week go by without watering.

Avoid planting in soil with nematodes, as these tiny worm-like creatures will invade the roots. Other pests include mites, whiteflies, caterpillars, and stinkbugs, most of which can be controlled with an organic pyrethrum spray or insecticidal soap. Where nematode infestations are a problem, consider growing okra in a raised bed using sterilized topsoil or potting soil. Okra will tolerate crowding and in raised beds or containers can be spaced 3-4 inches apart.

Quick Facts

• Of all varieties available to home gardeners, ‘Annie Oakley’ is especially noteworthy since it is a dwarf hybrid and begins cropping several days earlier than other non-hybrids, when the plants are still short and stocky. Choose this one if you wish to grow in containers.
• Okra makes delicious pickles simply by packing them nose-to-toe in glass jars and pouring in a store-bought pickling spice combined with cider vinegar. Pack in 4-pint canning jars.
• For long storage okra also freezes.
• The flowers are edible with a lettuce-like flavor and the petals can be added to salads. You could also float them in shallow dishes of water as a table decoration.

Okra ‘Burgundy’ pods turn green when cooked.

Okra ‘Clemson Spineless’, developed by Clemson University, is the most popular among home gardeners.

In southern Florida (Zones 10 and 11) okra can be harvested 10 months of the year by staggering plantings March through May. To maintain a warm soil temperature and to deter weeds, consider planting your okra through black plastic.

The pods can be green or burgundy depending on the variety. Recommended green varieties include ‘Clemson Spineless’ (an All-America award winner), ‘Annie Oakley’ (a hybrid dwarf selection), ‘Cajun Delight’, and ‘Emerald’. Two burgundy varieties are ‘Alabama Red’ and ‘Burgundy’, both of which turn green when cooked and can be used as an ornamental in mixed flower borders. Even when not in bloom or fruit, the burgundy plants are decorative.

Heirloom varieties tend to be extremely thorny along the stems and sharp enough to snag clothing. While modern varieties are mostly spineless, a few thorns may still occur and so gloves should be worn to harvest the tender pods.


A version of this article appeared in a print edition of Florida Gardening Volume 21 Number 4.
Photography courtesy of Derek Fell.


Posted: 08/02/18   RSS | Print


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