Monday, December 20, 2010

Plant highlights: Okra

Since I'm relatively new to both container gardening and New England, I viewed this year as an experimental growing year. I grew a little of whatever caught my fancy so I could find out what I could accomplish. What could I learn so I could have more success in the future? What plants grew well, and what would I not bother with again? This is the first in a series of reports about what worked well for me, what didn't, and what I plan to change next year.

'Burgundy' okra flower -- easy to see the relation to hibiscus here!
I'm a Southerner by birth, and I love okra any and every way -- in gumbo, raw with a dash of soy sauce, fried, even boiled and slimy. In New England, okra seems to be a rare commodity. Every now and then it will pop up in grocery stores, but it looked sad and old sitting in its little plastic clamshells. Not to mention the price of one of those small packages! I figured that even if I got a handful of pods, I'd still come out better than if I had shelled out for the $10/lb grocery store stuff.

Burgundy okra seedling after transplanting
 The Good:
I had a packet of 'Burgundy' okra seeds from last year (never opened) that I decided to try out. I bought a pack of 'Clemson Spineless' at the Asian market on a whim a little later in the season. Both packets germinated just fine.

I grew them in a container I rescued from a grocery store dumpster. It held somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-15 gallons of soil. I had no problems growing two plants in that size container.

I started a few 'Burgundy' seeds inside in my Jiffy pellet tray before I read that starting indoors did not provide much of a benefit for okra. I believe this is true. I direct-sowed a couple seeds of 'Clemson Spineless' in July (extremely late for my zone!), and it very nearly caught up to the 'Burgundy' I started indoors in April or May. Being in New England did not seem to affect the growth of these plants -- they were huge, almost 6 feet tall, by the first frost in late October. They produced gorgeous blooms and perfectly delicious okra!

From buds to flowers to pods

The Bad:
Well, the okra was delicious, but with just two plants (and one pretty late to the game), I never had more than two or three pods ripe at once. If I want a real meal, I need to find space for at least 6 plants.

Also, I waited until mid-December to chop down the larger plant, which was as thick as a young tree and quite tall. Freezing weather does some really horrible things to the trunk of an okra plant, just trust me on that one. Get that guy out of the garden before you have to experience the frozen slime!

Next Year?:
I would love to have space for a dozen okra plants! Even if I can only squeeze a few in, I will definitely plant them again just for the lush foliage and exquisite flowers.

My plan for containers next year is to rotate okra into the container that held bush beans last year. It should be full of nitrogen from the beans' roots to support the okra's fast growth habit. This is an 18-gallon container, so I will put in two, maybe three okra and perhaps some quick-growing greens of some sort. I will also probably find a way to squeeze in some single plants in 5-gallon buckets.

I won't mess around with seed starting, but neither will I wait until July to direct-sow! I plan to start May 15th, the last frost date here, and if I lose the first flush, just replant as the weather warms a bit more.

In terms of varieties, I will happily grow 'Burgundy' again. Every part of the plant is absolutely stunning, and the flavor was perfect. 'Clemson Spineless' may be the gardener's default, but it was bland compared to the burgundy, especially for a container planting. I am curious to try a dwarf variety such as 'Lee' or 'Little Lucy'. Without having to worry about so many tall plants shading everything else on the balcony, I could definitely fit in more okra.


  1. Just letting you know that I dropped by your blog for the first time ever after reading through the long list of introductions on Cold Antler Farms' blog. Hello from Michigan!
    I like what I am seeing on your blog so far -- keep on blogging. I was thinking of trying okra this year and now I am convinced. I love the photos of your container garden over time as well.

  2. Hi, Shari, thanks for being my first commenter!

    I am convinced you have a long enough season in Michigan to get at least a few pods out of it :)